The Incredible Sarah (1976)

PG | 106 mins | Biography | 5 November 1976

Writer:

Ruth Wolff

Producer:

Helen M. Strauss

Cinematographer:

Christopher Challis

Editor:

John Jympson

Production Designer:

Elliot Scott

Production Company:

Reader's Digest Films, Ltd.
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HISTORY

The film opens with the following written statement: "Sarah Bernhardt was one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. She dominated the world of the theatre for more than fifty years. This motion picture is a free portrayal of events in her tempestuous early career."
       The end credits conclude with the following written statement: "The posters by Alphonse Mucha by arrangement with The Alphonse Maria Mucha Estate."
       The 10 Feb 1975 DV reported that producer Helen M. Strauss, head of film production for Reader’s Digest Films Ltd., was planning a film biography of actress Sarah Bernhardt, with a screenplay by writer John Mortimer, who is not credited onscreen. Principal photography was scheduled for mid-Aug 1975. A news item in the 25 Jun 1975 DV announced that filming would begin 1 Sep 1975 at Pinewood Studios near London, England, with Richard Fleischer as director and a script by Ruth Wolff. On 9 Sep 1975, HR stated that filming was currently in progress, and was scheduled for sixteen weeks. The 19 Dec 1975 DV announced that principal photography was completed 17 Dec 1975. A summer 1975 release was planned, according to the 25 Feb 1975 HR.
       Publicity materials from the AMPAS library files listed several English locations, including Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, used as the chateau of “Henri de Ligne;” the Reform Club in Pall Mall, London, where the command performance for Napoleon III was reenacted; a railroad museum in Didcot, which supplied the antique trains and tracks, around which the film crew built a railroad station; and theaters in Richmond and Wimbledon, and London’s Royal ... More Less

The film opens with the following written statement: "Sarah Bernhardt was one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. She dominated the world of the theatre for more than fifty years. This motion picture is a free portrayal of events in her tempestuous early career."
       The end credits conclude with the following written statement: "The posters by Alphonse Mucha by arrangement with The Alphonse Maria Mucha Estate."
       The 10 Feb 1975 DV reported that producer Helen M. Strauss, head of film production for Reader’s Digest Films Ltd., was planning a film biography of actress Sarah Bernhardt, with a screenplay by writer John Mortimer, who is not credited onscreen. Principal photography was scheduled for mid-Aug 1975. A news item in the 25 Jun 1975 DV announced that filming would begin 1 Sep 1975 at Pinewood Studios near London, England, with Richard Fleischer as director and a script by Ruth Wolff. On 9 Sep 1975, HR stated that filming was currently in progress, and was scheduled for sixteen weeks. The 19 Dec 1975 DV announced that principal photography was completed 17 Dec 1975. A summer 1975 release was planned, according to the 25 Feb 1975 HR.
       Publicity materials from the AMPAS library files listed several English locations, including Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, used as the chateau of “Henri de Ligne;” the Reform Club in Pall Mall, London, where the command performance for Napoleon III was reenacted; a railroad museum in Didcot, which supplied the antique trains and tracks, around which the film crew built a railroad station; and theaters in Richmond and Wimbledon, and London’s Royal Albert Hall, which provided façades. The townhouse in Chester Square, Belgravia, occupied by the real Sarah Bernhardt during her stay in London, was the used in the film. A 600-seat theater was built on Stage D at Pinewood Studios, which served as the Comédie-Française, the Théâtre de l'Odéon, the Sarah Bernhardt Theater and two English theaters. The theater curtains, or “tabs,” were authentic 19th-century curtains rented from a collector. The sixty-five sets used in the film were constructed at a total cost of $500,000, which, according to production designer Elliot Scott, was “well above average for major feature movies.” Production was completed in fifteen weeks, one week short of its planned schedule.
       The Incredible Sarah was set to premiere 4 Nov 1976 at an invitational screening at the French Consulate in New York City, as stated in the 4 Oct 1976 Box. Actress Glenda Jackson was in attendance, along with a “select list” of actors, celebrities and government officials. The event, which celebrated Sarah Bernhardt’s early work in the Comédie-Française, also featured forty gowns worn by Jackson in the film. The 30 Oct 1976 Cue reported that the premiere coincided with an exhibit at the French Consulate depicting the “life and times of Sarah Bernhardt.” According to the 19 Jul 1976 Box, Jackson’s appearance was one of several on a two-week promotional tour, during which the actress hosted openings of the film.
       Reviews of The Incredible Sarah were mixed. While the 27 Nov 1976 SatRev described the film as “the convergence of an outstanding contemporary actress with a legend of greatness,” the 1 Sep 1976 HR called the screenplay “trite” and “melodramatic.” However, most critics praised Glenda Jackson’s performance.
       The 4 Feb 1976 HR and the 8 Mar 1976 Box reported that the film’s publicist, Alan Arnold, wrote a novelization of the screenplay, which was published by the New American Library in the U.S. and by Collins Publishing in London.
More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
19 Jul 1976.
---
Box Office
4 Oct 1976.
---
Cue
30 Oct 1976.
---
Daily Variety
10 Feb 1975.
---
Daily Variety
25 Jun 1975.
---
Daily Variety
19 Dec 1975.
---
Daily Variety
8 Mar 1976.
---
Daily Variety
4 Sep 1976.
---
Hollywood Reporter
9 Sep 1975.
---
Hollywood Reporter
28 Dec 1975.
---
Hollywood Reporter
4 Feb 1976.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Feb 1976.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 Sep 1976
p. 2, 11.
Los Angeles Times
5 Nov 1976
p. 1.
New York Times
6 Nov 1976
p. 11.
Newsweek
8 Nov 1976.
---
Saturday Review
27 Nov 1976.
---
Variety
8 Sep 1976
p. 20.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Reader's Digest presents
A Helen M. Strauss Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Stills
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dresser
Const mgr
COSTUMES
MAKEUP
Chief makeup artist
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Continuity
Casting dir
Prod accountant
Prod asst
Secy to prod
COLOR PERSONNEL
[Col by]
DETAILS
Release Date:
5 November 1976
Premiere Information:
New York City premiere at the French Consulate: 4 November 1976
Los Angeles and New York openings: 5 November 1976
Production Date:
1 September--17 December 1975 in England
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Duration(in mins):
106
MPAA Rating:
PG
Countries:
United Kingdom, United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In 1863 Paris, France, young Sarah Bernhardt auditions at the Comédie-Française for director Edouard Thierry and principal actress Madame Nathalie. Rather than performing a scene from a play, Sarah recites the “Two Pigeons Fable.” Despite her unorthodox choice of material, and several interruptions from Madame Nathalie, Sarah passes the audition. Upon returning home, Sarah tells her mother, Madame Bernhardt; the family’s benefactor, Duc de Morny; and the maid, Mamselle, that she will be “the greatest actress who has ever lived.” During a rehearsal of the Molière play Tartuffe Sarah employs a more natural approach to acting, and antagonizes Madame Natalie by mocking her heavily mannered style. At the performance, Sarah loses her patience with Madame Nathalie’s imperious attitude and shoves the actress across the stage, where she lands on top of Thierry. Sarah refuses to apologize and is dismissed from the company. At the Bernhardt home, Duc de Morny awakens Sarah from a nap in her coffin with the news that his friend, Montigny of the Théâtre de l'Odéon, will give her an interview. Montigny hires Sarah, in spite of her reputation for being “disruptive and crazy.” She debuts with the company in a command performance for Emperor Napoleon III, who Montigny describes as a “complete idiot.” Sarah offends the emperor by reciting a poem by political exile Victor Hugo, which embarrasses her employer but also intrigues audience member Henri de Ligne, a Belgian prince, who asks Sarah to dinner. Following a disastrous performance at the Odéon, which nearly drives Sarah to suicide, Henri takes her to his chateau in Belgium. Although she ... +


In 1863 Paris, France, young Sarah Bernhardt auditions at the Comédie-Française for director Edouard Thierry and principal actress Madame Nathalie. Rather than performing a scene from a play, Sarah recites the “Two Pigeons Fable.” Despite her unorthodox choice of material, and several interruptions from Madame Nathalie, Sarah passes the audition. Upon returning home, Sarah tells her mother, Madame Bernhardt; the family’s benefactor, Duc de Morny; and the maid, Mamselle, that she will be “the greatest actress who has ever lived.” During a rehearsal of the Molière play Tartuffe Sarah employs a more natural approach to acting, and antagonizes Madame Natalie by mocking her heavily mannered style. At the performance, Sarah loses her patience with Madame Nathalie’s imperious attitude and shoves the actress across the stage, where she lands on top of Thierry. Sarah refuses to apologize and is dismissed from the company. At the Bernhardt home, Duc de Morny awakens Sarah from a nap in her coffin with the news that his friend, Montigny of the Théâtre de l'Odéon, will give her an interview. Montigny hires Sarah, in spite of her reputation for being “disruptive and crazy.” She debuts with the company in a command performance for Emperor Napoleon III, who Montigny describes as a “complete idiot.” Sarah offends the emperor by reciting a poem by political exile Victor Hugo, which embarrasses her employer but also intrigues audience member Henri de Ligne, a Belgian prince, who asks Sarah to dinner. Following a disastrous performance at the Odéon, which nearly drives Sarah to suicide, Henri takes her to his chateau in Belgium. Although she loves Henri and enjoys living in luxury, Sarah returns to Paris to resume her career and moves herself and Mamselle into an apartment, under protest from her mother. Madame Bernhardt is further horrified to discover that Sarah is pregnant and has no intention of telling the father. Nearly a year later, Henri learns of the birth of their son, Maurice, and begs Sarah to marry him, but she refuses, explaining that becoming a princess will end her acting career. They never see each other again. Through the intervention of her friend, playwright Victorien Sardou, Sarah is able to return to the Théâtre de l'Odéon, though Montigny has not forgiven her for abandoning his production the previous year. Over time, Sarah becomes the theater’s star attraction and demands that Montigny pay her in gold at the end of every performance. One morning, while Montigny and Sardou visit Sarah in her home, Mamselle delivers the news that France and Prussia are at war. Sarah responds by becoming a nurse and turning the theater into a makeshift hospital. After seeing a soldier die with a smile on his face, Sarah has a revelation about the nature of death. On the final day of the war, Sarah is sent to the front to boost the soldiers’ morale, but instead she witnesses a defeated army of men returning to their homes. Later, Montigny and Sardou offer Sarah the role of a terminally ill woman in the Alexandre Dumas play Camille. . On opening night, Sarah performs her death scene with a smile, bringing tears to the eyes of audience members. Afterward, Sarah receives an ovation as she enters a restaurant, where she meets Aristide Damala, a disgraced Greek attaché and the lover of an actress named Marie. Damala’s feigned disinterest in Sarah intrigues her and she invites him to her home the following day. When Damala fails to show, Sarah throws a tantrum and leaves no vase unbroken. Later, when Montigny scolds Sarah for leaving town on a balloon excursion, she resigns from the theater, claiming her contract is too restrictive. Sometime later, Sarah partners with impresario Edward Jarrett for a tour of England, for which she selects the plays and hires the actors. When Sarah arrives in London, she discovers that Marie has brought Damala along, so Sarah summons him to her townhouse. Upon arrival, Marie calls Damala a “hanger-on,” demanding that he leave the tour. Damala asks to join the company and seduces Sarah during his audition. They soon marry, but Damala proves himself to be a poor actor and an unfaithful husband, seeking comfort from Marie after he receives scathing critical notices. Sarah is aware of Damala’s faults, but dismisses Jarrett’s advice to divorce her husband. The tour is a triumph for Sarah and a crowd gathers to bid her farewell at Victoria Station in London. Upon returning to Paris, however, Sarah discovers that the newspapers have been carrying scandalous stories of her stay in England, accusing her of numerous immoral acts and of hating her country. Upon learning that Marie was the source of these rumors, Sarah forces her way into Marie’s home and threatens the actress with a whip. Marie locks herself in the bedroom while Sarah demolishes the parlor. Unable to find work, Sarah restores an old theater where she will star in her own productions. Meanwhile, Sarah learns that Damala has been spending her money on expensive gifts for his various lovers, and when she confronts him, he demands his freedom. Sarah opens her new theater with a production of Joan of Arc. Mamselle warns Sarah that she is about to face an angry mob rather than an audience, but the actress refuses to be intimidated. Making her entrance, Sarah is greeting by heckling and a barrage of rotten vegetables. She stands firm and delivers a patriotic speech, which quiets the hecklers. The audience is soon transfixed and the play concludes with a standing ovation, reestablishing Sarah as the greatest star of the French theater. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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