Women of Style

1912:  Audiences 100 years ago adored Sarah Bernhardt, the flamboyant French actress and indomitable self-promoter

Sue Smith

Style Diva: Alphonse Mucha's poster La Dame aux camelias 1896FEATURE films as sophisticated entertainment and picture palaces with lavish decoration and comfortable seats really came into their own in every town in Australia in 1912.  That year, audiences everywhere thronged to see the leading lady of the age, Sarah Bernhardt, in Queen Elizabeth, the first five reel feature ever made and the most successful film of the French actress’s career.  (Today, it can be glimpsed on YouTube and is also available on video.)

Photoplay Magazine: Front Cover - Sarah Bernhardt as Queen ElizabethFew have mastered the art of showmanship as spectacularly as the “Divine Sarah”.  Her acting was stellar and her affairs scandalous, matched only by her canny ability to turn both into cold cash, according to Robert Gottlieb in Sarah, a sharp 2010 biography of the woman whose name became a byword for theatrics.

Bernhardt’s first publicity stunt was to shout, “You miserable bitch” at a grande dame of the Paris theatre and slap her around the face, after the hapless woman shoved Bernhardt’s younger sister.  Henry James thought her an advertising genius, and indeed Bernhardt’s eccentric self-promotion topped the antics of even modern stars as extreme as Lady GaGa and Madonna.  Forget wearing meat and pointy bras – Sarah wore a hat adorned with a stuffed bat, always went on tour with her own coffin and once toured the US with an alligator called Ali-Gaga (which died, unfortunately, after consuming too much milk and champagne). 

The French tragedienne was said to have hundreds of dresses in one great room in her house in Paris and needed a staff of five to look after her street clothes, stage costumes and stock of trunks and portmanteaux.  A pair of shoes only lasted the Divine Sarah two or three days; they were never cleaned but rather simply thrown away; she also had a couple of hundred pairs of gloves reaching the whole length of her arms and an endless stock of handkerchiefs which she also threw away. 

French tragedienne:  Felix Nadar Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt 1865Opinion was divided on her acting.  Lytton Strachey thought her magnificent, writing: “She could contrive thrill after thrill, she could seize and tear the nerves of her audience, she could touch, she could terrify, to the top of her astonishing bent.”  Proust and Victor Hugo (an occasional lover) also adored her.  But Chekhov considered her “smothered in artifice”, while another playwright, George Bernard Shaw, lambasted her acting as “egotistical” –“she does not enter into the leading character,” Shaw sniffed: “she substitutes herself for it”, though he admitted years later that he had attacked her because she reminded him of his Aunt Georgina.

100 years on, it’s hard to say how good Bernhardt was.  The surviving film footage on YouTube tends to look stilted and hammy – to which she no doubt would have responded disdainfully with “quand même?” – so what? – the jaunty motto with which this proto-feminist shrugged off all attempts to denigrate her.

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