Hollywood's obsession with Princess Diana will never end, but it's getting ridiculous

·6 min read

Two weeks after watching "Diana: The Musical," I'm still convinced that it must be one of those fake "30 Rock" movies starring Jenna Maroney.

If you haven't yet seen the schlocky new Netflix special (now streaming), it's a filmed version of the incoming Broadway production, which returns to New York's Longacre Theatre on Nov. 2. The mostly sung-through show tries to distill the too-short life of Princess Diana (Jeanna de Waal) into a two-hour rock opera, with all the subtlety of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

It's one of many new projects attempting to peel back the curtain on the People's Princess, to varying degrees of success. Pablo Larraín's "Spencer" (in theaters Nov. 5) is already garnering Oscar talk for Kristen Stewart's transformative performance. Season 4 of Netflix's "The Crown" featured the award-winning Emma Corrin as Lady Di, who will be played by Elizabeth Debicki in the drama's fifth season.

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Former USA TODAY movie critic Claudia Puig said the late Princess of Wales would be "rolling in her grave" over "Diana" starring Naomi Watts.
Former USA TODAY movie critic Claudia Puig said the late Princess of Wales would be "rolling in her grave" over "Diana" starring Naomi Watts.

These follow less memorable portrayals: Naomi Watts' critically savaged 2013 biopic "Diana," and Bonnie Soper, who appeared in flashbacks as the Princess of Wales in 2018's made-for-TV movie "Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance."

"We've never been able to get enough of this woman," says Boston University history professor Arianne Chernock. From "The Crown" to "Spencer," "this fresh batch of dramatizations doesn't help (Prince) Charles particularly, but they do help her sons. They certainly helped humanize William and show that he is trying to assert some of her values. Harry and William have both used their very privileged positions to shine a light on pressing social issues. And to do that not so much in the name of their mother, but in her spirit."

The projects continue with CNN's "Diana" (Sundays, 9 EDT/PDT), a six-part docuseries exploring Diana's legacy and influence. PBS debuted a new documentary about Lady Diana this summer, as part of the network's "In Their Own Words" series. And earlier this year, it was reported that Harry, who perhaps has the most license to discuss his mother's interior life, signed a four-book deal worth $20 million with publisher Penguin Random House.

"The high price of the book deal signed by Prince Harry will doubtless have been driven up by the fact that she will feature in his memoir," says Jonathan Sacerdoti, a British journalist and royal commentator. "Diana’s image can still bring in the bucks, even all these years after her death."

The musical is a 'crude and obnoxious caricature' of Lady Di

Whether "Diana" can bring audiences back to Broadway remains to be seen. Netflix's taped production has a dire 8% positive reviews on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, and critics weren't much kinder to the show's San Diego production in 2019.

Despite some hooky melodies, the over-earnest musical is hampered by laughably banal lyrics. ("I could use a prince to save me from my prince" and "Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio" are just two of Diana's more egregious musings.) Diana's emotional real-life crusade to destigmatize HIV/AIDS turns into a borderline offensive hospital visit with gay stock characters, who bemoan not having eyeliner and throw shade at her outfit. ("I'm sick, but not blind!" one says.)

The princess is frequently sidelined in her own musical by Camilla Parker Bowles (Erin Davie), longtime mistress and now wife to Princes Charles (Roe Hartrampf). Their soapy love triangle culminates in a birthday party smackdown between the two women, as a group of onlookers chants, "It's the 'Thrilla in Manila' but with Diana and Camilla / So hold onto your hats, these cats are gonna fight."

"Diana" is "so bad, it has made many wonder if it was deliberately comedic, but it seems it was intended as a serious presentation of her life," Sacerdoti says. "It was disrespectful to the royal family and the Queen, as well as to Diana herself. It's a crude and obnoxious caricature of reality."

Crass, yes, "but it struck me as the ultimate American narrative," Chernock says of the show, which was co-created by Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. They were more focused on rhyming lyrics than "mapping those emotions onto real people caught in a real political system. Or as Harry would say, 'trapped.' "

The musical clumsily attempts to critique the public's appetite for all things Diana, who was killed in a 1997 car crash moments after being chased by paparazzi. ("All you sots can't get enough," a chorus of royal staffers sings directly to the audience. "Have you no shame?") But the message ultimately rings hollow coming from a show as gaudy and sensationalized as this.

Kristen Stewart portrays Princess Diana in "Spencer."
Kristen Stewart portrays Princess Diana in "Spencer."

Kristen Stewart will next emulate Diana in 'Spencer'

The best depictions of Diana, who died at 36, have been projects that capture her playful spirit and zest for life.

"Spencer" all but throws away the history books, imagining a single weekend in the life of the reluctant royal as she dreams, dances and darts across the grounds of an English countryside manor at Christmastime. At times claustrophobic and moody, the film finds joy in small moments between Diana and her young sons (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry).

"I've been asked a lot about whether it's cool to try and tell someone's story when they're not around – somebody who was already so invaded (by the media)," Stewart said at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. "We really don't profess to know anything or present any new information. ... My hope is that because we made it so personal, we're not traipsing on (her legacy)."

Netflix's "The Crown" also presents a fiery, more nuanced take on Diana. Rather than attempt a note-perfect imitation, Corrin "brought her own interpretation to the role," Chernock says. She captures her evolution "from the shy ingenue to the much more calculating, autonomous woman who discovers her power. That's part of why people are really captivated by Diana as a person.

"What makes (her death) so tragic is that she died so young, on the cusp of seeming to have really found firmer footing and a stronger sense of self apart from the royal family."

It's that arc, of a woman who learned to embrace her true self, that still resonates. So yes, tell her story. But maybe leave the bio-musicals to Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hollywood is obsessed with Princess Diana. But is it 'disrespectful?'

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