Colorama: Anastasia

In 1949, after appearing in such classics as Casablanca (1943), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Notorious (1946), and Joan of Arc (1948), Ingrid Bergman went to Italy to work with director Roberto Rossellini on Stromboli (1950). Bergman and Rossellini were both married to other people at the time but fell in love and had a son in 1950.

A highly publicized divorce between Bergman and her husband Peter followed, with widespread denunciation of Bergman's 'abandonment' of her husband and daughter, Pia. Many in America felt betrayed by their angelically beautiful star, and public outcry against her was fierce: Ed Sullivan dropped her from his show and Senator Edwin C. Johnson from Colorado attacked Bergman in a speech in Congress, calling her an 'agent of evil.' (In 1972, Senator Charles Percy entered an official apology into the Congressional Record for Johnson's attack on Bergman.)

Meanwhile, Bergman stayed in Italy with Rossellini, whom she married in 1950, starring in four more of his films, and they had twin daughters in 1952 (actress Isabella and Isotta). But Hollywood seemed off-limits to the star, as anger at Bergman simmered away. But eventually audiences forgave and forgot. Bergman would later famously remark that her reputation had swung wildly, though it took nearly seven years for the pendulum to move back to 'saint.' And Anastasia was the movie that pushed it along.

Anastasia (1956) is a compelling film about an infamous subject with a stellar cast, and would most likely be remembered today based on those merits alone; but the film has taken on greater significance for marking Bergman's return to Hollywood after her scandalous affair with Rossellini.

Anastasia examines the notorious legend surrounding the murders of the Russian Czar, his wife, and their children after the Revolution in 1918. Almost immediately after the executions, rumors began circulating that one of the Czar's daughters, seventeen-year-old Anastasia, had miraculously survived. Many women came forward after the massacre, claiming to be the lost Grand Duchess -- the last surviving member of the Romanov dynasty and heir to a substantial fortune.

The most famous of these 'Anastasias' was a woman named Anna Anderson, who began claiming she was the Grand Duchess in 1921 while in a German asylum. Anderson became something of a celebrity, gaining enough support to meet with remaining Romanov relatives, some of whom believed her and some who did not. She eventually filed suit in Germany to prove her identity and thus gain access to Anastasia's inheritance, but the courts ruled against her in the longest running suit in German history.

Anderson's story inspired Marcelle Maurette's play 'Anastasia,' which was adapted by Guy Bolton on Broadway in 1954. (It's clear the source material for this movie was a play, but the lack of fluidity and somewhat static quality doesn't hurt the movie too much, since the conversations and plot is fascinating and the performances are tremendous.)

20th Century Fox bought the film rights, hiring Anatole Litvak to direct. Yul Brynner, who was filming The King and I (1956) at the time, agreed to play the White Russian General Sergei Bounine. Appropriately enough, like Litvak, Brynner was born in Russia, as were many of the other actors in the film; several bit parts were filled by actual members of the large Russian exile communities in Paris and London.

Fox wanted Bergman to play the title role despite the potential risks inherent in starring the 'fallen' actress who'd been absent from American screens for seven years, but Fox head Darryl Zanuck and producer Buddy Adler took the chance.

The final prominent role in the film went to Helen Hayes, 'The First Lady of American Theater,' who came out of semi-retirement to play the Dowager Empress Marie, Anastasia's paternal grandmother. Hayes is one of only twelve people to win the coveted 'EGOT,' an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, and almost steals the film.

The movie begins with the cynical, clever Bounine searching for an 'Anastasia' (he doesn't particularly care if she's real or not), in order to get his hands on the Romanov inheritance. He finally finds Anna, a suicidal amnesiac bearing a striking resemblance to Anastasia. He trains her to 'be' the Grand Duchess, though Anna seems to know a great deal already, a fact Bounine (and Anna) struggles to explain. Eventually they try to convince the Dowager Empress that Anna is her long lost granddaughter.

Bergman plays Anna as a very lonely, terribly confused woman desperate for an identity, who latches on to anything that seems real, but then has trouble determining where reality and facsimile end. Her performance is astounding, not least because of her physical transformation from sickly and scared to a regal member of the Romanov dynasty.

The drama is played out with incredibly lush sets and costumes. The production values pushed the budget to a staggering 3.5 million dollars, and Fox claimed it was the most expensive movie they had ever made abroad. The score by Alfred Newman was nominated for an Oscar, and in a cool twist, David Newman, Alfred's son, composed the music for 1997's animated Anastasia.

Unlike that animated film, which is more of a fairy tale, 1957's Anastasia is a psychological drama, a meditation on what happens when people simply will themselves to believe something and the truth becomes murky, perhaps irretrievably so. The film does a wonderful job showing how a strong character like Bounine takes over a mentally fragile, desperate character like Anna who gets lost in his 'reality.' Anna's confusion only grows as she (and the film) begs to know: is she actually Anastasia? Or just an excellent imposter?

The movie, but especially Ingrid Bergman's performance, received rave reviews. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote 'Miss Bergman's performance as the heroine is nothing short of superb as she traces the progress of a woman from the depths of derangement and despair through a struggle with doubt and delusion to the accomplishment of courage, pride and love. It is a beautifully molded performance, worthy of an Academy Award and particularly gratifying in light of Miss Bergman's long absence from commendable films.'

Bergman won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress, which she accepted in person, marking the first time she had been in the United States since 1949. And as Crowther predicted, Bergman won the Best Actress Oscar, her second such prize after 1944's Gaslight. (Cary Grant accepted the award on her behalf.) Bergman wouldn't make a public appearance in Hollywood until the next year's Oscars in 1958, when she received a standing ovation. The pendulum had finally swung back!

Cameron Howard has loved classic movies since she was a kid checking out VHS tapes from her local library. Today she lives in Durham, NC, and writes about classic Hollywood at The Blonde at the Film.