The Incredible Sarah (1976) 

Sarah Bernhardt, the famed actress who dominated the theatre world in the latter half of the 19th Century, was also one of the first actresses to star in motion pictures. Five years after the Lumiere brothers made Arrival of a Train at a Station, their cameraman filmed Bernhardt perform a scene from 'Hamlet'. One of the attractions of this, and the other short films of her stage successes, was the fact that the pictures moved. Unlike this biopic, which is as static as the posters featured in its credit sequence.  

Opening with the biopic trope of an audition, Bernhardt impresses the Comédie-Française with her naturalness, especially when compared to the over-acting that preceded her on stage. Though her debut performance is a disaster, a montage of wigs, frocks and curtain calls reveal her roles gradually improving until she gives a well-received performance in ‘King Lear’. After playing the boy troubadour in ‘Le Passant’, Bernhardt enacts her first dramatic death scene in ‘Phedre’ and becomes the toast of Parisian society.

Unfortunately the Franco-Prussian war breaks out, and though Bernhardt seems to greet the news as a personal affront, she transforms the theatre into a hospital and nurses wounded soldiers. Having witnessed death up close, the actress returns to the stage after the war and performs one of her most famous, and subtle, death scenes in ‘Camille’. At the play’s celebrations afterwards, Bernhardt is introduced to a Greek attaché whom she promptly weds. However the tour of London and the scandal that follows leaves the famed actress a pariah at home.

One of the few films produced by Readers Digest, this biopic makes the fatal mistake of mocking the stuffiness and overacting associated with 19th Century theatre and then committing the same sin away from the stage. Not only does Glenda Jackson chew up the scenery in her role as Sarah Bernhardt, she literally tears it apart piece by piece. Once when her future husband fails to show up for an expected appointment, and another in her attempt to use a whip on her husband’s ex-lover. When Bernhardt is next seen in a dilapidated theatre destroyed by the war, one could easily jump to the conclusion that her husband must have upset her again. In these scenes and others, Daniel Massey ineffectively chortles his way through his role as the playwright Sardou.  

Despite Bernhardt’s penchant for lying in a coffin and saving her death scenes for the final act, the film is dead on arrival.

glenda jackson, sarah bernhardt
Glenda Jackson
Glenda Jackson

as Sarah Bernhardt

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It was Bernhardt’s sister, not Bernhardt, who stood on Madam Nathalie’s gown at a ceremony honouring the playwright Molière. Yet the biopic is correct in depicting Bernhardt striking Madam Nathalie in the altercation that followed.

Timeline of biopic has Bernhardt returning from her first tour of London, opening the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt then splitting with her husband. In reality, Bernhardt first toured London in 1880, married and split with her husband 1882 and opened the theatre in 1889.

Though Sarah Bernhardt was one of the first actresses to star in movies, this biopic does not feature any of her films.