In retrospect, the 1990s were a testing ground for the social-media age. Today, megastars like Beyoncé — she of the temperature-controlled repository of practically every still and moving image in which Queen Bey’s heavenly body appears — have perfected the illusion of transparency. A spate of new documentaries marking the twentieth anniversary of the death of Diana Spencer, the late princess of Wales, functions both as a reservoir of Nineties nostalgia and as a cautionary tale of unchecked media meddling. Diana always sensed she was a “sacrificial lamb,” the virginal princess whose 1981 wedding to Prince Charles would lift Britons’ spirits in the midst of a crushing recession. She was sacrificed, all right, on the altar of fame — a warning shot for the next generation of celebrity royalty.
Some of these recent docs focus on the doomed marriage between Diana and Charles. Others highlight the fractious relationship between Diana and the press, which culminated in her death on August 31, 1997, when her car crashed in a Paris tunnel while being pursued by paparazzi. Still others zero in on her funeral, on September 6 of that year, watched by upwards of thirty million people around the world. Through it all, the cameras rolled and clicked, each of them seeking an image that would capture the real Diana.
That’s an impossible task. According to these documentaries — The Story of Diana (ABC); Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy (HBO); Diana: In Her Own Words (National Geographic); Diana: Her Story (PBS); Diana and the Paparazzi and Diana: The Day We Said Goodbye (both Smithsonian); and Diana: 7 Days That Shook the World (BBC/Netflix) — Diana was at once demure, cheeky, mysterious, open, funny, angry, spoiled, and generous. She was beloved for being a different kind of royal figure — a complicated, flawed human being, like all of us. She was normal, and that made her extraordinary.
Her relatability also made her an ideal subject for the notoriously ravenous British tabloids, the subject of Diana and the Paparazzi. Various talking heads, from British columnists to the queen’s former press spokesman, Dickie Arbiter, attest to the frenzy that surrounded Diana wherever she went and assert that, as Arbiter says, Diana was “as fascinated by the press” as they were by her. “A fascination,” the narrator chimes in, “that made her life hell.” From the start, when this unnamed narrator describes Diana as a “photographer’s dream who learned how to manipulate the press,” Diana and the Paparazzi is both an indictment of the manic, unscrupulous media attention Diana attracted and a textbook example of it.
Most of these documentaries make the same dubious promise that the press made to the public when Diana was alive: to show us a more “intimate” version of the woman than we’ve seen before. In Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, the only doc made with the participation of Princes William and Harry, the brothers pore over family photographs, a tableau of intimacy that belies the film’s arm’s-length approach to its subject. Of course no movie made with the involvement of her sons would dare dig deep into Diana’s private life and struggles; of course this glossy, officially stamped version of her story refers to her extravagant wedding — which Diana would later call “the worst day of my life” — as “a joyous event which everyone could relate to.”
Diana, Our Mother, with its emphasis on the ways in which Diana’s sons are fulfilling their mother’s do-gooder legacy, mostly functions as a tidy piece of PR for the royal family. So it’s not surprising that the film bypasses much of the footage that’s commonly referenced in the other docs: There’s the infamously pervy picture in which Diana, wearing a sheer skirt, is made to pose with the sun at her back, rendering the outline of her legs starkly visible. And there’s the notorious episode, early in Charles and Diana’s marriage, when Diana, seated behind Charles, visibly smirks as her new husband declares how lucky he is to have married her. The audience laughs, and Charles — poor, stodgy Charles, no match for his much younger and feistier wife — smiles sheepishly and ad-libs, “It’s amazing what ladies do when your back’s turned.” The events that turn up again and again in these documentaries are moments of slippage, cracks in a tightly sealed doorway through which we might be able to glimpse something resembling the truth.
The best of the bunch is National Geographic’s Diana: In Her Own Words, which takes as its source material a series of taped interviews Diana gave to a “close friend” on behalf of journalist Andrew Morton, whose 1992 book, Diana: Her True Story, exposed intimate details of her struggle to fit into the princess mold.
According to the interviews, Diana had “no idea” what she was getting herself into when she agreed to marry Charles. The night before her wedding, the nineteen-year-old binged and purged; it would be years before she got over her bulimia. She felt like “a lamb to the slaughter.” On their honeymoon, she and her husband argued about Camilla Parker Bowles — now the duchess of Cornwall, whose affair with Charles pre-dated his marriage to Diana — who had given Charles a pair of cufflinks designed as two intertwined c’s. On a yacht touring the Mediterranean, Diana threw up four times a day. There’s a reason fairytales end immediately after the wedding.
Eventually, she deflected the relentless press attention outward. She got involved in charities and, famously, helped clear the stigma surrounding AIDS patients by shaking their hands. In Diana: Her Story, which features archival footage of Diana working with her speech coach, she’s asked why her charity work is so important to her. “I’ve got nothing else to do!” she says, laughing. “Sorry, sorry.”
In Her Own Words includes footage from an interview shortly before Diana’s wedding in which a reporter asks her if Charles has helped guide her through the media storm. “Tower of strength,” she replies. Charles looks humbled, and she adds, “Well, I have to say that because you’re sitting here!” Today, all those throwaway remarks and eye-rolls and smirks would be promptly packaged into gifs and memes and flung across the vast expanse of the web. This is why we only ever see Kate Middleton waving on her way to and from a scheduled event; it’s hard to imagine her driving her own car, going to the gym by herself, even giving a press conference. (In all these documentaries, the duchess of Cambridge speaks a sum total of one sentence.)
That’s the real legacy of Diana, for better or worse. “One lesson I’ve learned,” William says in Diana, Our Mother, “is never let them in too far.”