Nearly as long as Princess Diana has been a public figure, producers have sought out blonde and/or wigable actors to play her. Her life story is so famous, so tumultuous, and full of so many chapters that each era of her life has inspired multiple adaptations. Now, in 2021, 24 years after her death and 40 years after her marriage, we’re in the midst of a new rush of Diana projects: movies, plays, and television, all vying to capture her trademark hairdos, fashion, and clipped patrician dialect. Maybe it’s because we’ve gained enough distance from her tragic death to better understand the scope of her life, or because of the renewed interest in the royal family due to its latest face-off with Harry and Meghan, or because people want to sell more “I’m a Luxury … Few Can Afford” sweaters, but Diana is everywhere once again. To help you make sense of which Diana is which, we’ve put together a helpful run-through of the actresses who have played the role in notable projects, each with her own high-school-style superlative. If you would like to imagine them all hanging out and forming their own cliques in the cafeteria, well, sorry, but that’s my brilliant Princess Diana TV-show idea and you’ll have to pay royalties to me.
Emma Corrin, The Crown, Season 4 (2020)
One thing Corrin nails immediately is Diana’s trademark downcast gaze with her face turned diagonally down and away from everyone else’s. With the help of the Netflix series’ meticulous costuming and props departments, Corrin’s depiction of Diana’s early years in her marriage with Charles — the whirlwind romance, the culture shock of entering the palace, the rise to stardom in her own right — is all about the details. Royal apologists in the U.K. may wish Netflix had labeled the series as fiction, but really, it’s all very close to the historical record (including Diana’s love of Phantom).
Kristen Stewart, Spencer (2021)
Nothing in Spencer is exactly right, nor is it supposed to be. The film imagines Diana off on a Christmas holiday with the royals at Sandringham when her marriage has collapsed but isn’t officially over. The details are less important than the mood — a sustained haute couture panic attack in which you end up free-associating your feelings about Stewart as a celebrity with the character she is playing. It’s a different route to a different kind of emotional truth, with a few detours along the way to scenes in which she sees the ghost of Anne Boleyn. There’s room for both! Corrin’s performance nabbed an Emmy nomination, and Stewart’s will probably get her an Oscar nod (if not a win).
Jeanna de Waal, Diana, The Musical (2021)
I mean, yes, this version of Diana does belt a lot for some reason, but the choices of the musical — which was filmed for Netflix and is soon to open on Broadway — are metaphorically loud in general. Charles does some ’80s dance moves to represent how out of touch he is. Diana sings at an AIDS patient. Her alleged lover James Hewitt arrives shirtless on a bucking horse. Do you hate subtlety? This is the show for you.
Most Job Security
Bonnie Soper, Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance (2018), Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal (2019), Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace (2021)
As long as there are new tabloid developments in the Harry & Meghan saga, Lifetime will have Soper on call to throw on a cheap wig and reenact whatever bits of Harry’s childhood it decides are necessary callbacks to whatever’s happening in the main plot. Great gig.
Naomi Watts, Diana (2013)
Before the recent Diana fervor, Oscar nominee Watts played Diana in a movie in 2013! It focuses on her post-divorce love affair with Hasnat Khan (played by Lost’s Naveen Andrews) and is … not good. Still, it’s a little wild how fully it has been lost in the conversation amid the new surge of Diana-centered projects. Poor Naomi Watts! She spent all that time dreaming about Diana before filming!
Genevieve O’Reilly, Diana: Last Days of a Princess (2007)
TLC made a documentary mixed with reenactments centering on Diana’s death, and O’Reilly starred in those reenactments. The premise seems pretty tawdry — especially given that the film came out soon after the 2006 publication of the Operation Paget investigation into the conspiracy theories about Diana’s death — but the Times called the documentary “practically a miracle of restraint” and a “surprisingly credible picture of the princess’s last summer.” That mostly refers to the reportage (the Times called the reenactments “silly”), but still, good work, Genevieve!
Biggest Range of Interpretation
Catherine Oxenberg, The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982) and Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After (1992)
Oxenburg happens to be a daughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia and a distant relative of the British royals, which makes her the most royal person to play Diana on film. But crucially, she also played the princess in two very different takes on her life. Right after the big wedding, Oxenburg starred in The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana, a CBS TV movie that competed with ABC’s Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story, starring Caroline Bliss. Then, a decade later, after the publication of Andrew Morton’s biography Diana: Her True Story revealed the extent of the royal discontent, Oxenberg starred in ABC’s Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After. That film came out before NBC and Sky’s direct adaptation of Morton’s work, 1993’s Diana: Her True Story, which starred Serena Scott Thomas. Congrats to Oxenburg for being able to do both happy and sad Diana and making it through two separate Inferno and Dante’s Peak–style TV-movie Diana-offs.
Nicola Formby, The Women of Windsor (1992)
You can’t find much online about this movie, other than that it dramatizes the experiences of Diana and Sarah, Duchess of York (a.k.a. Sarah Ferguson, a.k.a. Fergie), upon marrying into the royal family; that it was a Canadian production; and that, from what I can tell from various reviews and comments, it’s pretty boring. Formby herself is South African, and, like most members of the Commonwealth, she has fought with Piers Morgan.
Julie Cox, Princess in Love (1996)
Based on Anna Pasternak’s book about Diana’s alleged affair with Hewitt, this film stars Cox as a swooning Diana and Christopher Villiers as her lover. The film goes all in on the soap operatics, and, as far as I can tell, Cox’s performance depends mostly on big-eyed staring.