×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Listen: How Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse Helped Create Modern Celebrity Culture

They were pioneers in the business of superstardom more than a century ago. Behind the scenes, legendary actors Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse were also entrepreneurs who ran their own companies and controlled every aspect of their careers.

The new biography “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever” details how the two women were among the first to achieve lasting worldwide fame as actors.

In the latest episode of Strictly Business, Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment, author Peter Rader explains how Bernhardt and Duse instinctively capitalized on their name-brand value to prosper in the 19th century theater circuit in Europe and the U.S.

Listen to this week’s episode below:

“Sarah insisted on being paid in gold bullion,” Rader says in his conversation with Variety business editor Cynthia Littleton.

Bernhardt, a native of France, and Duse, the born-in-a-trunk daughter of Italian actors, also expertly milked their storied rivalry to drive demand for new productions even as both women saw their star power wane. The two had “radically different approaches” to their craft, which heightened the contrast. Duse favored a naturalistic and contemporary style of emoting on stage; Bernhardt was a student of the “poses” method of acting passed down from antiquity.

“It culminating in 1895 when Sarah and Eleonora performed the same play in the same city across the street from each other — in London’s West End,” Rader says. Critics of the day — which included George Bernard Shaw — generally favored Duse’s interpretation of the popular “Magda” by German playwright Herman Sudermann, but both cleaned up at the box office.

Bernhardt in particular was a master of marketing. She helped invent the concept of the celebrity endorsement with deals to plug brands of soap and other products. Duse was preoccupied for most her career by a mission to raise the profile of Italian theater and playwrights.

“Sarah recognized that all publicity was good, it didn’t matter what she did,” Rader says.

Bernhardt’s master stroke came at the end of her career, at the age of 70 in 1915. The woman known on marquees as “The Divine Sarah” continued to perform for years dispute having lost right leg to amputation after an illness.

“Sarah was the first actress to really seize control of her own destiny,” Rader says. “One of the things she realized was that the performance does not end on the stage.”

As retold in “Playing to the Gods,” the Bernhardt-Duse story is tailor-made for Hollywood. Rader’s book has been optioned as a feature project by director Michael Sucsy, an Emmy winner for HBO’s 2009 adaptation of “Grey Gardens.”

Strictly Business” is Variety‘s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment. Check out previous “Strictly Business” episodes featuring Quibi’s Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, HBO’s Richard Plepler, AMC Networks’ Josh Sapan, CBS Corp.’s David Nevins, Viacom’s Kelly Day, Discovery’s David Zaslav, Spotify’s Dawn Ostroff and Assembly Entertainment’s Christina Wayne, A new episode debuts each Tuesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

More Biz

  • Discovery CEO David Zaslav Sees 2018

    Discovery CEO David Zaslav Sees 2018 Compensation Soar to $129.4 Million

    Discovery Inc. president-CEO David Zaslav is once again making headlines for an enormous compensation package. Zaslav’s 2018 compensation soared to $129.44 million in 2018, fueled by stock options and grants awarded as the longtime Discovery chief signed a new employment contract last July that takes him through 2023 at the cable programming group. Zaslav received [...]

  • Jonathan Lamy RIAA

    Jonathan Lamy Stepping Down From RIAA

    Jonathan Lamy, the Recording Industry Association of America’s longtime executive VP of communications and marketing, is stepping down from his post after 17 years, he announced today. As he put it in an email to Variety, “I started back in 2002, which means it’s been 17+ years, four different RIAA CEOs, three format changes and [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Disney-21st Fox Layoffs: TV Divisions Brace for Deep Cuts

    A second day of layoffs has begun on the Fox lot in the wake of Disney completing its acquisition of 21st Century Fox on Wednesday. Longtime 20th Century Fox Television Distribution president Mark Kaner is among the senior executives who were formally notified with severance details on Friday morning. 21st Century Fox’s international TV sales [...]

  • anthony pellicano

    Hollywood Fixer Anthony Pellicano Released From Federal Prison

    Anthony Pellicano, the Hollywood private eye whose wiretapping case riveted the industry a decade ago, was released from a federal prison on Friday, a prison spokeswoman confirmed. Pellicano was sentenced in 2008 to 15 years, following his conviction on 78 charges of wiretapping, racketeering, conspiracy and wire fraud. He had been in custody since 2003, [...]

  • This image taken from the Twitter

    HBO’s Reaction to Trump’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Campaign

    Everyone wants a piece of the “Game of Thrones” lemon cake. From Bud Light to Red Bull the world of Westeros is open to a lot of brand partnerships, unless you’re using that iconic typeface to push a political agenda. In November of 2018 President Donald Trump unveiled a “Thrones” inspired poster with the words [...]

  • Leaving Neverland HBO

    'Leaving Neverland' Lawsuit Proves to Be a Judicial Hot Potato

    The Michael Jackson estate sued HBO last month for airing the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which accuses the late King of Pop of serial child sexual abuse. Since then, the case has had a difficult time finding a judge to handle it. Three federal judges have recused themselves in the last week, citing potential financial conflicts [...]

  • Members of the public mourn at

    Guy Oseary’s New Zealand Fundraiser Nears $150,000, Continues Raising Money

    In the wake of the horrific shootings at New Zealand mosques last week that killed some 49 people, Maverick chief Guy Oseary launched a GoFundMe campaign to “support those affected by this tragedy at this very difficult time,” and began it with an $18,000 donation. Boosted by donations from many celebrities — including Amy Schumer, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content