There were two major TV movies about Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, in the 1990s: Young Catherine (1991) starring Julia Ormond and Catherine the Great (1996) starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. I watched them both, now let’s compare how they stack up against each other!
Catherine the Great herself is a pretty interesting figure: A princess from an obscure German principality who spent almost 20 years as the wife of the heir to the throne of Russia, then took power from him in a coup six months after he had come to the throne, THEN went on to lead Russia into what has been called a “golden age” and ruled for 34 years. She never remarried AND had lots of lovers. Sounds like cinematic gold, eh?
Catherine the Great’s Story
Young Catherine is the longer of the two movies and focuses on what the title implies: Catherine’s youth. Or, more specifically, the story starts with Catherine (then Sophie) as a relative nobody in Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, then follows her life up through her coronation. Along the way, the focus is on Catherine’s personal life, but also spends some time on the political angle of things. There’s time spent while the current reigning Empress Elizabeth decides if Catherine will suit, while Catherine contemplates changing her religion. Catherine marries Peter, then you watch their relationship develop (or really, start from next-to-nothing and go downhill from there). She takes a lover (Count Gregory Orlov), has a child, deals with her shitty husband and autocratic mother-in-law, and finally plots and executes her coup in 1762 to take power. Early on, Catherine befriends the English ambassador, played by Christopher Plummer, who provides a guiding hand to Catherine and an explanatory voice for the viewer.
In general, Young Catherine beats Catherine the Great hands down for almost everything, most notably much stronger acting, better (and bigger) locations, more time, and more emphasis on the politics.*
* Minus one point for Catherine’s father’s line, which he says to his wife/her mother, “We’re talking about our daughter’s happiness here, not your corsets!”
Catherine the Great, on the other hand, starts with Catherine’s marriage to heir-to-the-throne Peter. Then we skip forward a few years and Catherine has an affair with Sergei Saltykov and a child. She breaks up with Saltykov, gets involved with Potemkin, then Empress Elizabeth dies, and the coup ensues. We continue on as Catherine negotiates her reign (a bit) and (primarily) her relationship with Potemkin.
This production feels pretty cheesy, with lame voiceovers from Catherine that make it all feel like a romance novel adaptation. Plus, there’s horrible, TV-movie-of-the-week music that constantly leads you (like when a knife is pulled out, and the harps go PLINK!). There’s a LOT of scenery chewing from supporting actors like Omar Sharif and Brian Blessed. And the locations are generally small and repetitive (and apparently it’s always summer in Russia, who knew?).
Who’s Playing Catherine the Great
You’ve got your Julia Ormond (Young Catherine) and your Catherine Zeta-Jones (Catherine the Great). Yeah. No contest. Julia is subtle, nuanced, and believable. Catherine Zeta is all sultry glances and noble stares.
Catherine the Great’s Husband
Peter III — From my skimming history, the jury is out as to whether he was crazy or has just gotten a bad rap. In Young Catherine, he’s flat-out insane: He starts as a giggly 10-year-old in a 20-plus-year-old’s body, then degenerates through smallpox and domineering aunts and bad mistresses. He’s obsessed with the military but as his playthings. He’s only into sexytimes if they include military role-playing. He starts off being okay with Catherine, but very quickly decides she’s the root of all that is un-fun.
On the other hand, Catherine the Great‘s Peter is an overly sweaty jerk who has a tacky mistress and is overly excited by fires, but otherwise he seems comparatively sane. He’s also not around for TOO much time before he’s couped and then killed.
As a side note, both productions include the fact that he had phimosis (or an overly-tight foreskin, making sex impossible) — what IS it with 18th-century monarchs and their foreskins??!! Louis XVI (Marie Antoinette‘s fella) may have had this, I guess Peter had it, apparently there were a lot of enthusiastic foreskins in this era!
Catherine the Great’s Lovers
Both productions clearly felt the need to redeem/reform the real Catherine and limit her lovers. God forbid a woman take charge AND have multiple, real (or hell, even superficial) relationships!
In Young Catherine, it’s all Orlov, all the time. He worships her, she (with the encouragement of the empress) initiates an affair, and then the two remain in love throughout the rest of the movie. He becomes the key player in the coup and helps her lead the army in her coup. It should be noted that there’s no sex scenes in this production, only kissing and then cut away to happy lovers in bed the next morning.
Catherine the Great features more than one lover. Her first is Saltykov, who is herded Catherine’s way with the express permission of the Empress Elizabeth. He does his duty in some cheeseball, gettin’-down-in-front-of-the-fireplace (but not overly interesting) shagging. After some time doing his duty, he wanders off, and Catherine is broken-hearted.
Later, she hooks up with Potemkin, “the most handsome man I ever saw” (HUH?) who becomes the great love of her life, although things don’t always run smoothly.
Catherine the Great’s Aunt-in-Law
The Empress Elizabeth is a major figure in Young Catherine, and good on them for casting Vanessa Redgrave, who chews the scenery with the best of them. She’s autocratic, at times a major bitch, and at other times just a quirky ruler. Either way, she looks great, and her performance is strong.
Jeanne Moreau makes a strong empress in Catherine the Great, although she gets much less screen time so it’s not really a comparison.
Catherine the Great’s Costumes
And now we come to the most important aspect, amirite? Only five years separate the two productions, but while Young Catherine wins hands down at EVERYTHING, it loses at the most important thing: the costumes!
Young Catherine‘s Costumes
When Catherine first shows up in in Russia, she’s wearing dresses with these big pleated lizard neck frills. Now, I don’t know enough about regional German fashion to say whether or not these are historically accurate, but I certainly raise my eyebrows. Obviously they are there to contrast with what’s being worn in Russia:
Catherine’s wardrobes are RIFE with poly baroque satin, princess seams, bust darts, and a whole lot of crazy:
Of course, the sad thing about this is that Catherine’s wedding dress STILL EXISTS, and it looks nothing like this:
About the only outfit that I DID like was Catherine’s military uniform:
And because it will come up later, you can’t really tell what’s going on with her coronation dress, because it’s pretty quickly covered up with a big gold cloak:
Supporting characters don’t fare any better:
The ONE exception to all of this (and it’s not consistent!) is Empress Elizabeth, who actually gets some good-to-great court dresses:
But lest you get too relaxed, know that the princess seams sneak their way into Elizabeth’s wardrobe too:
Catherine the Great‘s Costumes
No, they’re not perfect, but (especially comparatively) they’re either not half bad or surprisingly well done!
But here’s where it’s most exciting. Remember how I said above that Catherine’s wedding dress still exists? Well, they made a decent attempt at it:
But wait there’s more! Catherine’s CORONATION dress is still surviving, too! (Thank you, Russians!)
And you guessed it … they made a DAMN good copy of it for the film!
Now, before you go getting TOO excited, it wasn’t all perfect:
But, watch Catherine the Great if you want to see decent costumes (only available on DVD). Or, do like I did and watch both!