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    Defiantly Anastasia

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    For a production as ideally cast down to the smallest parts, elegantly acted and beautifully executed as Anastasia (1956), which celebrates the 60th anniversary of its gala premiere today, a series of acts of defiance were required. According to biographer Donald Spoto in Notorious: The Life of Ingrid Bergman, Fox president Spyros Skouras’s first choice to play Anna Anderson, the mysterious waif who claimed to be the Grand Duchess and daughter of Czar Nicholas II who survived the 1918 Romanov family massacre, was Jennifer Jones, lately a key player in the studio’s 1955-56 output that included Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Good Morning, Miss Dove and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. But production chief Darryl F. Zanuck fixed his unrelenting gaze on Ingrid Bergman, then away from Hollywood for several years during her scandal-clouded, divorce-triggering affair and marriage with director Roberto Rossellini, and he would not give in despite whatever censorious local authorities might do to ban any film starring the notorious woman. “And eventually,” Spoto chronicled, Zanuck “eventually had the support of Buddy Adler, who was to produce the picture in London and Paris, and of Anatole Litvak, a Russian-born immigrant who had a strong feeling for the Romanov culture. Rather than risk a revolt by these talents, Skouras relented, his board nervously agreed, and Ingrid, in December 1955, signed a contract to appear in Anastasia the following summer.” Bergman’s dotted-line declaration proved to be a defiant gesture to husband Rossellini, “who walked out of the room as Ingrid was putting pen to her agreement. ‘But I had decided the time had come to face up to him,’ she said later. ‘I had been in professional exile for more than seven years and that was long enough.’” (She and Rossellini would divorce in 1957, soon after Bergman would be awarded her second Best Actress Academy Award® and welcomed back to Hollywood’s open arms.) Also expressing another sort of defiance, working professionally and peerlessly through a deep personal sorrow, was the distinguished stage icon – and occasional movie actress – Helen Hayes, who came aboard the film in an offhanded way according to Spoto. “The role of the Dowager Empress had been played to great effect on the London stage by Helen Haye, a classical English actress and a renowned teacher. Accordingly, the cable to Litvak from Fox’s New York offices read SIGN HELEN HAYE. But this was read as a typographical error, and Helen Hayes was contracted and signed.” But just before the May-August European shoot was to commence, Hayes’s beloved husband, playwright Charles MacArthur, died on April 21. So it followed that the feelings of each performer’s fractured family circumstances fueled the climactic moment in which grandmother and (possible) granddaughter would meet, the movie’s most galvanizing sequence. Spoto observes: “In their recognition scene – beginning with the rejection of Bergman by the suspicious Hayes – both actresses prepared privately, with great respect for one another’s strength in the scene. [Screenplay adaptor Arthur] Laurents greatly improved the play’s dialogue throughout, and in this sequence especially, the players rose gradually from remorse to querulousness to pleading and finally to love born of desperation.” Other elements contributed to the film’s excellence – fellow players Yul Brynner (enjoying a banner year that would also include The 10 Commandments and his Oscar®-coronated The King and I), Akim Tamiroff, Martita Hunt and Felix Aylmer, plus shimmering cinematography (Jack Hildyard), grand production design/set decoration (Andrei Andrejew, Bill Andrews and Andrew Low) and Oscar®-nominated score (Alfred Newman). But, true to the film’s compelling storyline itself, a few extra touches of defiant conviction gave Anastasia an even greater majestic edge that shines in the finished product as regally arrayed on Twilight Time’s beautiful hi-def Blu-ray. When Anastasia returns to Broadway next March in a new musical adaptation by the Ragtime team of book writer Terrence McNally and composer/lyricists Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, what odds will this enduring tale have to defy next?