Princess Diana lived a life so sensational and so public that it’s no wonder writers and directors have mined it for TV and film since the world first learned her name.
Just a 19-year-old aristocrat when she got engaged to Charles, a 20-year-old princess when she became one of the most famous women in the world and a 36-year-old divorcee and mother of two when she died in a car accident in Paris, the princess’s life was brief but rich. And in the years before and after her death in 1997, filmmakers have used the most dramatic elements of her life as storytelling fodder, most recently Pablo Larraín’s arthouse drama “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as the people’s princess.
But it’s easier to nail Diana’s shy smiles and upcast eyes than it is to capture her interior pain and quiet defiance. Physical mannerisms alone do not a great performance make. Many have portrayed the late Princess of Wales in film and TV — People counted at least 12 — to varying degrees of success. Take a look at some of the most memorable Dianas seen onscreen.
Naomi Watts, “Diana” (2013)
Watts certainly looked the part in this otherwise dull adaptation of the final years of Diana’s life, but the staid film was “shredded by Brit critics,” CNN reported at the time of its release. Though the film dramatizes some of the Princess of Wales’ most iconic moments, including her walk through an Angolan minefield as part of a campaign against landmines, the film was panned for lacking drama and feeling, among other important qualities. A critic for Guardian, in a single-star review, openly wondered whether the film was “an MI5 plot to blacken Diana’s name and make her look plastic and absurd.” Though some gave her props for her accent, most critics were “meh” on Watts’ portrayal.
Emma Corrin, “The Crown” season 4 (2020)
Perhaps the most aching adaptation of Diana put to screen, Corrin’s young Spencer was written as perhaps the most sympathetic figure in the series. Over the course of the season, viewers watched Diana grow from a vibrant, naive aristocrat into a fierce mother and defensive wife (or, ex-wife, as we’ll presumably see Diana divorce Charles in “The Crown’s” next season). Her performance was so moving — and the reaction toward the real-life royals the series depicted so negative — that the UK’s culture minister pleaded with Netflix to add a disclaimer so audiences would know the series was a work of fiction. For her performance, Corrin won a Golden Globe.
Jeanna de Waal, “Diana: The Musical” (2021)
Though the musical in which she stars was universally reviled upon its release on Netflix — filmed for the streamer with plans to open on Broadway later this month — de Waal at least injects some warmth into ’80s-style power ballads with wanting lyrics. Restrained even as she dives off a stage and rips her emerald gown to reveal a Maddona-esque lacy white slip, de Waal manages to make something out of lyrics like “Harry, my ginger-haired son/You’ll always be second to none.” A reviewer for RogerEbert.com called her performance “capable, if a bit stiff,” even in scenes in which Diana is in private. It’s a curious choice, especially for an art form as imaginative as musical theater.
Diana’s temperament might just be difficult to translate in song: Drag queen extraordinaire Katya also played Diana in a musical number on “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars,” a performance Rupaul found lacking. Unlike de Waal, though, Katya’s drag Diana was allowed to rock out some, even hurling her tiara off her blonde head.
Kristen Stewart, “Spencer” (2021)
It was the “they don’t” heard ’round the globe. Stewart uttered just two words as Diana in the teaser for “Spencer,” most of which focused on her silently breaking down in the Royal Family’s lavish, haunting Sandringham Estate, but those who doubted that the “Twilight” star could nail Diana’s accents were briefly proven wrong. Director Pablo Larraín called Stewart a “force of nature” as Diana, grounding the often-fantastical film that is, per CNN’s Brian Lowry, more indulgent fable than reliable biopic (the specter of Anne Boleyn makes an appearance at one point). Though her film is likely to divide audiences seeking a straightforward account of the people’s princess, Stewart is already attracting considerable Oscar buzz for her capital-A acting in “Spencer.”
The TV movie/miniseries Dianas
Several women have played Diana in made-for-TV films over the last nearly 40 years, including “Dynasty’s” Catherine Oxenberg (twice, 10 years apart) and “Star Wars” star Genevieve O’Reilly. Many of those films and miniseries were critical failures, but only one was adapted from the biography Diana cooperated with: “Diana: Her True Story,” a 1993 miniseries starring Serena Scott Thomas. Her Diana was icy and removed — the film’s focus was largely her crumbling marriage to Charles — and exclusively donned bowl-like wigs. The hair was not good, but reviews were relatively warm: In a supportive assessment, Variety called the series “engaging and entertaining,” though Entertainment Weekly questioned its negative portrayal of Charles, a “selfish, pessimistic, melancholy mope” — this was Diana’s story, after all.
Next: Elizabeth Debicki, “The Crown” season 5 (2022)
We’ve not seen anything of Debicki’s Diana beyond photos taken on set, but she bears a striking resemblance to the princess (though, at over 6 feet tall, Debicki has a few inches on the Princess of Wales). She’ll play Diana for the final two seasons of “The Crown,” taking up the mantle from Corrin. We’ll likely get to see Debicki don Diana’s strappy black dress and relive Di’s revealing interview with Martin Bashir, who was investigated decades later by the BBC on accusations that he deceived Diana using fake documents to score the interview. (And with any luck, Debicki, too, will rock oversized sweatshirts and bike shorts, a casual style Diana popularized long before Kim Kardashian and young TikTokkers copied the look.)
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