“Anastasia” won an Academy Award for Best Actress Ingrid Bergman.
Ingrid Bergman earned a kind of sweet justice when, after a seven-year absence from the United States, she returned to the big screen and received a Best Actress Oscar. Deemed persona non gratta and actually barred from entry into America by the Federal government, Bergman, along with Charlie Chaplin, became the victim of high-nosed moralists and right wing conservatives when she allegedly abandoned her husband and daughter for Italian director Roberto Rosselini, in 1949.
Originally a Broadway play by Guy Bolton (adapted from Marcelle Maurette's French play), the screenplay for “Anastasia” offered the actress a part that dealt in many levels with loss – a glorious past life, loved ones, identity, social standing – and a powerful emotion that must have hit home hard, and perhaps gave the actress not only a venue to purge some raw feelings, but a role that she knew would offer a chance to return to Hollywood.
The real Anastasia remains an enigma, and playwright/screenwriter Arthur Laurents (best known today for “West Side Story”) instructed director Anatole Litvak that the best way to realize the story on film lay in reconstructing the play as a fairy tale. Whereas the play – in today's more litigious climate, it can be characterized as an unauthorized biography – involved a more detailed examination of Anna Anderson's past life, the film maintains varying levels of ambiguity, courtesy of the screenwriter and director; and Bergman's own characterization, which defined the filmic Anna Anderson as a confused, battered woman, whose past lives, identities and mental issues have transformed her into an eccentric, with periodic waves of lucidity and matching self-doubt. It's also a film about identity; a theme that also permeates the doubting and well-wishing Russian exiles, who went from jobless rich souls to relics of a fallen aristocracy.
The compelling tragedy and ‘what-if' factor have kept Anna Anderson's tale in the public's mind for decades – in addition to an award-winning German film starring Lilli Palmer in 1956 (“Anna: The Czar's Last Daughter” – regrettably unavailable on DVD), there's the 1997 Don Bluth animated fairy tale, and the 1986 TV mini-series “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna” – yet the Ingrid Bergman portrayal is the best-known.
For this premiere DVD release, Fox has tightly edited a collection of lengthy comments from screenwriter Arthur Laurents, film scholar Sylvia Stoddard, film music historian Jon Burlingame, and actor James MacArthur (son of Helen Hayes and writer Charles MacArthur). Never a dull moment is the rule here, as each stream frequently weaves into another, furthering a point or elaborating on a popular topic.
Like Stoddard's commentary contributions for “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing,” there's a wealth of biographical information that goes into the obsessive realm – but in a good way. Stoddard became enamored by the film after catching a screening during its first theatrical run, and admits to never maintaining dry eyes during the meeting between Anastasia (Bergman) and the Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes). Like “Splendored,” Stoddard's researched the strange case of Anna Anderson, and her film knowledge provides good material on the film's illustrious cast, including secondary players like Akim Tamiroff.
Adding another dimension to the film history is Arthur Laurents, adding some detailed anecdotes about director Anatole “100 take” Litvak. Such as the events that led to his involvement with the film along with his take on the play (“it's a good hot fudge sundae”), and a subplot largely removed from the screenplay. Jon Burlingame adds some basic background on composer Alfred Newman, along with finer details concerning the extreme authenticity that went into not only the period waltzes, but the film's superb production design.
Though Stoddard and Laurents each contribute hefty chunks on actors Bergman, enigmatic Brynner, and regal Hayes, it's the brief but affectionate portraits by Hayes' son James MacArthur that are quite moving. Better known for his role as Dan Williams in the super-long TV series “Hawaii Five-O,” MacArthur describes his mother's commitment to her profession, and her decision to leave films in 1935 when the parts had become mediocre. Contractually banned from film work, Hayes headed for the stage and furthered her career until a return to film in 1952 (in “My Son John”). With two tragedies affecting her family, Hayes also found solace in her role as a bruised but iron-willed survivor, who similarly lost vital family members.
The enduring myth of the real Anastasia is partly covered in the included A&E Biography episode “Anastasia: Her True Story,” which movies from a concise recap of the Romanoff's tragic deaths in a cellar by revolutionaries, to an eccentric woman who once said – in a lunatic asylum, no less – that she was the sole survivor of the family massacre. Peppered with interviews by historians and archival home movies of the Czar's family, the mini-documentary also adds more recent news footage regarding Anna Anderson's death, and the two Russians who discovered the Romanoff remains in the Eighties and kept quiet for fifteen years until the political climate permitted DNA testing to clarify who was buried in a hasty grave, and clarify Anna Anderson's true lineage. (When that story broke, a fascinating documentary aired on TV, following the discovery and camouflage of the mass grave, and the DNA results.)
A good order to delve into the mystery is watch the film and enjoy the fairy tale; then move to the Biography installment for a glossy update; and finish off with the DVD's commentary, as Stoddard will fill in a lot of gaps, including the less attractive personality and weird ticks of Anna Anderson which alienated some, but were tolerated by a body of empty aristocrats who embraced her as royalty.
A Restoration Comparison uses a split screen to demonstrate the major upgrades done between the original 1991 and 1997 film transfer masters, which again reveal some major improvements in technology within a brief six year period.
A first-rate transfer, the surround mix is for the most part quite enveloping, though the central dialogue channels for the opening church sequence are rather low. Alfred Newman's moving score (which did get a decent album on stereo LP and CD) really booms in spots, particularly the elegant waltz and city parades. Another really well-produced DVD in Fox's Studio Classics line.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan