Tuesday, March 22, 2016

THE INCREDIBLE SARAH 1976

To some extent, mid-‘70s Hollywood was a bit of a boys’ club sandbox overrun with buddy films and disaster movies in which women were required to do little more than support the dreams of the hero or sit around waiting to be rescued. Jane Fonda, Karen Black, and Faye Dunaway divvied up the few plum non-“clinging girlfriend” roles to be found (Liza Minnelli & Barbara Streisand being not-quite-human feminine entities unto themselves); while Glenda Jackson remained in demand for parts requiring the kind of accessible, high-toned hauteur American actresses tend to look ridiculous trying to carry off outside of TV soap operas.

But even a two-time Oscar winner like Jackson must have found it tough going, for in order to play something other than co-starring roles opposite then-bankable stars like George Segal and Walter Matthau —roles for which she was grossly overqualified—financing for her films had to come from unusual places. An independent patron of the arts (Ely Landau: The Maids), a cosmetics company (Brut: Hedda), and a magazine publisher (Reader’s Digest: The Incredible Sarah).
Readers Digest. I can’t even look at those words without picturing the stacks of unappealing-looking mini-magazines which seemed to grow like weeds in the corners of my grandmother’s living room. And don’t get me started on those volumes of Reader’s Digest condensed books. Condensed books…what was up with that?
But I digress. For a time in the ‘70s Reader’s Digest was in the movie business, producing a string of “Family Classics” (often musicals) based on works of literature: Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1973) and Huckleberry Finn (1974), and an adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop titled Mr. Quilp (1975). The British arm of Reader’s Digest deviated from G-rated kiddie fare and produced this PG-rated biographical drama about the life of French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Certainly the notion of the woman many considered to be the greatest actress of the 20th century portraying the greatest actress of the 19th century was an appealing one (Ken Russell entertained the idea of making a Bernhardt bio-pic with Glenda Jackson back in 1971 after first-choice Barbra Streisand[!] failed to follow through). 

But alas, Glenda Jackson, in spite of having garnered an Oscar nomination the previous year for Hedda, was in a bit of a career slump, having not appeared in a hit film since 1973's A Touch of Class; a slump not reversed until House Calls in 1978. The modestly-budgeted The Incredible Sarah was released in November of 1976, just when the studios were going full bore (pun intended) with its saturation promotion of  the high-profile Christmas releases of Streisand's A Star is Born remake, and Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong reboot.
With Bernhardt neither a household name nor familiar face (a star of the stage, Bernhardt nevertheless made a few silents and talkies) and only lukewarm reviews to assist it, 
The Incredible Sarah came and went without much notice or fanfare.
Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt
Daniel Massey as  Victorien Sardou
John Castle as Aristides Damala
Douglas Wilmer as Adolphe Montigny
Bridget Armstrong as Marie

The Incredible Sarah has occupied a spot on my list of holy grail films (out-of-print or hard-to-find movies I’ve always wanted to see) for a whopping 40-years now. The initial San Francisco Bay Area run The Incredible Sarah in 1976 was so brief; it seemed to disappear from theaters before I even knew it had opened. In the ensuing years, I’ve no recollection of it appearing on either broadcast television or cable TV, and its release on VHS in 1992 was one of the best-kept secrets in the video rental business.

So it was with no small degree of excitement when—that after all these years— I discovered it on YouTube just a month ago and was finally afforded the opportunity to watch personal fave Glenda Jackson in what was to be one of the last of her major “star” vehicles. (Always a critical and Academy Award favorite, Jackson was never a really a populist favorite in the States; her biggest successes coming from being paired with likable, light comedy male co-stars capable of who “softening” her somewhat remote, intellectual image.)

Well, there’s no denying that merely seeing The Incredible Sarah after such a long period of anticipation is gratifying in and of itself, and certainly the remarkable Glenda Jackson doesn’t disappoint. However, no amount of fandom, expectancy, or nostalgia can make this wholly undistinguished, startlingly old-fashioned bio-pic into anything more than a fabulous Glenda Jackson showcase (she's had better) and well-intentioned, honorable misfire.

I don’t know much about the life of Sarah Bernhardt—which, under the circumstances proved a distinct and decided advantage. But I do know a thing or two about show biz biographical movie clichés; an awareness which turned large segments of The Incredible Sarah into a bordering-on-camp laundry list of hoary bio-pic tropes.
King Lear - 1866
The Incredible Sarah chronicles the life of acclaimed French actress Sarah Bernhardt (born Rosine Bernardt) between the years 1863 to1890 (taking her from age 19 to roughly 45; something it helps to know since the only person to visibly age in this film is her illegitimate child). From her inauspicious beginnings at the Comédie Française through her gradual emergence as one of the principal players at the Odéon Theatre, Bernhardt is depicted as a headstrong individualist and rebel, drawn to the calling of acting simply because…well, that’s never quite explained beyond her stating it's “Something I have to do!”—which could well be applied to getting one’s unibrow tweezed.

On her path to becoming hailed as an international star and earning the name “The Divine Sarah,” Bernhardt is briefly shown appearing in several of her classic roles (King Lear, Le Passant, Phaedra,  The Lady of the Camellias, & Joan of Arc). Meanwhile her offstage life rivals her stage performances in theatricality and excess. There’s the aforementioned illegitimate child born of a Belgian prince; her household menagerie of animals; her habit of sleeping in a coffin; her many lovers; her interest in sculpting; her legendary temperament; her stage fright; and her unpropitious marriage to a handsome Greek attaché. Lest we get the impression Bernhardt’s life was one rosy romp of self-interest and accolades, we’re also shown how she selflessly turned the Odéon Theatre into an infirmary during the Franco-German War, and battled an unsympathetic public judgmental of her wicked, wicked ways. 
The Incredible Sarah ends on a high note—some 33-years before Bernhard’s death at age 78—with her triumphant portrayal of Joan of Arc. As the film faded to black, I was left with the dual sensations of feeling how much I really missed Glenda Jackson and wondering (like Bacharach’s Alfie), what’s it all about?
Le Passant  - 1869
I was entertained, but save for a scene in the impromptu theatrical infirmary, strangely unmoved by anything that transpired between the characters. I loved the elaborate costumes, hairstyles, ornate art direction, and, here and there, even a performance that wasn’t Jackson’s; but I never got a sense of the film having anything particular to say about its subject. I thought I'd certainly I’d come away with more knowledge of Sarah Bernhardt than when I arrived, but given that the film began with the disclaimer: “This motion picture is a free portrayal of events in her tempestuous early career,” could I even say that?

I’m too much of a fan of the freewheeling liberties of Ken Russell’s biographical films to hew to the notion that historical accuracy and chronological fealty equal a good bio-pic. That The Incredible Sarah plays fast and loose with the facts doesn’t trouble me so much as the fact it has (for me, anyway) no point of view, perspective, or motivation beyond Bernhardt being a notable person whose life deserves recording.

The closest thing I could glean, and perhaps this was more obvious in ’76, is that The Incredible Sarah, in being a film produced and written by women (Helen M. Strauss & Ruth Wolff, respectively) sought to present a notable historical female figure in a feminist light. And indeed, it is refreshing to see a woman deciding for herself what is important in her life and not having her femininity or value as a person called into question because she chooses the career path. But this theory is undermined a bit by the script making Bernhardt's chief adversary a woman jealous of Sarah stealing her man.
On the whole, The Incredible Sarah ranks as the perfect kind of historical film to show in school history classes or something. As a stand-alone entertainment with no lessons to impart to impressionable minds, I’m afraid The Incredible Sarah  measured up as being a must-see vehicle for Glenda Jackson enthusiasts like myself, but an easy pass for the general film fan. 
Phaedra - 1879


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Liking Glenda Jackson as much as I do, it’s very rewarding to see her in a film where not only is she front and center (and given very little in the way of competition), but she’s photographed flatteringly and made to look movie-star glamorous in a multitude of sumptuous, Oscar-nominated costumes by Anthony Mendelson (Macbeth, Young Winston).
The film is handsomely mounted (its only other Oscar nomination came for Art Direction: Elliot Scott & Norman Reynolds) and it's something of a feast to see Jackson in every single scene, playing the classics, hamming it up, being funny...basically being given free rein in a film designed to showcase her talents. But alas, I’m aware of clinging to these particular joys - all centered around the film's star -because the very weak screenplay gives Jackson quite a lot to do but not very much she can to sink her teeth into. When she's not reciting the words of the Masters, Jackson is saddled with some of the most mundane dialogue imaginable.
Simon Williams portrays Henri de Ligne, a Belgian prince with whom Bernhardt has a child out of wedlock
Directed by Richard Fleischer (whose skills run the gamut from the outstanding 10 Rillington Place-1971 to the laugh-a-minute vulgarity that is Mandingo-1975) The Incredible Sarah is so old-fashioned in its construction and execution, it feels as though it were made at least a decade earlier. Had someone told me it had been made some time before Jackson gained fame for Women in Love and released in 1976 as means of capitalizing on her notoriety, only her more mature appearance would cause me to doubt it.
Joan of Arc - 1890

PERFORMANCES
A film about the world’s greatest actress would be terribly embarrassing without an actress about whom those words could be uttered onscreen without inciting laughter, so the casting of Glenda Jackson is perfection on that score. Where things get a little dicey is that, for all her ability as an actress, Glenda Jackson is something like the embodiment of common sense, intelligence, and reason. Therefore the scenes attempting to convey Bernhardt’s flamboyance and fiery nature don’t really cut it for me. Jackson doesn’t have a frivolous bone in her body. And so while it’s fun when she gets to run amok in not one but two rip-and-tear temper tantrum scenes, the effort in trying to appear unreasonable shows.
Taking solace in the odds-on likelihood that not many people ever saw it, Daniel Massey essentially recreates the exact same role that won him a Golden Globe (and Oscar nomination) in the 1968 Julie Andrews flop, Star! Massey had co-starred with Glenda Jackson in 1971's Mary, Queen of Scots
It's a casting phenomenon reminiscent of what I commented upon in reference to Anthony Hopkins being cast in the 1978 film Magic: he's great at the loony-tunes stuff, but he lacks any of the hammy exhibitionism to make him believable as a Borscht Belt ventriloquist. Glenda Jackson is an ideal fit for Sarah Bernhardt the brilliant actress; but as an eccentric narcissist, she has both feet a little too firmly planted on the ground.  
Sarah Bernhardt relaxes in the coffin she traveled with

THE STUFF OF FANTASY 
The Incredible Sarah and the show business bio film cliché checklist: 
Scene in which the artist conveniently declares her life’s ambition (Funny Girl, Sparkle, The Loves of Isadora, Star!).
Scene depicting the artist’s unbridled, unsubstantiated self-confidence (Funny Girl, Sparkle, The Loves of Isadora, Star!)
Scene where artist makes amusingly disastrous performing stage debut (Funny Girl, The Loves of Isadora, Lady Sings the Blues, Love Me or Leave Me, Star!)
The confidant to whom the artist can give voice to her inner yearnings and provide plot exposition (Funny Lady, The Loves of Isadora, Lady Sings the Blues, Star!)
The bad marriage trope (Funny Girl, Star!, Sparkle, The Loves of Isadora
The scene depicting Sarah Bernhardt's first time on the stage could have been
 lifted directly from an episode of That Girl

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I've watched The Incredible Sarah twice. The first time I was just too taken with the pleasure of at last seeing it to be able to access it with any objectivity. On the second go-round, its script flaws stood out a great deal more (events happen in biographical films because "they really happened"...screenwriters don't always concern themselves with making sure the events and character motivations fit a narrative logic. Real life is haphazard; I tend to like a little more structure in my drama. Even biographical drama); but I was happily surprised by how much the film is buoyed and made pleasurable by Glenda Jackson alone.
It isn't one of her best performances (as stated earlier, I was largely left unmoved) but it's a good one. Much better in my opinion than her Oscar-winning turn in A Touch of Class (1973). The Incredible Sarah didn't live up to my expectations, but I have to say Glenda Jackson, even with weak material, is still the personification of incredible.


BONUS MATERIAL
Watch The Incredible Sarah on YouTube HERE



The Incredible Sarah concerns itself with the actress' early career. Sarah Bernhardt was one of the first stage actresses to appear in film. Here is a clip of the real Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet in her 1900 film debut. 
She made several other films and continued to tour and perform onstage even after the amputation of a leg in 1915. In addition to acting, she managed and directed her own theater company, sculpted, and published a novel and a memoir of questionable veracity. She passed away in 1922 at the age of 78.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. Very good comments - I wasn't as kind in my own review (http://osullivan60.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/glenda-as-sarah.html)
    She is now though returning to acting, playing King Lear no less, as per recent reports!

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    1. Hi Michael
      I love the piece you wrote! You bring up many of the same issues I had with the film, but the level of passion behind your dislike of the film made it such an enjoyable read. I say this all the time, but when a person can articulately convey why they dislike or like a film, I don't think seeing eye-to-eye is as important as the perspective one gains from sharing someone else's experience of a film.
      I of course was thrilled to hear that Jackson was returning to acting. I listened to her online in that Radio 4 thing she did of Emile Zola's work (that voice of hers!) And the magazine Entertainment Weekly dis a brief interview with her that had me wondering how many readers even knew who she was.
      I would love to see her in King Lear (funny seeing her in it in "Sarah"), but my sincerest hope is that Maggie Smith takes some time off and maybe elder Glenda Jackson will inherit all the "old British lady" roles that fall in Smith's lap.
      Thanks, Michael!

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  2. I don't think I've ever seen this, but it's nice to see the woefully-underutilized John Castle in something. Was ever such a handsome and talented actor so relegated to walk-ons and bit parts? He was wonderful as Prince Geoffrey in "The Lion in Winter", and the next time I saw him he was playing an inspector in a couple of Joan Hickson's "Miss Marple" mysteries. I may have to watch this on YouTube just to see him.

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    1. Hi Deb
      How nice to hear you share my appreciation for john Castle, too! Such a handsome lad with real movie-star looks. i had a crush on him since "the Lion in Winter" and he always looked like he should have starred in some British TV spy series.
      My only hope is that he's had a prolific career on the stage, because his film work does not reflect the scope of his screen appeal.
      He's not granted many close-ups in this movie. In fact, the men all fare poorly for coverage, that's why I really didn't mention them It's Glenda's show all the way (and you won't hear any complints from me on that score).

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  3. Ken,

    I haven’t seen this since it first came out in an empty theater but I remember thinking one of the reasons it worked was because we can’t compare Jackson to the real thing. Unlike, say Gable and Lombard, W.C. Fields and Me, or any one of the hundreds of movies about Marilyn Monroe. (What was it about the 70s by the way? So many show biz biographies and Hollywood-centric movies!)

    As for “show business bio clichés” I honestly kind of love them. One of my favorites is when the down and out star smears cold cream on the mirror before collapsing in sobs on her vanity table. Ok, it’s only happened in two that I can think of but even the first time I saw it, I laughed, “of course!” So it must have been ingrained in me already from somewhere.

    Anyway, I’m very anxious to see this again, (and thrilled that Jackson is on her way back) so thank you for the heads up on YouTube!

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    1. Hi Max
      Yes, the 70s was quite the era for nostalgia-mania, all centered on show business.
      And what you say about the film “working” is what worked for me…with no frame of reference to really pull from, I had no problem with Jackson’s performance, and she was spared that sometimes awkward “impersonation” thing actors have to do to portray a familiar public figure (like James Brolin’s embarrassing Clark Gable).

      I enjoy those show biz bio clichés too, if I have already accepted a movie as camp. If I’m hoping for an engaging drama, those clichés actually make me angry. One, they feel as if the writer is lazy and thinks the audience has just fell off a turnip truck and doesn’t recognize a lack of imagination when they see it. Secondly, it always feels off to have the life of an exceptional person depicted in banalities. That’s whay I think I tend to like Ken Russell so much…he may veer way off course of accuracy, but his extravagant scenes feel as though they convey the genius and exceptional nature of the subject.

      I had to laugh at the “cold cream on the mirror” reference (I recall Carroll baker in Harlow doing it, also Joan Crawford in the non-bio "Harriet Craig"), because a similar cliché (lipstick on a mirror) appears in “Sarah.” I’m reminded of those scenes where characters in movies awake with a start out of a bad dream, sitting bold upright in bed and facing the camera. It’s been done so often, I wish someone on YouTube would do a mash-up reel.
      I envy that you had the opportunity of seeing this in 1976. I think some of the film's limitations wouldn't have appeared so glaring to me were I younger.
      Enjoy revisiting it, and thanks, Max!

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  4. Ken Russell, Streisand and Bernhardt! Who knows what the final product would be, except that it would be theatrical. I always felt robbed that the project did materialize. Ken Russell was also, for a moment or two, the director announced for EVITA and his star was to be Liza Minnelli. Robbed again.

    They might have been utter failures, but damn! What bold choices they all were. Fortune favors the bold, especially in film making. If a film misses its mark, but is bold in its execution, that can be... enough. Certainly, those projects would have been more interesting than the films that did make it to release.

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    1. EDIT: I always felt robbed that the project did NOT materialize.

      Sorry!

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    2. Robbed indeed! If ever there was a director custom-built for the outsized personas of Minnelli & Streisand, it was Ken Russell. It just sparks the imagination thinking of what he could have done with them...and yes, even if they were out and out disasters, I've no doubt they would have been fascinating.
      Time has been kind to a great many of Russell's films once thought excessive, while those tame, tasteful biographies fade into memory.
      Streisand and Ken Russell...it almost hurts to dwell on the possibilities.

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  5. Hi Ken,

    Much as I love Glenda Jackson and had hoped this would be a fascinating glimpse at the legendary Bernhardt I think your description of it captures its few highlights and many shortcomings.

    It was great to see Glenda all dolled up, she was always so comfortable in period clothing. They never wore her, her natural self-assurance gave her a grace in them. I didn’t dislike the film but once was enough.

    By the way how great is it that Glenda is returning to acting now that she has chosen to leave Parliament? And plunging into the deep end with King Lear! I’m hoping against hope that it will be recorded and shown on the BBC.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Yes, ofttimes when a certain hard-to-find film is unearthed, a small bit of one's response to it is pleasure at merely having a longing fulfilled. But ultimately a movie has to stand on its own terms.
      I think I'm too dotty over Glenda Jackson and grateful anything that put her in the spotlight to ever fully discount this movie, but were it not for her participation, I know I would have only seen it once, myself.
      I think only "The Class of Miss Macmichael" is the only Glenda Jackson film that every truly tested my fandom. To this day, after several attempts, I yet to make it all the way through that movie. Ugh!
      But I agree with you both about this film's weaknesses (I don't always mind false bios which fail to capture the essence of the real individual [Lady Sings the Blues] but this one was just a laundry list of cliches to me)- and Glenda Jackson's ease in period garb. Something I hadn't consciously noticed before.
      I always appreciate when someone who hadn't seen a film when I first post about it, comes back with a follow-up. Thanks for sharing part two of your one-time experience of "The Incredible Sarah"!

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  6. Now how I saw the film is something I wanted to mention. I didn’t watch on YouTube but on this other site that I recently discovered and have been addicted to ever since. It is called rarefilmm.com and subtitled The Cave of Forgotten Films but what it is is both a treasure trove and a rabbit hole!!

    It has HUNDREDS of arcane and obscure films, many of which I’ve been searching for years to find. So many Holy Grail titles I can’t even begin to enumerate them. One of the best things about the site is that there are no ads and all the films are of a piece, no chapters or separate posts to work through to see one film. Most of them are in exemplary shape, but even the ones that are rougher I give a shot…where else am I going to find them? When you go to it you’ll see its pretty simply laid out BUT there are hidden treasures tucked away within. For instance I was initially disappointed that there didn’t seem to be any Betty Field nor Gail Russell films, two under known actresses I’ve been trying to see more of, but even though they didn’t have their own individual links there were several of both ladies films there, just listed under their more well-known costars name. Also just because a performer has a link doesn’t necessarily mean that those are all the films of theirs available. Linda Darnell is a case in point, she has several at her link, including one-The Lady Pays Off-that I’ve pursued for years, but some others that I stumbled over elsewhere on the site. It is a marvel of discovery for vintage movie lovers like you and I. It’s also increased my appreciation for some performers that I wasn’t too familiar with, I’ve taken a real shine to Alan Ladd and Jeff Chandler. Just when you think you’ve found everything you put in a word or title and new unseen marvels pop up.

    I could rhapsodize about it for hours but I’m just going to provide a link to one film that I know is hard to find and I think you’ll get a kick out of-The Bramble Bush. It’s a decent overblown melodrama that has the most beautiful muted color palette and one where Richard Burton, of all people!, receives the sort of glamour photography usually reserved for the Misses Turner, Crawford and their like. He’s never looked so attractive!

    http://www.rarefilmm.com/search?q=+the+bramble+bush

    Just be prepared once you’re on there to compulsively be hunting titles for HOURS! I know I was.
    A small sampling of what I’ve found:

    The 1949 version of Great Gatsby with Alan Ladd, Betty Field and Shelley Winters.

    Flesh and Fury-a boxing drama with a very effective Tony Curtis as a deaf fighter, he wears the shortest shorts and the tightest singlet as well!

    That Lady with Olivia de Havilland as a one eyed countess.

    Night Has a Thousand Eyes-Edward G. Robinson & Gail Russell-I particularly liked this one.

    Larceny-Shelley Winters & John Payne

    That Way with Women-a cute Sydney Greenstreet comedy.

    Song of Scheherazade-Eve Arden and Yvonne de Carlo in gauze and sequins.

    That doesn’t even scratch the surface. Happy Hunting!!

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    1. Hi again, Joel
      The site you speak of is how I came to across "The Incredible Sarah," too, and my reaction to finding it mirrors your own. To coin a tired cliché, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. At last, a site devoted to precisely the films that seem to have the narrowest hope of a DVD release.
      I've been addicted to it ever since I found it, and have had the best time (like you) sifting through all those movies I had given up hope of ever discovering.
      I was like a kid in a candy store; each new page unearthed a new treasure.
      And what a relief to have such an ease-of-viewing experience! YouTube's incessant ads and film-halting commercial interruptions are getting a bit much.

      One of the reasons I didn't mention it (outside of the fact that no one really expressed interest in seeing "The Incredible Sarah") was an unfounded fear that it would disappear. As it is, I was stunned I hadn’t unearthed it long before.
      Often when I attach a link to a YouTube movie or something, it seems to always end up disappearing before long; like the increased traffic brings it to the attention of the copyright robots or something.
      This site was just too much of a gem to want to lose.
      Isn't it exactly the answer to your film-oddities prayers? Thanks for including the link and I hope many like-minded fans of the obscure and forgotten make their way there.
      So pleased you found the site and have been enjoying yourself so much there. Your enthusiasm leaps off the screen! Thanks, Joel.

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    2. I would like to add my thanks for the link to that site, as it has the 1933 German film Viktor und Viktoria (on which the Julie Andrews classic was based!); it's also noteworthy for featuring the young Anton Walbrook when he was still using his real name Adolf Wohlbrück, and literally last week this Anton fangirl was bitching about having never gotten to see it. Thanks, Joel!

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