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.