Bad timing can really mess with a movie’s reception. In mid-2001, trailers for the upcoming Spider-Man movie featured a scene in which Spidey hangs a massive web between New York’s Twin Towers to capture a helicopter mid-flight. The trailer was quickly redacted after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Nelson Mandela’s daughters Zindzi and Zenani learned of their father’s death from Idris Elba, who came on stage to inform the audience as the credits rolled at the London premiere of his 2013 movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. More recently Ridley Scott staged last-minute reshoots of Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World, with Christopher Plummer as a replacement, after Spacey’s predatory behaviour came to light.
These were cases of unfortunate timing that maybe affected the movies’ reception and certainly the marketing teams must have had some long, stressful days at work, but few movies were as royally fucked over by reality as 1997’s Diana & Me.
Diana & Me was conceived as an international rom-com centered around the celebrity myth of Princess Di. The movie’s star, Toni Collette, was still hot off her breakthrough role in Muriel’s Wedding (which had inspired a rash of quirky Australian romantic comedies) when she signed up for this light and breezy lark that would capitalize on Muriel’s cult popularity and take it overseas. Sure, English love interest Dominic West was relatively unknown but a movie with real English actors, with a couple of scenes filmed in real English locations, was a big deal in Australian film.
This was the Cool Britannia era of Spice Girls, Britpop, peak Hugh Grant, and Princess Di: Celebrity Gadabout. Meanwhile, Australian film was on a cosmopolitan kick in those giddy days following the success of The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Muriel’s Wedding and the ascension of Baz Luhrmann. Things were looking good for this upstart film.
In Diana & Me’s English/Oz culture clash comedy Collette plays a celebrity-obsessed fan who happens to share the name Diana Spencer with Di, the “People’s Princess.” She wins a tabloid magazine contest to meet Princess Di and winds up in England, fish-out-of-water-style, at a posh royal garden party, where before she can meet the princess she promptly gets involved in a melee and winds up in jail alongside West’s paparazzo character. West’s charming photographer is after a money-making shot of the princess and Collette’s naïf is a really, really big royal enthusiast, so they team up and embark upon all manner of hijinks in hope of chasing Di down: stalking her through Elton John’s lavish birthday party, hopping on a motorcycle to chase the princess through traffic… You may be getting a sense of where this movie went wrong.
The movie was scheduled for release in September 1997. On 31 August, Princess Di and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed died in a car crash while being pursued at high speed by a convoy of paparazzi. England erupted into a state of public mourning and Australia followed suit in colonial fashion. Diana’s family estate eventually issued a notice requesting that people stop bringing bouquets because the sheer volume of people and flowers was creating a threat to public safety on surrounding roads. Her 6 September funeral drew a crowd of 3 million people. This was celebrity tragedy on a scale England and the colonies had never experienced.
Diana & Me was pulled from release and there was a mad scramble behind the scenes to make it seem less ghoulish: additional scenes were filmed at Di’s Kensington Palace memorial to bookend the movie and a voiceover was added to eulogize the dead celebrity. Director David Parker later recalled to The Telegraph, “We shot outside the real Kensington Palace, and set up all the flowers and stuff like that. But we all felt a bit icky about it, actually. Certainly Toni Collette did.”
It didn’t work. Events left an indelible stain on the movie. On 4 December 1997, Diana & Me hobbled into Australian cinemas to bad reviews and bad box office. Critics met the movie with either stony disapproval or pity for the bad timing it was fated to. The audience’s still-raw grief and the movie’s cheery take on the means of the princess’ death made this a movie that nobody wanted.
According to IMDb, Diana & Me was released in Denmark six months later and Italy a year after that, in what must have been fairly desultory releases. It appeared on British television in December 1998 and never got an American release. The only DVD release seems to be the German Diana & Ich. That’s it. Now it is a movie largely lost to circumstance, except for a very grainy 43-second trailer on Daily Motion and a short clip on the website of production designer Jon Dowding.
During that rush of unplanned reshoots to rescue Diana & Me, producer Matt Carroll remained outwardly hopeful that the movie could still get picked up internationally, telling Urban Cinefile there was a “bloody good chance” of it being a success. “Americans will understand the story, they’re familiar with obsession about celebrities and how that obsession can lead to funny situations.” But later, after private showings for US major studio heads, director Parker told The Telegraph a sadder story: “After the screening, they all just sat there. I can remember then going, ‘No, it’s just not gonna work.’ … after [Diana’s] death, that whole concept was just completely tasteless, really.”