In our cabinet of cultural demigods, we keep a special shelf for the tragic heroines, those real women who were pulled under by the celebrity system, who, decades after their deaths, can still command a People magazine cover or a network special. We take Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, and others out of the cabinet occasionally, dust them off, and cry all over again for their fragility, for their strength, for the way they were injured and misused by patriarchal culture, by greed, and by fame.
I certainly cried a fresh tear or two watching a few of the very many documentaries scheduled to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana on Aug. 31, 1997. The farther away from Diana we move, and the older I get, the more I appreciate the scope of the tragedy — just how young she was (19 when she started dating Prince Charles, 36 when she was killed in a car crash) and just how wronged she was, too. As time passes, I also better understand the hole her death must have left in her sons’ lives. Early loss of a parent is a hard blow and a lifelong burden; dealing with grief in the public eye can only be worse. Of course the Diana specials, on ABC, HBO, TLC, PBS, NBC, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Channel, and elsewhere, want us to cry; beyond ratings, collective sorrow is the point of all the anniversary revisitations, to some extent.
There are specific villains in each TV telling of Diana’s story, the familiar architects of her misery. The indifferent Prince Charles, his mistress (and now wife) Camilla Parker Bowles, the rigidity of the royal lifestyle, her parents’ bad marriage and divorce, and, of course, brutal media aggression — they all get due coverage. Viewers are flooded with photos and clips of Charles and Diana barely hiding their mutual contempt, and I admit I couldn’t stop myself from staring into their faces, imagining the drama swirling behind their facades. The much-used shot of Camilla at Diana and Charles’s wedding comes off a bit like something out of a crime drama, a threat lurking in the pews.
The most emotionally powerful documentary, for me, is narrated almost entirely by Diana herself. “Diana: In Her Own Words,” which airs on National Geographic on Monday at 9 p.m., relies primarily on the princess’s taped interviews with a friend who was asking questions for Andrew Morton, the author of the 1992 book “Diana: Her True Story.” The tales in the book shocked the world — and no one knew they’d been told by Diana herself until 1997, after her death, when “In Her Own Words” was added to the title. It’s haunting to hear her sharing accounts of her suicide attempts, including a jump down a flight of stairs when she was three months’ pregnant with William, as well as her bulimia and self-mutilation. Her thin voice, by turns vulnerable, bitter, and resigned, is unforgettable, as is the specificity of her memories. She recalls that during the 13 dates she and Charles had before their wedding, he proposed to her and she told him, “I love you so much.” His response: “Whatever love means.”
Diana says she once confronted Camilla at a birthday party for Camilla’s sister. “Camilla, I would just like you to know that I know exactly what is going on,” she remembers saying. “I obviously am in the way and it must be hell for both of you. Don’t treat me like an idiot.’’ Naturally, others involved may have different memories; that’s the way life and points of view work. But the loneliness and fury in Diana’s voice is undeniable.
Her voice represents nearly the opposite of what we learn about her in HBO’s “Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy,” which is distinguished by interviews with her sons Prince Harry and Prince William. The documentary, which aired last month and is available on demand, is moving in its own way, as the stoic young men work to share their feelings. It’s hard not to be touched by Harry’s regrets about the brevity of his last phone call with his mother, or his admission that, having cried only two times about his mother’s death, “there’s a lot of grief that still needs to be let out.” But the HBO film is rigorously celebratory in tone, and, to the strains of tinkling piano, we hear mostly about Diana’s important work with AIDS patients and the homeless, as well as her cheeky and playful nature. It’s a pretty memento, a vital but less juicy piece of the story, and Charles is hardly mentioned.
And anyway, the villains in Diana’s life weren’t only those of a royal soap opera, which becomes increasingly obvious the more you watch these films. The bad guys were as broad, impersonal, and amoral as our entertainment industry, and as bottomless as our hunger for fairy tales. The media stalked her and bullied her, and they fed her to us, her eager fans, who were so in love with her vulnerability and openness that we forgot to respect her vulnerability and openness. Even now, watching these Diana films, noting the miles of footage that were shot of her, seeing the mass adulation of her once again, and revisiting her stunning beauty, I sometimes had the sense that I was complicit.
At her funeral, her brother, Charles Spencer, said, “It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this: a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.” In a way, he was summarizing so much of what these documentaries reiterate — that Diana, so defenseless and exposed, was adored to death.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.