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Perhaps the most famous actress of all time, Sarah Bernhardt is regarded as one of the finest actors of the 19th century, appearing on the stage and in some of the earliest films ever produced.
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Born on October 22, 1844 in Paris, France, Sarah Bernhardt was raised by her mother and attended the Paris Conservatoire as a teenager. She was later accepted by the Comédie-Française and eventually found widespread fame acting on stages throughout Europe and America. When the new medium of film took hold, she was one of the first actors to appear in motion pictures, starring in her first film in 1900. Bernhardt died in 1923, and was honored posthumously with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Born Henriette-Rosine Bernard, Sarah Bernhardt was the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch courtesan (essentially a prostitute with wealthy clients). The identity of Bernhardt's father is unknown, and young Sarah, seen as a burden to her mother, was eventually sent to be raised in a convent. Bernhardt wanted to become a nun, but the Duke of Morny, who was one of her mother's lovers and Napoleon III's half-brother, thought she should instead be an actress and arranged for her to enter the Paris Conservatoire at age 16. At the Conservatoire, Bernhardt was far from a star pupil, and left in 1862.
Again with the help of the duke, she was soon accepted by the Comédie-Française (France’s national theater company), where her presence onstage went virtually unnoticed.
Bernhardt's contract with the Comédie-Française was canceled in 1863 (after she slapped a fellow actress), and she began a stint at the Théâtre du Gymnase-Dramatique. Around the same time, she became the mistress of the prince of Ligne and gave birth to her only child, Maurice.
In 1866, Bernhardt signed a contract with the Odéon Theatre, and over the next six years, her reputation grew. Her greatest role at the Odéon was that of Zanetto in François Coppée’s 1869 one-act play Le Passant ("The Passerby"), which she played again in a command performance for Napoleon III.
In 1870, in the midst of the Franco-German War, Bernhardt organized a military hospital in the Odéon, and by the late 1870s, when the war was over, she resumed acting and had reached the heights of her acting career, propelled in part by her quirky behavior both on and off the stage. In 1880, now a huge draw in Europe, Sarah Bernhardt took her own traveling company on a worldwide tour that included the far reaches of Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States, becoming an international star along the way.
Around the turn of the century, Bernhardt began acting in films, appearing in some of the earliest motion pictures, such as versions of Hamlet (1900, as Hamlet) and La Tosca (1908).
In 1905, while touring South America, Bernhardt injured her right knee during a performance. The injury never healed properly, and 10 years later, gangrene had set in and the leg had to be amputated. Despite this setback, Bernhardt insisted on visiting the soldiers at the front during World War I (while being carried on a small chair). She resumed touring, playing roles she could take on while seated or while wearing a prosthetic limb.
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