Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Was She, or Wasn't She?

"The poor have only one advantage; they know when they are loved for themselves."

Anastasia (Ingrid Bergman)

Of all the women who have graced the silver screen, few have combined great beauty with great talent the way Ingrid Bergman did.

In the '30s and '40s, she shared billing with some of the top actors in Hollywood and was directed by some of Hollywood's top directors. Many of her movies are still regarded as being among the best ever made.

But Bergman did not always live a charmed life. From 1949 until this day in 1956, Bergman was essentially — and hypocritically — blacklisted in Hollywood for having an affair with director Roberto Rossellini — and eventually giving birth to his child — while she and Rossellini were married to other people. The fact that Bergman and Rossellini married in 1950 and had two more children together apparently made little difference.

For more than half of the '50s, Bergman collaborated with Rossellini on foreign films while living in exile after being denounced by Colorado Democrat Edwin Johnson on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Bergman made eight movies during her exile; most have been seldom seen by Western audiences.

Then Bergman made her triumphant return to the American silver screen with "Anastasia," which premiered on this day in 1956. Her performance in the title role won her an Oscar, her second.

For such an actress, only an extraordinary role would do for such a comeback, and the subject matter truly was extraordinary. It was one of history's intriguing mysteries.

History contains many mysteries. Who was Jack the Ripper? What happened to Amelia Earhart? Or Jimmy Hoffa? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Did he even act at all?

And Bergman's comeback subject was — and, to an extent, remains — one of the 20th century's greatest mysteries. What became of Anastasia, the 17–year–old grand duchess of Russia who supposedly perished with the rest of the Romanov family in 1918? For years there were rumors that she escaped the executions that her family suffered after the Bolshevik revolution.

Did she?

That was the question facing some of the characters in the story, but that was not a question the movie sought to answer. "Anastasia" was about a criminal plot to collect money being held in a trust for the real Anastasia.

The ringleader of the plot, a manipulative Russian businessman, was played by Yul Brynner, and he knew Anastasia didn't have to be perfect, merely convincing. As he presented his case to his fellow conspirators, Brynner asked, "Would you recognize the smile of a girl you knew 10 years ago?"

He went on to observe, "You're examining her as if she was the real Anastasia. There is no Anastasia! She was shot to death 10 years ago by a firing squad. We're not looking for her, gentlemen. We're seeking only a reasonable facsimile."

His mission was to persuade Helen Hayes, who played the sole surviving Romanov, that Bergman was legitimate. And she wasn't easy to convince. She had known the real Anastasia as a girl, and her memory was keen.

"I like the past," she said at one point. "It's sweet and familiar."

At the Oscars, Bergman received the Best Actress award. Brynner received Best Actor that night — but for his performance in "The King and I."