“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” – Napoleon I
What is Hollywood, but a dream remembered? The mores, mannerisms and machinations that allowed director, Anatole Litvak the opportunity to create such a delectably escapist confection as Anastasia (1956) are long gone: ditto for the level of artistry required of such virtuosi as Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner and Helen Hayes, not to mention the film’s sublime supporting roster: a caustic Felix Aylmer, devious Akim Tamaroff and ebullient Martita Hunt among them, doing what they did best. Anastasia could never be made today, not the least for the futility in the exercise affected by the 2007 discovery of the bodies of Alexei and Anastasia – originally not among the other Romanov remains unearth nearly two decades earlier. Their absence then had been instrumental in perpetuating the hopeful wish fulfillment that perhaps the youngest daughter and her brother had survived the deluge of 1917; Anastasia, so it was rumored, perhaps living obscurely with the dashing young Bolshevik who had taken pity on her in the last remaining moments before this bloody coup and ushered her to safety via a daring back door escape into the frigid night air. That Anastasia, the movie, has endured, despite this revelation, and continues to cast its spell as an alternative history is both a testament to the expertise in front of and behind the camera, as well as to screenwriter, Arthur Laurents ability to tamper with our innate communal desire to dream away reality, even in the face of its unflattering verities. Does it matter the real Anastasia did not survive? Only to the purest of cynics on whose shattered resolve the balance of judgment never entirely falls. The daydreamers and their broken hearts remain perennially ensconced in their fantastical belief, insidiously preyed upon by a Hollywood dream factory with truly affecting glamor and superbly orchestrated melodrama.
The ill-fated tale of the Romanov dynasty has been told and retold many times since the Russian Revolution; perhaps because, like the perennial appeal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, our sentiments share a common affinity for children of a slain father figure, recalling the pageantry of a bygone era through rose-colored glasses; the majesty turned to dust; the remembrance, forever sheathed in an incalculable air of mystery enveloping these larger-than-life characters. The veracities about the last Romanov dynasty have all been ruthlessly obscured, twisted and/or manipulated to suit alternative theories of the crime of their murder – justifiable homicide, some would argue, of a politically corrupt and archaic monarchy destined otherwise to rule the largest nation on earth with an iron fist. Well, at least this is how the Communist regime would have us remember them. In another famous film about the fall of Russia, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), there is a poignant moment in which Ralph Richardson’s seemingly resolute patriarch, withered by care and age, suddenly breaks down upon learning the news of the Tsar and his family’s bloody assassination. “What’s it for?” he whimpers, to which a more clairvoyant, if equally as sad-eyed Omar Sharif replies, “It’s to show there’s no going back.”
Yet, Anastasia endeavors to do exactly that; return – with an absence of some years – to the scene of the crime and make whole the last possible faith for restoring some semblance to the royalists with an impossible revision of the truth. At one point in the film, Yul Brynner’s Gen. Bougnine openly admits to his conspirators they are not looking for the real Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna; only a reasonable facsimile in place of the hopeful assurances for this decidedly dead and buried past that will allow them access to the one hundred million pound inheritance awaiting its rightful owner in the Bank of England. FYI – this king’s ransom is still lying in wait inside a vault somewhere in Europe. But even in 1956, the sands of time and hard-line communism had made it virtually impossible for anyone to either confirm or deny the various fakes paraded before the Dowager Empress in a vain attempt to gain her approval. Gradually, the yoke of silence lifted. But there remained much still shrouded in secrecy and debate, ironically, helping to perpetuate, rather than dispel our insatiable need to perennially revisit this disturbingly dark chapter in a nation’s history.
Impressions of Tsarist Russia since emerged from under the iron curtain, and, in the spirit of former diplomat, Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, have been far less judgmental than those painted by previous regimes devoted to its suppression: Nicholas II, the last of the Imperial rulers, perceived as a more benevolent – though equally as flawed - patriarch to his peoples; less the tyrant as he was portrayed for generations by the anarchists in his own life time, and those who followed in their footsteps for nearly half a century thereafter, devoted to the obfuscation, nee bastardization, of his plutocracy. Yet, history and hindsight have a bizarre way of intermingling to create a third romanticized alternative to this reality already blurred. And lest we forget, time and history confirm Lenin’s new order was as dire a consequence to the Russia as most any Tsarist edict preceding it. Yet, even Stalin’s iron-fisted closed-door policies could not prevent one rumor from proliferating throughout the catacombs and antechambers of Europe. So intriguing remained the legend of Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov, that almost from the moment news spread far and wide of the Romanov assassination, pretenders to the throne from every walk of life began to clamor for an audience with Nicholas’ mother; the exiled Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, living in Copenhagen. In the beginning at least, the dowager was desperate for news of her youngest grandchild, said to have escaped the bullet-ridden deluge in that house of ‘special purpose’ in Yekaterinburg. But her optimism quickly soured when these imposters, ill-conceived and much too greedily anxious to acquire the sizable inheritance, created an absurd fervor outside of Russia for all things Romanov. Their ambition would turn Maria’s heart to stone.
One such ‘imposter’ was Anna Anderson: an emotionally fragile pauper who nevertheless bore a striking physical resemblance to the real Anastasia, or rather, a reasonable facsimile sufficiently aged. Anderson possessed uncanny knowledge of certain irrefutable and very private facts about the royal household only those who believed in her claim argued could not be known, except through privilege. As such, Anderson was openly embraced and, in fact, financially supported by a sect of exiled Russian loyalists; infrequently put on display as the highly disputed heir apparent to the throne. Frequent bouts of mental illness and Anderson’s own bizarre behaviors, also her refusal to make any claim to the money, eventually caused even her most devout supporters to back away in disillusionment. Anderson later married, to a doctor who fervently believed she was displaced royalty, died obscurely with her heatedly contested identity still unconfirmed. Decades later, DNA testing would put an official period to her story. Anderson was not the missing link to this most tragic chapter, but yet another enterprising fake. Alas, this revelation did not prevent Hollywood from exploiting the legend of Anastasia. Indeed, virtually all movie incarnations since have very little to do with the Romanov’s all too perishable truth, perhaps because historians remain divided as to what actually became of the youngest Grand Duchess after this bloody coup. Since then, the rumor, the legend and the mystery surrounding Anastasia has been immortalized as everything from a Broadway smash to an Oscar-winning film and animated musical: variations on a theme - the fairy tale that became a nightmare, and, most affectingly romanticized all out of proportion.
In re-conceptualizing Anastasia’s life as high art, director Anatole Litvak’s 1956 melodrama eschews all but the slenderest of facts; the movie’s Cinderella-esque transformation, as intoxicating and irresistible, designed to cultivate and perpetuate the myth of Anastasia herself, and no less startling, perhaps, for its restoration of one of Hollywood’s ousted movie queens. For two decades, Ingrid Bergman had been a luminous star. From her auspicious American debut in a remake of the Swedish tearjerker, Intermezzo (1939) for producer, David O. Selznick (who owned and thoroughly exploited her American contract) to her star-making performances in Casablanca (1942), Gaslight (1944), Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s (both in 1945) and Notorious (1946), Bergman’s ascendancy as one of movie land’s elite had been swift and assured. But then, in 1947, came the scandal to rock her house of cards to its very foundation; the rumored affair with Italian director, Roberto Rossellini, eventually exposed as fact rather than fiction. This, indeed, was an affair to remember; one that, in hindsight, Bergman – and perhaps Selznick – would have preferred to forget. Only it was too late. Bergman’s reputation was pilloried in the press and excoriated on the floor of the U.S. senate. She retreated with her lover to Rome where the couple married and strived to begin their lives and careers anew. Although each continued to make movies in the foreign market for almost ten years thereafter, none was successful at maintaining or even reinventing Bergman’s stardom abroad or at home. Eventually, the marriage came to a semi-tragic finale; Rossellini, once considered Italy’s preeminent neo-realist, now with his directorial career in tatters, and Bergman, disillusioned, quite alone, practically broke, and, seemingly unloved and unworthy of the public’s affections.
Director, Anatole Litvak was undeterred by the open hostility toward Bergman. In point of fact, it had abated by the time playwright, Arthur Laurents was given the plum assignment of adapting Marcelle Maurette/Guy Bolton’s stagecraft for the Cinemascope screen. During this interim, Bergman had returned to America, somewhat chaste rather than chased away, made infinitely sadder though wiser by her experiences abroad. True enough, Spiros P. Skouris, then head of 2oth Century-Fox, did not want to hire her. But Litvak, along with Laurents persisted, expressly pursuing Anastasia with Bergman in mind. Thus, a package deal was very reluctantly agreed upon with Laurents essentially going back to the drawing board for a full rewrite of the stagecraft. From the outset, everything about Anastasia (1956) seemed kismet; Fox’s resident composer, Alfred Newman contributing one of the most melodic and heartfelt of his 200+ film scores; Jack Hildyard’s moodily lit cinematography providing a superb and seamless complement to both the location work and studio-bound process mattes. A word about Newman is decidedly in order. What can one say about a towering figure like Alfred Newman without gushing; 9 Academy Awards to his credit and a whopping 45 nominations – the third most-honored individual in Oscar history, trailing only Walt Disney and fellow composer, John Williams. Newman’s score for Anastasia is perfection itself, throbbing with the formidable pang of this vanquished dream unwilling to die. He punctuates the film’s superb acting with trademarked and iconic blasts of genius, miraculously, never to gild this lily, but rather, provide fertile soil in which such a rare flower as this can thrive.
Anastasia’s hit or miss with audiences squarely rests on Bergman’s broad Swedish shoulders. In delving deeply into her inner demons she, perhaps better than any other actress of her generation, implicitly understands the plight of this exploitable creature; the amnesiac of no fixed origin who could easily be manipulated – nee molded – into the embodiment of a long-dead and buried dream for the aristocracy, sprung miraculously back to life as a myth in her own time. In retrospect, only Bergman could have pulled off the coup; radiant, if slightly too old for the part; her ageless beauty and overwhelming acting chops easily eclipsing this shortcoming. If Bergman seemed like ideal casting, then Litvak made an even most fortuitous decision to costar Yul Brynner; of Russian extraction, to play the part of an embittered ex-patriot with a hidden agenda. With his distinctive bald pate, high cheek bones and inimitable, yet un-quantifiable accent, Brynner is utterly charismatic as General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine; twice condemned to be assassinated by both the Reds and the Whites. “Good for them,” an impatient Dowager sarcastically declares, and, indeed, very good for the picture. In his rich and indubitably varied career, Brynner had already, by 1956, conquered stage and screen before becoming an accomplished television director. He might have gone on with it, if not for the public’s insatiable appetite for his unique sex appeal. It was a banner year for Brynner in the movies, reprising his legendary stagecraft as the gregariously lovable Siamese dictator in 2oth Century-Fox’s film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I and, even more recently, appearing as the muscly Egyptian potentate, Ramses II in Cecil B. DeMille’s gargantuan The Ten Commandments (both released in 1956). For many, Brynner’s performance in Anastasia anchors and legitimizes it as a very Russian-based fairy tale, given ballast by his commanding presence.
Better still, the flint of romantic chemistry between Bergman and Brynner is palpably electric; his piercing eyes and authoritative vocalization, forces to be reckoned with and readily tested by this burgeoning princess-in-the-making. Brynner’s Bounine makes relentless demands on the amnesiac, played with an almost magical perplexity by Bergman: half-assured/half-terrorized, the flesh and blood evocation of that long-abandoned grandeur once exalted from on high as Imperial Russia. The genius in Arthur Laurents’ rewrite is it effectively toys with the audience’s insatiable need to be satisfied by their own wish fulfillment for the proverbial happy ending. The ending we inevitably get is neither pluperfect in its adherence to the time-honored precepts of the traditional fairytale, nor is it as somberly an abomination of all that has gone before it; rather, an elegant tightrope straddling two seemingly irreconcilable points of reference, battling over a very convoluted historical continuum. Laurents’ prose and Bergman’s delivery of these stately and clever lines of dialogue keep us guessing. We are never entirely certain if the memories being extolled by Bounine’s protégé are tinny, faint remembrances stirred by the genuine article or simply the well-orchestrated recitations of a puppet whose master continues to pull the strings. Perhaps because of this, the sublime romanticism of the piece is neither proven nor dispelled, but allowed to exist in a curious purgatory from which the audience alone must decide for themselves.
The other pivotal performance in the movie yet to be discussed herein is given by ‘First Lady of the American Theater’ Helen Hayes; a virtuosic Dowager Empress, impassioned by life, yet jaded through time; the resolute proprietress of this ancient world, fleetingly brought forth from her moldering past through the sheer will of this mysterious and determined stranger. Hayes’ performance is really at the crux of the film’s third act; her reconciliation with the many phantoms from her past presented with nervous tearfulness and a frenetic energy swelling into unshakable faith as she commands her perpetually cheery, though rather scatterbrained, lady-in-waiting, Baroness Elena von Livenbaum (the exuberant Martita Hunt) to bring out the jesters for one last hurrah. When Livenbaum is first reunited with Bounine she cannot contain her flirtations, an air of giddy and irrepressibly school-girlish infatuation bursting forth that the Empress finds grotesquely sentimental. “Livenbaum, your voluptuous fancies are disgusting,” Hayes’ grand dame reiterates with equal portions of disdain and sardonic wit, “To a woman of your years, sex should mean nothing but gender!”
But, of course, desire – rich and full-blooded – remains at the heart of our story; perversely so as it is begun by Bounine’s Svengali-esque obsession to completely manipulate his amnesia-ridden charge to better suit his purposes. Before long, however, this balance of power has shifted; defiantly and increasingly rejected by the willful Ann, who seems to recount details of a former life untaught by her master. As this woman of no past begins to acquire more than just a tenuous toehold on the present, future exploitations by Bounine are doomed to failure. The initial tenacity of their agreed upon venture - to secure the real Anastasia’s inheritance and thereby make Bounine and his cohorts, Piotr Ivanovich Petrovin (Sacha Pitoeff) and Boris Adreivich Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) very rich men – is supplanted by a far more intuitive and primal urge now; Bounine’s part to possess Anna body and soul. Torn in his lust, he is determined to leave the presentation ceremony before the spectacle is officially acknowledged by the Dowager – a move likely to lead to an even more anticlimactic and bittersweet announcement – Anna’s engagement to the enterprising Prince Paul von Haraldberg (Ivan Desny). Instead, Bounine elects to bid the Dowager Empress a hasty farewell. “You speak of duty to me?” she suggests, having already surmised the reason for his hasty exit. Yet, this is not the Dowager as first introduced to us, rigid and glacially cool who, after an absence of some years, is reacquainted with the man she would have preferred to have faced his own firing squad. Anna has softened her heart, the Dowager harboring no bitterness for this betrayal; even amused, perhaps, to witness the con having become ensnared in a trap of his own design. For a brief moment Bounine too is transformed. Gone is the glowering, if courtly, usurper; the devious plotter only interested in the money, now revealed to us as having locked away a genuine, if equally as wounded heart for far too many years. Interestingly, only in the Dowager’s presence can he allow honesty to supersede his usual counterbalances of austerity and a schemer’s slick charm, a weary smile pervading as he sincerely confesses, “When I am in Your Majesty’s presence I am deeply aware of it.”
Pressed by royal command to answer her inquiry regarding love, Bounine goes one step further in his confession, “What has always been easy for others has always been difficult for me.” It now becomes clear to the Dowager she must act as the catalyst for their reunion. Yet, even in this precursor to some grand amour between Bounine and Anastasia (that we never get to see, but are made to presume has occurred behind locked doors), the Dowager refuses to entirely surrender her whimsy. “The others were right,” a disillusioned Prince Paul murmurs after discovering Bounine and Anna have run off together, “She was not Anastasia after all.” “Wasn’t she?” the Dowager contemplates, as even she has become uncertain about the truth. A fascinating transference has occurred. Paul, never a man of faith is unwilling to contemplate any alternative except one: he has been duped by an imposter. Alas, the Dowager is more circumspect. For the woman who begged for her understanding, resurrecting the phantoms of the past so vividly, she could almost believe in miracles, has nevertheless renewed the Dowager’s faith in humanity – a quality perhaps even she had almost forgotten she possessed. Adopting the glacial façade of a regal monarch, untouched by such shameless sentiment, the Dowager is, alas, the hardened cynic no more. “What will you say to them, Aunt Marie?” Paul asks with stricken bewilderment. “I will say the play is over,” the Dowager unflinchingly admits, “…go home.”
This last line was intended by Arthur Laurents to have double-meaning; at once serving as a curt reply to Paul’s query, but also made as a direct address into the camera, in effect drawing the audience out of the movie’s tableau; the inference, that what we have been watching until this moment has all been – as Bounine astutely put it - ‘a play replaced by a pantomime’. Director, Anatole Litvak balked at this finale, electing instead for the more traditional conclusion; Hayes turning to Paul before the camera reveals the pair descending a grand staircase into the glittering ballroom as courtiers anxiously await Anastasia’s never-to-be formal debut. Laurents’ prose fit so neatly as pantomime or irrefutable fact that logic and reality is effortlessly set aside for another inventive trip to this wishing well. The truth, regrettably, is far grimmer and undeserving of these woolgathers. In life, Anna Anderson would never gain the Dowager’s approval; nor any such pretender endeavoring an audience. Maria Feodorovna’s death in 1928 put a definite period to whatever slim chance at reconciliation remained.
Uncannily, the whimsy of a Russian princess living obscurely abroad refused to perish and would periodically be revived, particularly after 1991, when Anastasia’s bones were not unearthed among the newly exhumed remains of the Russian Royals discovered in an unmarked grave near the house of special purpose. In 2007, more bones were unearthed, this time not far from the original excavation site. But DNA testing of these skeletal remains proved inconclusive at best. Although some of the bones were typed as irrefutably belonging to a child of Anastasia’s years, too much time had passed to unequivocally provide an exact match to the long-lost princess. So, did Anastasia escape the fate of her family? As with all truly epic tragedies revisited in ‘what if?’ scenarios, it becomes all too easy to succumb to a belief in miracles – however dubious their source. But Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia at least entertains us within this realm of possibility, if only for a few hours. Did the girl survive? Well, it is the rumor, the legend and the mystery.
Our story opens on Russian Orthodox Easter, a processional in Paris ten years after the Revolution. A thin wisp of a creature is observed by a Russian expatriate, Stepan (Gregoire Gromoff) near the exterior of the Russian Orthodox Church. A car is sent for Gen. Bounine (Yul Brynner) who arrives to inspect the woman, so we are told, has given her name to a nurse in an asylum as Anna Koreff (Ingrid Bergman). Bounine addresses the mystery woman by this name. But she is easily startled and hurries away into the night, attempting suicide on the bank of the Seine. Rescued by Bounine and Stepan, she is brought back to the basement beneath Bounine’s Russian-themed café; introduced to his two partners in crime; Piotr Ivanovich Petrovin (Sacha Pitoeff) and Boris Adreivich Chernov (Akim Tamiroff). Boris urges Bounine to be realistic. It seems the Committee of Russian expatriates who have funded Bounine’s exploits thus far have finally put their foot down, demanding he produce the Grand Duchess within seven days or else face going to prison for fraud.
Bounine proposes what seems impossible: take this emaciated, frightened and wholly unsuitable ex-mental patient and transform her into the long-lost Grand Duchess Anastasia. Anna resists, but is brought to fitful cries by Bounine’s promise to help her regain her memory. To this end, Anna endures his endless critiques and criticisms; scrutinizing her every gesture; constantly drilled in historical details and the social graces to fill in the gaps of her obscured past. At the end of a week’s tutelage, Bounine presents an enfeebled and bedridden Anna to a select group of six from the committee, as he so glibly reasons to Chernov, “Three stupid enough to accept even you as Anastasia…three intelligent enough to spread the word that she is Anastasia!” Bounine has commanded Anna to feign illness and remain silent throughout this first meeting. Instead, Anna is impulsively drawn to a portly woman from the committee whom she correctly identifies as one of her mother’s former ladies in waiting. Unimpressed by this recognition at first, the woman’s cynicism is disturbed by Anna’s reminiscences. Anna tells a more intimate story about the ladies in waiting who wore lip rouge against the Tsarina’s wishes. With impromptu sincerity, Anna suddenly calls to the woman by a nickname - ‘Ninnie’ - known only to the Tsarina’s inner circle. Ninnie is reduced to tears, declaring “Your Imperial highness!”
This scene marks Bergman’s first triumph in the film – spectacularly understated as she wistfully reclines under a ratty mackinaw, the epitome of a little girl lost now inhabiting this womanly form, innocently to resurrect an untaught reminiscence from the darkened recesses of her perplexed mind; serene and seemingly unaware of the impact it will have. Herein, Bergman is a revelation; exquisite, almost Christ-like in her rapture as she quells Ninnie’s disbelief, her gentleness perfectly complimented by Alfred Newman’s quiet strings echoing the Anastasia theme. The first hurdle overcome, Bounine now endeavors to will Anna into a reasonable facsimile of the real McCoy, steadily growing uncertain of the prospect that maybe – just maybe – he has found not only the right actress to play the part, but the real woman in question. “I know who you are not!” Bounine impatiently tells Anna. Though by now, even he is not entirely certain. After some consternation, and days more drilling, another elaborate ruse is planned on a broader cross section of Russian emigres assembled at the home of the empathetic, though flighty, Irina Lissemskaia (Natalie Schafer). Bounine sets the tone for their assembly thus: “As you all know I am the last one to believe in either miracles or resurrections…but reality cannot be established without help – legal help; witness and signed statements…now, I am quite sure that some of you have come here to obstruct; the reasons, political, monetary, we all know. There are some who have been made understandably cynical by the revolution. And there are some, who will testify to anyone and anything and have. To none of you do we bring any pressure. To all of you we bring someone who has literally suffered ‘worse than death’ for ten lost years. It is our duty to restore this extraordinary person to the world of the living. If you are sentimental, say it is because she has suffered enough. If you are humane, say justice must be done. If you are Russian, the loyal subject of his late Majesty, then say it with me…our only hope is his daughter.”
Alas, all does not go according to plan. Bounine’s attempts to reintroduce the Countess Baranova (Olga Valéry) to Anna are haughtily dismissed when Anna identifies the Countess as a perverse social climber who long ago made a fool of her late Uncle Alex. “My mother never liked you, my father never liked you and I don’t like you – please go!”, leaving Bounine chagrined. “You are mad,” he whispers into her ear. Next, Bounine brings over the Tsar’s ex-Chamberlain, Ivan Vasilievich (Felix Aylmer) who is suffering from a deplorable attack of gout. Jaded, he nevertheless is mostly impressed with ‘the performance’ but quietly dispels the likelihood Anna and Anastasia are one in the same. “There are many characteristics and details you could recall, but so could others,” Vasilievich points out, “My relations with his Majesty’s children were impersonal. So, in the end, my judgement could only be determined by opinion and that opinion judged solely on resemblance. I’ve already noted the resemblance…and you’ve given me pleasure. You’ve taken me back to my seat at the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg. But the purpose of acting is not to appear to imitate reality…rather, to create the illusion. I am not being sarcastic when I say you are an excellent actress…extremely well trained.” Herein, witness Bergman’s second finest moment in the picture; fragile, her eyes moist as she pleads “My life is troubling me”; wounded to the core when Vasilievich goes even further to suggest she lacks the ‘manner’ of a royal princess – even one gesture in her deportment, worth more than any amount of memorizations she could undoubtedly recite. It seems a lost cause, the old curmudgeon turning to go. However, when Anna curtly admonishes Boris, standing nearby and preparing to light a cigarette in her presence, the Chamberlain is stricken by his own steely-eyed reminiscences of the past; Aylmer, matching Bergman’s peerless perfection measure for measure, as he quietly turns to inquire with haunted emphasis, “Who are you?”
Unable to attain the prerequisite of signatures necessary to authenticate Anna’s identity, Bounine decides to take his case directly to the Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes) who has been living in isolation in Copenhagen since the Revolution. To this end, Bounine will rely on the enduring infatuations of the Empress’ lady-in-waiting, Baroness von Lievenbaum (the infectiously exuberant Martita Hunt). The two share a secret rendezvous at Tivoli Gardens where Lievenbaum confesses the dowager will see no one. Undaunted, Bounine, Boris, Piotr and Anna attend a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet. During its intermission Bounine finagles an introduction between Anna and Prince Paul (Ivan Desny); something of a useless playboy. Paul is marginally apprehensive, believing he has been tricked into this arranged public audience simply to act as a go-between Anna and the Dowager Empress. In point of fact, he has. But Anna is most convincing, regaling her former teenage suitor with fond memories from their past; reminding him that as children they were once platonic sweethearts, presumably betrothed to each other.
In the meantime, Bounine forces an audience with the Dowager in her opera box. “Your Majesty, forgive me…” he begins. “I did once when I heard you’d been shot,” Maria glibly replies. “I was sentenced twice,” Bounine admits. “By whom? The Whites or the Reds?” “As I recall, by both,” Bounine confesses. “Good for them!” Bougine presses onward, asking for the Dowager’s pardon. But the mood turns sour as she inquires, “For what? This intrusion? For the effrontery of using the name Romanov to launch a commercial enterprise? For hammering at my gate for days? Bounine, I have already been shown two Tatianas, an Alexie and a Maria, as well as an Anastasia. I will not see your client. I am as weary of these fake grandchildren as I am of false hope. I have lost everything I have loved: my husband, my family, my position, my country. I have nothing but memories. I want to be left alone with them. You know perfectly well this woman is not my granddaughter.” Bounine is cast out from her presence with the greatest of disdain. But afterward, the Dowager uses her opera spectacles to spy on the ‘imposter occupying the box directly opposite hers in the theater. Is she worth a second glance, more than an oddity, a curiosity or a dream remembered? Who can say? Meanwhile, Paul, having become quite smitten with Anna, pursues her without any genuine intention to buy into her story, getting Anna drunk in the hopes she will reveal to him her true identity or at least the magnitude of Bounine’s grand plan.
Alas, Anna remains true to herself. Intoxicated or sober, she cannot betray a confidence. Believing her to be true – at least in spirit – Paul tries to soften the Dowager’s heart. He is unsuccessful in these efforts. Later, however, the Dowager makes her own inquiries with an impromptu visit to Anna’s room. Still, she refuses to take Anna at face value, glibly commenting “The firing squads were such poor shots it is amazing the Revolution succeeded.” In what remains Anastasia’s crowning moment, Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes spar; at one point, the Dowager cruelly admonishes Anna with the singular word capable of cutting like a knife deep into her heart - “Imposter!” But then comes ‘the irrefutably great moment of mutual realization and acceptance – alas, not culled from history, but rather a culmination of Arthur Laurents’ superb craftsmanship as a skilled writer of melodrama, Bergman’s exquisite vulnerability and Hayes’ infinite wisdom to find the heart, as well as the soul, lurking within this monument to the aristocratic past. Anna begins to nervously cough, something only the real Anastasia would have done under similar circumstances. Moved by this outwardly unrehearsed and spontaneous reaction, the Dowager is awakened from her cynicism, comforting the woman she now fervently believes is her granddaughter. “The phantoms can go away,” Maria tearfully declares, “You know, I have a footman. Oh, he’s a very old man…and each night he goes from one room to the other, lighting the empty lamps until the great dark rooms are a blaze of light. And that is true of all of us. We are lighting dead lamps to illuminate a past that is dead and gone. I thought you were gone but you have come back, Anastasia.” It is a scene with few equals in fifties dramatic cinema, capped by the audience’s understanding of just how deep and sublime the Dowager’s sacrifice is, an even more desperate realization, as Hayes, clutching a whimpering Bergman, whispers with almost paralytic reticence, “But oh please, if it should not be you, don’t ever tell me.”
Everything else that occurs after this penultimate acceptance is mere icing on an already well frosted cake; Arthur Laurents knowing exactly how far to continue with the ‘is she or isn’t she?’ scenario; the focus turned inward on the usurper; Bounine, suddenly protective of his charge and unable to shake himself of his flawed affections, unexpectedly blossomed into genuine love. A grand party is planned in the hotel ballroom to herald Anastasia’s return into the aristocracy. However, at a press conference held only hours before the presentation ceremony a man, Mikhail Vlados (Karel Stepanek) challenges Anna’s claim that the wounds sustained on her hands came not from frantic attempts made to shield herself from the ricochet of bullets but from an explosion aboard a railway car in Bucharest. How does he know this? Because he was there, and also present when Anna was brought into the asylum stark-raving mad. Fearful the papers will exploit this story and thus ruin Anna’s claim to the throne, Bounine elects to perform his own vanishing act before the actual ceremony can commence. Alas, he is torn by his unexpected romantic feelings. Confronting the Dowager with his premature goodbyes, she instead commands him to wait for her return in an adjacent lounge; then, quietly instructs Lievenbaum to fetch Anastasia in her stead – certain the two are destined to become lovers. Moments later, Piotr arrives frantic with the news Bounine and Anna have both gone. A disillusioned Paul believes this proves Anna was not really Anastasia. But the dowager remains optimistic. The girl, whoever she was, belongs to her heart, at least, for now.
Anastasia is a glowing example of what the full backing of a major studio like Fox could achieve in its day. In point of fact, Litvak is working with extraordinary talents both in front of and behind the camera; evident in the impeccable panache and artistry on display in ever last frame. Bergman would justly earn her second Academy Award for this role; the industry’s official concession to assert ‘all had been forgiven’. Litvak’s direction keeps the pace of this fable light and airy. It is, after all, a cinematic soufflé; intensely sentimental to a fault though undeniably heartfelt from first frame to last. If ever a fairy-tale existed outside the Walt Disney stables, and one made exclusively for adults, then Anastasia is it; a cleverly concocted fiction as rife with the enchantment of royal intrigues as the unerring escapist allure of pure make-believe brought vividly to life. What else can one say about such a divine and ethereal concoction except that in the years since its release there have been too few opportunities for audiences to wallow in such caprice; an oversight immeasurably rectified whenever Anastasia is re-screened.
Anastasia makes its long overdue debut in hi-def via a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time. Alas, it is an imperfect effort. Mercifully, the image is not marred by Fox’s fundamentally flawed color balancing that has oft’ plagued Cinemascope/DeLuxe color releases by bathing them in shades of robin egg blue and/or teal. Color balancing is not the issue here; particularly as flesh tones look especially fine and grays retain their steel and concrete allure instead of adopting a bluish tint. So far so good. But on the whole the color palette is decidedly anemic and, at times, downright washed out. The other concern is contrast - weaker than anticipated and compounding the overall lackluster visual presentation. Watching Anastasia in a completely darkened room will likely satisfy the casual viewer. But turn on the lights and the image is marred by inferior sharpness in a handful of scenes and a very ruddy complexion that favors a sort of golden/almost sepia tint. Finally, there is some water damage afflicting the Fox logo and Cinemascope credits that open the picture and a horrendous tear that flashes across the screen moments before the end titles. Honestly, if a full blown restoration was out of the question, could not a more pristine rendering of at least Fox’s introductory and iconic fanfare have been reinserted from another remaster already having undergone clean-up? We also have a disturbing amount of gate weave, resulting in some distracting image wobble and instability during the scenes where Bounine is training Anna in the ways of court decorum. Slight edge effects also persist leading me to conclude this image harvest is at least a decade old. It does, in fact, mimic the shortcomings inherent on the old Studio Series DVD release from 2001 and such a shame none of this was corrected, since digital technologies now might have provided a more stable viewing experience.
Twilight Time provides us with 3 audio options: a 5.1 DTS remaster, an approximation of the original 4.0 Cinemascope/Westrex mix and a 2.0 stereo. The 5.1 DTS and 4.0 suffer from an unnatural rechanneling; the original directionalized ‘stereo’ following actors across the screen sounds very unnatural, as though, at intervals, the actors are standing too close to the microphones. Of all the audio options, the 2.0 is the least obtrusive – albeit, with a decided lack of spatiality. TT also gives us the isolated score option – a chance at long last to listen to Alfred Newman’s original music cues in lush stereo: the complete film score a glorious experience, truncated on previous album and CD incarnations of the soundtrack that combined or entirely omitted pivotal cues. Best of all, in addition to the original and insightful DVD audio commentary from noted film historian and author, Sylvia Stothard and screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, we get a brand new secondary commentary featuring TT’s own Julie Kirgo and historian, David Del Valle. This exclusively recorded commentary is a revelation, informative in its own right without copying the Laurents/Stothard reflections. Finally, and regrettably, we lose the A&E Biography Special on the real Anastasia that accompanied the DVD. I am not entirely certain why Fox hi-def releases continue to drop these informative specials from their Blu-ray reissues, though I suspect it has something to do with their inability to be properly up-converted to a 1080p signal. Personally, I would have settled to have it in 720i. Bottom line: I sincerely wanted to love this disc because I adore the movie. Compared to the careworn DVD, the Blu-ray is decidedly a step up. Unfortunately, it is not perfect or anywhere near the benchmark of quality Blu-ray is readily capable of delivering. Fox has not gone back to the drawing board on this one and it shows – on occasion – painfully so. Recommended (because I adore this movie) but with caveats already mentioned. Regrets!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)