Sarah Bernhardt’s declining years, as highly fictionalized as Braver’s debut, Mr. Lincoln’s Wars (2003).
At Manhattan’s Booth Theater in 1880, Bernhardt makes her American debut as Marguerite Gautier in Camille and draws 29 curtain calls from the ecstatic audience, until Bernhardt calls for the house lights to go up. The audience had been stunned by the young artist’s mastery of Marguerite’s death of tuberculosis (the 19th-century’s great romantic illness), and, outside the theater, some 5,000 people await her exit. Leap ahead to Los Angeles 1906, and Bernhardt’s struggle to find again the power and insidiousness of Marguerite’s consumption. What’s more, her gay agent and beloved friend Max Klein warns: the Catholic Legion of Decency, which puts actresses and whores on equal footing, has shut down LA and will not allow the infamous actress to perform there. So the show’s been moved to nearby Venice (the town that’s recently been remodeled with Venetian waterways and gondolas). Bernhardt’s private train car hasn’t arrived yet. During her week alone in Venice, she’s pursued by the press and by ace reporter Vince Baker, who is fairly astounded (along with 50 other reporters) to see her catch a ten-pound sea bass from a Venice pier, split it open with her hotel key, and plunge her face into the entrails, perhaps to awaken her fading spirit. She no longer has the energy to fight the press as in years past. (Her famous wooden leg won’t show up for another nine years.) Now 61 on her farewell American tour, Sarah’s been an opium addict since 1880—hop sometimes enhances her performances. Onstage, her presence overshadows her art. Standout scene: Sarah alone with Edison, on cocaine and recording Hamlet’s soliloquy in English and French (available from EMI). At 76, Sarah still plays Marguerite.
A journey into the heart of acting that’s ever entertaining but at times transcendentally overblown.