As a woman trying to maintain power, Julia Roberts' campy villain faces a very real struggle.
Today's Toddlers and Tiaras may be pervy, but it has nothing on the Teutonic minds of the early 19th century that birthed Snow White. The Brothers Grimm's 1812 Little Snow-White covers human disembowelment, cannibalism, and necrophilia, all in a few pages—and it's meant to be a kids' story. In it, Snow White is only seven years old, but apparently already hot enough to drive her envious evil stepmother to order her murdered so as to feast upon the tart's lungs and liver. Disney's 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs makes the princess slightly older, but thrusts her into a dark orphan world. Yet her girlish buoyancy knows no bounds, as she whiles away her days singing in a chirpy falsetto, hypnotizing squirrels and chipmunks. Her two facial expressions alter between sleepy Marilyn Monroe and alarmed Betty Boop. No wonder the Queen wanted her whacked.
If you transfer the metaphor to Hollywood, then fresh-faced ingénues threaten to turn today's star into tomorrow's Norma Desmond. For the Angelinas and Brigittes of the film world, maintaining one's status as the fairest of them all isn't just a vain trifle; it's survival. Even though there are now more roles for women of a certain age thanks to the popularity of biopics (Meryl Streep couldn't be more thrilled), the role of the young love interest still earns more for an actress in dollars and red-carpet caché. So what happens when an actress inches away from being America's sweetheart and toward the threshold of elder Academy stateswoman? What is a glamorpuss to do once she is cast not as the milkmaid but as the stepmother? In Julia Roberts's case, you send the whole thing up in a big-budget star vehicle.
Since every comic book has been remade in the past few years, studios are turning a backward glance to fairytales of good vs. evil, with the old Snow White getting two overhauls this year. Mirror Mirror is the pluckier rendition, a fizzy foil to the gothic Snow White and the Huntsman (out in June), in which Charlize Theron relishes the savage beauty of the Queen. Both actresses bring the baggage of their decades-long careers to the role. With Theron's work in Monster, we know she can get evil. But Roberts, the girl-next-door with the smile as wide as the Golden Gate, plays the Queen as a combination of Marie Antoinette, Samantha Jones, and Don Rickles. A children's movie like this one is a good match for Roberts's comedic chops.
In any Snow White, the Queen is the real reason we watch. That's why the film's most widely seen promotional poster is of Roberts and not Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror's new princess who looks like Audrey Hepburn with American Apparel-model eyebrows. The Queen is a Machiavellian monarch who is obsessed with maintaining her womanly wiles, which makes for a dangerous combination in any era. Perhaps she is the true feminist heroine of the film because she is dead set on maintaining power, and unfortunately, beauty was her only currency. How far apart is the Queen's quest from the conundrum Roberts and other leading ladies of a certain age face, when, as ridiculous as it is, the best roles for beautiful women start drying up? It's a bit painful to watch her mourn her "wrinkles" in the film, as her fine lines are but a whisper against her lit-from-within skin.
As children, the Queen is our first introduction to the power of the Bad Girl. Director Tarsem Singh (Immortals, The Cell) immediately recognized her appeal, telling the press that he "saw the Queen as someone who is wicked, dark, and malicious but also irresistibly charming." As Woody Allen kvetched in Annie Hall, "When my mother took me to see Snow White, everyone fell in love with Snow White. I immediately feel in love with the wicked queen." You can understand why. The Queen's struggle to maintain influence over the kingdom—whether through vanity or violence—is far more compelling than the plight of a waif who cooks and cleans and waits for her prince to come.
Of course, filmmakers today couldn't get away with that old vision of the passive princess. As to be expected (and applauded), Snow in Mirror Mirror gets a self-conscious, you-go-girl makeover. Some things haven't changed, though. She still is under the thumb of the stepmother, who keeps her sequestered as a servant for 18 years until one day she decides to leave. Her victimization and isolation still reflects the bedroom angst of teenage girls. In addition to delivering a self-esteem massaging message, Singh taps into our convoluted political zeitgeist. Snow White stumbles upon a Dickensian street scene where the villagers are starving because the Queen is taxing them (an appeal to the Tea Party?) to protect them against a shadowy enemy called "The Beast" that lurks in the forest (terrorism?).
As a part of a eugenics campaign in the kingdom, the Queen banished all the "uglies" from the town proper, including the seven dwarfs (although they are never referred to as such, nor are they called "little people" or "vertically challenged," or any other PC term). They live in exile on the edge of town and earn their living as highway robbers because, as one of the little guys says, "Years ago when the Queen expelled all the undesirables, no one stood up for us," echoing the bullying epidemic from nightly news headlines. The dwarfs are still creepy—they lavish a little too much attention on Snow White's first kiss—but teach the princess to believe in herself in a Rocky-esque training montage of swordplay and thuggery. When Snow must face the Queen in the dark woods for their ultimate battle sequence, she says to Prince Alcott, a handsome nothing played by Armie Hammer (a Romney son would have worked just as well), "I've read so many stories where the prince saves the princess. I think it's time we change that ending. This is my fight."
Believing in yourself is nice, but personality is even better, which is why the movie still belongs to Roberts. The face in the magic mirror is her own, rather than the menacing disembodied mask of Disney's telling. As Roberts puts it, "The Mirror Queen is calmer and more collected. She possesses the power and confidence that the Queen herself struggles to maintain." This portal into her inner life adds even more dimension to the character, showing that somewhere deep down she does indeed possess a moral compass, but chooses to ignore it because it's just more fun to tax the townspeople to pay for lavish parties and cast love spells on a young hunk. Roberts and Singh add a new layer of humanity, making the Queen not just a didactic shill for the perils of vanity, but a simply a devilishly selfish person who makes her own choices.
Which is why the end is such a drag, when plucky, pretty Snow White marries the Prince and cuts the Queen down to size. In the Brothers Grimm telling, the Queen is invited to the royal wedding and presented with a pair of iron shoes that had been heated over burning coals: "She was forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance until she fell down dead." Her vanity could not go unpunished. In the Disney version, she is rather anticlimactically struck by lightning while trying to throw a dwarf off a cliff. In Mirror Mirror, the Queen arrives as a wizened old raisin with the poison apple—that old symbol of the fallen woman—in hand. Snow White insouciantly offers the Queen a slice, and sneers, "Age before beauty." Even for as accomplished an actress as Roberts, in Hollywood, this ending still hurts the most.