So far on this journey we have considered the historical factors and the key roles women have played in bringing our ideas into reality via art and literature, communicating our ideas through technological development and providing ways for everyone to have access to education. So now let’s consider the work women have undertaken to entertain us.
We will be finding out about the pioneering silent film actress (perhaps also known as “the most famous actress in the history of the world”), Sarah Bernhardt; the first women to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, the Italian actress, Eleonora Duse and the first performer of African descent to ever win an Academy Award, Hattie McDaniel.
Entertainment – Sarah Berhardt
October 23, 1844 – March 26, 1923
Born in Paris, Sarah Bernhardt is often referred to as “the most famous actress in the history of the world,” she made her fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s, and was soon in demand in Europe and the United States. She developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the nickname “The Divine Sarah”.
Bernhardt was born in Paris as Rosine Bernardt, the daughter of a Dutch woman called Julie Bernardt and a father of unknown nationality. She was named after her mother and held Dutch nationality. Most likely, her father was not French. She added the letter ‘h’ to both her first and last name, and used the name of Edouard Bernardt, her mothers brother, as the name of her father. This was probably to hide the fact that her father was unknown. Her grandfather, Moritz Bernardt, was a notorious Jewish merchant in Amsterdam, Holland. Most likely, her Jewish mother Julie was also born in Amsterdam.
To support herself, she combined the career of an actress with that of a courtesan – at the time, the two were considered scandalous to some degree, but courtesans were widely accepted in many social circles, and looked on as equals in cases where they were highly intellectual and when the art of being a courtesan was merely a sideline for another more respectable career. She was sponsored into the Conservatoire de Musique et Déclamation by the Duc de Morny in 1859 for theatrical training.
Bernhardt’s stage career started in 1862, when she was a student at the Comédie-Française, France’s most prestigious theatre. However, she was not entirely successful at the conservatory and left to become a courtesan herself by 1865. It was during this time that she acquired her famous coffin which she often slept in in lieu of a bed, claiming it helped her understand her many tragic roles. She made her fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s, and was soon in demand all over Europe and in the United States in New York. She coached many young women in the art of acting, including actress and courtesan Liane de Pougy.
Although primarily a stage actress, Bernhardt made several cylinders and discs of famous dialogues from various productions. One of the earliest was a reading from Phèdre by Jean Racine, at Thomas Edison’s home on a visit to New York City in the 1880s. Multi-talented, she was involved with the visual arts, acting, painting and sculpting herself, and modelling for Antonio de La Gandara. She also published a series of books and plays.
During her time, Bernhardt had a strong influence on grand opera, an influence that continues to this day. Tosca and Salome, for example, contain two of opera’s most sensational heroines; both were based on plays written for Bernhardt.
Bernhardt was also one of the pioneer silent movie actresses, debuting as Hamlet in Le Duel d’Hamlet in 1900. (Technically, this was not a silent film, as it had accompanying cylinders with dubbed dialogue.) She went on to star in eight motion pictures and two biographical films in all. The latter included Sarah Bernhardt à Belle-Isle (1912), a film about her daily life at home.
In 1915, ten years after a serious injury, her right leg was amputated, confining her to a wheelchair for several months. Bernhardt refused a $10,000 offer by the P.T. Barnum circus to display her amputed leg as a medical curiosity. Nonetheless, she continued her career, and contrary to belief without the use of a wooden prosthetic limb. She carried out a successful tour of America in 1915, and on returning to France she played in her own productions almost continuously until her death. Her later successes included Daniel (1920), La Gloire (1921), and Regine Armand (1922). Her physical condition confined her practically to immobility on the stage, but the charm of her voice, which had altered little with age, ensured her triumphs. She died in the arms of her son Maurice. She is buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.
Sarah Bernhardt was made a member of France’s Legion of Honor in 1914 and has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street
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