Not long after winning two Oscars for Best Actress in quick succession, Glenda Jackson agreed to star in a biopic about Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), often described as one of the greatest actress who ever lived. To be fair, Bernhardt led an eventful life suitable for cinematic treatment, but undoubtedly some folks interpreted Jackson’s assumption of the role as a tacit declaration that she considered herself Bernhardt’s equal or even her superior. Watching The Incredible Sarah today, however, one isn’t struck by any sense of Jackson indulging an artistic ego. Rather, one is struck by the overall mediocrity of the movie. Jackson is excellent, though perhaps not as transformative as one might have expected given the synchronicity between singer and song, metaphorically speaking. However, the film around her is formulaic and pedestrian. Nonetheless, a brisk script, competent supporting performances, and lush production values—in tandem with Jackson’s work—keep the film palatable.
The Incredible Sarah begins with the title character as a young woman in Paris, making her first audition to the legendary Comédie-Française theater company. Right away, she stands out by reciting prose instead of playing a scene, so she earns a place in the company. Soon afterward, Sarah clashes with the company’s resident diva, Madame Nathalie (Margaret Courtenay), who insists on using blocking and line readings that have been in place for years. Sarah’s desire to reinterpret text leads to an onstage shoving match. And so it goes from there. During Sarah’s early years, her willfulness infuriates small-minded people and inspires true artists. She offends royalty, scandalizes her parents, and generally becomes a notorious figure. She also demonstrates eccentricity by keeping pet monkeys and napping in a coffin. Sarah’s love life proves as tumultuous as her temper proves volcanic, so the dramatic line of the picture involves the question of whether the public can forgive Sarah’s offstage extremes long enough to savor the magic she creates onstage.
If there was any pointed parallel to be made between Bernhardt’s life and the difficulties of contemporary strong-minded actresses, the makers of The Incredible Sarah failed to recognize the opportunity. At its worst, the movie is a clichéd underdog story reducing Bernhardt to a collection of moods and quirks—even though the clarity of Jackson’s characterization elevates the picture, there’s only so much she can do. It’s an obvious remark to note that Jackson fans will enjoy The Incredible Sarah more than other viewers, so perhaps it’s more useful to note that fans of showbiz stories in general might enjoy the picture, even though it’s shallow and trite.
The Incredible Sarah: FUNKY