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Betsy Speicher

Sarah Bernhardt bio-pic?

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You wrote that you have "begun writing a bio-pic about the great French actress, Sarah Bernhardt."

Why did you decide on Bernhardt?

How does your approach to the subject compare to that of "Sense of Life?"

Do you know if Ayn Rand ever expressed an opinion of Bernhardt?

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Betsy,

I’m sorry for taking so long to respond to your questions. It’s been a busy couple of weeks!

I first encountered Sarah Bernhardt when I was 12 years old. I was in the school library one day looking for someone interesting to write a book report about. Purely by accident, I came across a biography about the “Divine Sarah.” (This was right before I discovered Ayn Rand and quite some time before I thought of pursuing a career in theater or film.) I was immediately taken with Bernhardt’s life, simultaneously struck by her fortitude in the face of great opposition and her magnificent success as an actress and businesswoman. Mesmerized, I read the biography straight through in one sitting. Since, for some reason, we were not allowed to remove certain books from the library at the time, I had to go back again and again to re-read the biography. I simply wanted to relive the great moments in Bernhardt’s life, a life that I thought was more amazing than anything I had ever heard about before.

Abandoned by her mother as a child and brought up in a convent, she had a rage to be noticed and not to be taken for granted. She never took “no” for an answer and never allowed anyone to dismiss her. She simply refused not to be taken seriously. As an actress, she was often plagued by stage fright. But a rage within her always came to her rescue and resulted in an uncanny passion to “go on,” no matter what. Whenever ridicule or fear threatened to defeat her, she mustered a powerful determination to prove all those who doubted her or wished her to fail wrong. Above anything else, she had a confidence in her ability to move an audience to the extreme heights and depths of human emotion. She was a passionate valuer, and she flung love at her family, her lovers and audiences alike with the ardor of a warrior. A tenacious and industrious spirit, she had a great admiration for art and for human achievement (she directly supported the making of films when the art form was still in its infancy). Coming into her own in the late 1800s, she operated in a man’s world as an equal and fought to be accepted on her own terms, creating nothing less than a spectacular career in the process. She performed many tours all over the world (including Europe, America and Asia), traveling great distances to reach her public (which was unheard of at the time). Adored by audiences everywhere, Victor Hugo requested that she alone play the leads in his plays, Ruy Blas and Hernani. She even played young male heroes while in her late seventies. And all this in spite of the fact that she had to perform immobile on the stage for the last seven years of her life (due to having one of her legs amputated after a backstage fall and an injury to her knee resulted in gangrene). She was a strong woman by any standards, and achieved worldwide fame despite often being criticized by her peers and the society at large.

Whenever she was criticized, she said, "Yes, yes, I should do it again, quand même, in spite of everything, if they dared me again! And I shall always do what I want to do!” Quand même! (“in spite of everything and everyone”) was her motto—and it was how she approached every performance and business endeavor she engaged in. Although her stage performances are lost forever, her acting legacy is still written about to this day. It was this indelible impression that Sarah Bernhardt made on audiences that has stood the test of time and made her name synonymous with “dramatic” acting. (It was only much later that “Sarah Bernhardt” grew into an adjective to describe anyone who was over-acting--an unfounded description of her legacy and a misnomer).

Years later, when I was directing, it was Sarah Bernhardt’s approach to her performances that I would accept as a standard when I worked with actors. In fact, Sarah Bernhardt was my inspiration for Kay Gonda in “Ideal” (even though it was Greta Garbo who inspired Ayn Rand). I wanted Janne Peters’ characterization of Kay Gonda to make audiences believe she had the same powerful impact on her fans as Sarah Bernhardt did.

As to the current project, I hadn’t thought of making a film about Bernhardt until a few years after A Sense of Life was completed and a friend of Jeff Britting’s asked me to work on the idea. I began by doing extensive research--reading her autobiographies and the numerous books that had been written about her. Then I worked out a theme and an outline for what I wanted to do. Shortly thereafter, I pitched my ideas to Ellen Burstyn--one of my favorite actresses--who wanted to play Bernhardt. Ellen was pleased with the approach to the project and wanted to see a script in order to move forward with the film. Unfortunately, I had to put writing the script on hold when financial constraints necessitated that I move to Australia for two years to produce a film for Disney. That job and the subsequent jobs I took after returning to the U. S. were so all-consuming that it wasn’t until recently that I began to work on the script again in earnest.

My approach to telling Sarah Bernhardt’s story differs from “A Sense of Life” in that it is not a documentary, but a drama focussing on one segment of Bernhardt’s life. The story is told from the perspective of a young man (a playwright) who actually knew Sarah Bernhardt in her later years until her death in 1923. However, my approach to the subject is the same as it was in telling Ayn Rand’s story in that I will be accentuating the qualities I believe to be the essence of Bernhardt’s character in order to project what I think her life and work meant. More broadly, it is a story that explores and validates the value and importance of the acting profession. That is, what it means to be a great actor and it’s purpose and relevance to human existence. As Meryl Streep once said, (I’m paraphrasing here) “…acting is giving voice to people who cannot speak for themselves—and it is a profound responsibility.” Giving that voice reality and breathing life into a character demands tremendous skill and dedication. I think, now more than ever, the fervor and seriousness with which Sarah Bernhardt approached her vocation (like Ayn Rand did with her writing) needs to be made visible in today’s disposable culture.

I am not aware of Ayn Rand ever mentioning Sarah Bernhardt. It is unlikely that Ayn Rand would have been in a city at the same time that Bernhardt happened to be touring (Sarah’s last performance on the stage was in Paris in 1922). Ayn Rand may have seen one of Bernhardt’s silent films (she starred in eight silent films, the last of which was released in 1923), but I would have to check Ayn Rand’s movie diary to see if she indicated this. In any event, I doubt Ayn Rand would have been too impressed with Bernhardt’s screen performances. I am told Sarah Bernhardt’s acting style did not translate well to those films (I haven’t seen them, so I am reserving judgment until then).

I hope I’ve answered your questions.

Best regards,

Michael Paxton

You wrote that you have "begun writing a bio-pic about the great French actress, Sarah Bernhardt."

Why did you decide on Bernhardt? 

How does your approach to the subject compare to that of "Sense of Life?" 

Do you know if Ayn Rand ever expressed an opinion of Bernhardt?

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