Dracula's Daughter? Morticia Addams? Nah, it's just French actress Sarah Bernhardt, circa 1873. She's not yet 30 and, though seen here in a coffin, still had fifty more years to go. In her day Bernhardt was considered the greatest actress in the world, but she was probably less Meryl Streep and more a thespian Lady Gaga: The-Artist-as-Weirdo. That's no slight but exactly what she wanted people to think, the first celebrity to conclude that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Take the coffin. As Sarah herself told it, she was nursing her tubercular sister back to health, letting her sleep in her own bed, while the actress slept in a casket that she just happened to have lying around the apartment. A manicurist dropped by, saw Sarah in the box, and ran out of the apartment screaming. From then on "all of Paris knew." So what else could poor Sarah do but have her picture taken in the sarcophagus and try her damnedest to make sure every man, woman, and child in France got a copy? It recalls another Artist-as-Weirdo, Michael Jackson, who a century later made sure a photo of himself sleeping in an oxygen chamber fell into the hands of the National Enquirer. That didn't hurt his record sales any (though a later revelation about an entirely different set of sleeping arrangements clearly did, proving that there IS such a thing as bad publicity.) Getting back to Sarah, it was just one of many eccentricities that she indulged in that the French loved gossiping about, from a private menagerie kept in that same crowded apartment to a private army of lovers, usually but not exclusively male, kept in that same private apartment. She wore belts below her hips, so much jewelry that she chimed as she walked, and, as if sleeping in a coffin wasn't enough, sculpted a death head of her recently departed husband. However, what truly shocked the normally open-minded French public wasn't what she did offstage but on it. Not satisfied with mere portrayals of Cleopatra or Salome, Sarah decided to play the title role in Hamlet as well! Later she is said to have donned a beard to play Shylock (if not the same gender, they at least shared the same religion.)
Sarah sold tickets and continued to through the rest of her life, which included a major calamity in the 20th century portion of that life. Jumping upon an improperly placed mattress during a performance, she apparently broke her leg and didn't seek medical attention right away. It didn't happen overnight, but gangrene eventually cost her that leg. Still, she appeared on stage and now movies and on recordings. As is often the case with film footage from before World War I, her screen appearances look as though they were shot through a Coke bottle (because the print has disintegrated; contemporary audiences would have seen it clear as day.) In her 60s, she obviously can no longer play the ingenue, and there's the flailing of arms so often seen in silent pictures, as if Sarah herself was the manicurist who had just seen Sarah in a coffin. But that's all we have to go by. The 19th century part of her career, which so wowed contemporary audiences, only exists in photographs. What would 21st century audiences think of her? Given changes in acting styles, it seems unlikely she would still be considered the greatest actress in the world (George Bernard Shaw, 12 years her junior, found her exaggerated mannerisms to be "childishly egotistical") but that doesn't mean she wouldn't be fun
to watch. We'll never know for sure, as Sarah Bernhardt is now Lost in Time...
Sarah Bernhardt lost a leg but not her reputation. Tragedy is relative.