La Reine Elisabeth
Queen Elizabeth is a gripping drama which was filmed
in Bernhardt' s own theater during a special performance given
for the Film d'Art. Bernhardt's
portrayal of Elizabeth was one of her most highly praised roles
and considered one of the best interpretations in the history
of the theater. The film ran approximately one hour and was originally
narrated by a reader in the theater who explained the action
to musical accompaniment.
On July 12, 1912,
America saw the feature-length film at the Lyceum Theater for
the unprecedented amount of one dollar a ticket. The evening
was a great success even though the "divine Sarah"
could only be seen flailing about the screen to subtitles.
Her consent to act
in motion pictures made considerable headway in
liberating film from the prejudices of the intelligenia. Certain
could now be considered in the same league as the legitimate
Bernhardt's reasons for undertaking this adventure, on which
of her fellow artists looked askance, was, perhaps, more personal
than altruistic. When she, at age sixty-five, was asked to film
and Queen Elizabeth, her comment upon accepting was, "This
is my last chance at immortality." Fortunately, Bernhardt
was correct in that
a permanent record of several of her later performances does
quality and charisma that Bernhardt projected from
the legitimate theater was not captured on the screen. Her emphasized,
representational style of theatrical acting was too stylized
for palatability on film, which inherently renders everything
larger than life. Apparently, she was as shocked as a spectator
today might be if he or she did not understand the conventions
of turn-of-the-century theater. Her extraordinary voice was absent
and the stage gestures for which she was revered became ludicrous
when blown out of theatrical proportion. It is said that Bernhardt
fainted when she saw herself on screen in the role of Camille.
The stilted camerawork was not cinematic; the film employed theatrical
staging, acting, and set painting as well as unedited scenes,
the results being very similar to Georges
Melies' films without the imaginativeness. Characters enter from
right and left as if the edges of the screen were the stage.
Some of the most famous and skillful actors in the world grimace
for the camera like a Samurai in an Akira Kurosawa film while
indulging in up to our double takes. The charismatic vitality
of Bernhardt's living presence is absent and the result is expressionistic
gesticulating with arms swinging wildly, fists clenching, chest
beating, and eyes rolling as her wrist is pressed to her forehead,
and her fingers tear at her breasts and clothing.
Survey of Cinema
Bernhardt in costume as Queen Elizabeth I, 1912