Ma première présentation au Petit Palais


Thank you Annick Lemoine, the Director of the Petit Palais, Stéphanie Cantarutti, chief curator of nineteenth century Painting at the Petit Palais, and Cécilie Champy-Vinas, chief curator of the Zadkine museum for inviting me to speak about Sarah Bernhardt and American cinema. in this centenary year!  I was so am honoured to be part of this event celebrating Sarah Bernhardt in Paris.

I think that Bernhardt, who toured as far abroad as Melbourne, Australia, would enjoy the fact that an Australian travelled to Paris to discuss and confirm her transnational and cinematic reach.

I began my public presentation with an affirmation: Bernhardt was a pioneer who legitimated cinema–as a form of theatre, and as a popular form of entertainment. She is the link between an established 'high' art form, theatre, and an emergent, popular one, cinema.

As I explained to audiences, I first encountered Bernhardt not in Australia, but in America in the 1990s, while studying film as a graduate student at University of California, Los Angeles. At UCLA, I took a class with the Italian microhistorian, Carlo Ginzburg. Having differences in opinion about a suitable research topic – but agreeing that I could focus on performance and film – Ginzburg suggested that I look at the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt. I had never heard of Sarah Bernhardt, knew nothing of the theatre and did not read French. Yet Ginzburg was so adamant that performance and Bernhardt were a natural pairing, that I dutifully headed to the library to begin my research.

By the conclusion of the year, I was fascinated with an actress who was anachronistic and camp, but also feminist and incredibly progressive. I told Ginzburg that I wanted to continue to work on Bernhardt. His curt response was to learn French. And so I did. In 1997, I therefore came to Paris for 2 years of research. The difficulty I confronted during my research was not linguistic, but cultural. Staff at libraries and archives expressed disbelief when I explained that I was conducting PhD research on Bernhardt and film. I was unsure if they were surprised that I joined an actress known for her 'golden voice' to silent film, or if they were surprised that a film student was writing a PhD. In either instance, the effort to link the most famous actress of the late 19th century to the cinematic century that followed, was regarded as anomalous.

While the cultural and academic landscape has changed, I still encounter surprise when I explain that Bernhardt was a pioneer in cinema. Bernhardt was a pioneer because she legitimated cinema–as a form of theatre, and as a popular form of entertainment–and in doing so, she was the link between an established 'high' art form, and an emergent, popular one. This means that she crossed oceans and became a global celebrity not only because she had a golden voice and was a talented, but because she was an experimental, opportunistic, businesswoman who appreciated the possibilities of expanding global audiences through new technologies and media.

Below: Claire Dupré La Tour: tradutrice extraordinaire!