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Monday
Mar102014

Women's History Month: Ingrid Bergman's Joan of Arc

For Women's History Month ocassional portraits of actresses portraying iconic real women. Here is abstew with Ingrid Bergman as film's favorite saintly female warrior. 

Born: January 6, 1412 (the exact date of her birth is not exactly known, but she stated she was 19 at the time of her trial)

Death: May 30, 1431. After being captured by the English, she was imprisoned and a trial before an ecclesiastic court condemned her with heresy for which she was burned at the stake. Legend has it that her executioner begged for mercy on his soul because he had just killed a saint. 

Her Extraordinary Life: Joan of Arc, "The Maid of Orléans", was only around 12 years old when she began to hear the voices of Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine. At first these voices told her to go to Mass and be pious (that sounds annoying. Just let her be a kid, Saints!), but as she got older they informed her that it was up to her to free France from English rule during the Hundred Years' War. (No pressure, Joan.) After convincing the uncrowned Prince Charles VII of her quest, she was sent to Orléans. Her presence there and at other battles helped France win important victories and led to Charles' coronation. On May 23, 1430, she was captured and sold to the English. After her trial and death a year later, her legend only grew. She became a symbol of France and in 1920 was named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. 

Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc (1948)

Oscar Nominations Received by the Film: The film won Academy Awards for Best Costume Design (Color) and Best Cinematography (Color). In addition to Bergman's Best Actress nomination, it was nominated for Best Supporting Actor José Ferrer (it was his film debut), Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction (Color), and Best Score (Dramatic or Comedy Picture). The film's producer (and former Academy President), Walter Wanger, was given an Honorary Oscar which he refused because the film was not nominated for Best Picture.

The Other Best Actress Nominees: Olivia de Havilland The Snake Pit, Irene Dunne I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwyck Sorry, Wrong Number and the winner Jane Wyman Johnny Belinda 

Although Joan has been portrayed several times on film (most significantly in Carl Theodore Dreyer's 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc and most recently by Milla Jovovich in a production that is best left forgotten), Ingrid Bergman is the only actress to ever be Academy Award nominated in the role. Joan was her dream role and she claimed to have been trying to make a film about her since 1940. She first portrayed her on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson's play Joan of Lorraine and won Best Leading Actress in a Play at the very first Tony Awards.  

When we first see Bergman in the film, she is the world's oldest looking 19 year old (Bergman was in her early 30s during the production). She is praying at an alter on her family farm and her large blue eyes (which look amazing in technicolor) always seem on the verge of tears at every single moment. You see, Joan is different. Not just because of the Swedish accent she has as a French girl (which wouldn't be so odd if she weren't surrounded by flat American accents from all the other "French" people around her), but Joan is different because, like Haley Joel Osment, she talks to dead people. Haley had therapist Bruce Willis' kind words, but Joan is told that the very fate of France lies in her hands. (Don't mess this up, Joan!)

With a quick make-over, complete with haircut (fun fact: Joan of Arc was the inspiration for the bob haircut in the early 1900's. Although, I'm not sure how they brought in a picture of her to their stylist) and boy's clothes (androgyny is so in right now), Joan is off to see the Dauphin to tell him what the voices in her head have informed her.   

She's sent off to fight and proves to be a real kill joy when it comes to the troops. She wants to take away their whores and booze and make them go to confession and pray. But instead of making the men angry, it inspires them. The crowd grows larger and larger as they become enthralled with Joan's words. Bergman is especially good at inspiring courage in the hearts of men. Her regal presence (which makes it hard to buy her as a peasant in the earlier scenes) gives her Joan gravitas and authority–making you believe that a young girl could lead an army. I just wish the film would have shown a little of Joan's humanity. Throughout the entire film, she just seems so unwavering. (All the way up to when she is sent to the pyre in a paper hat that looks like the cones they put on dogs to keep them from licking their stitches.) It would have been nice to see some flickers of doubt in private moments and not have her be so, well, saintly.

The film is clunky and heavy-handed. During a battle scene she replies, "Death by fire is a terrible thing" after watching a man burn - foreshadowing, y'all!. Though Bergman excels in the trial scenes where she's given chunks of weighty dialogue, it all seems as fake as the sound stages it was filmed on. The film was the last directed by the legendary Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind. Well, parts of both) who was said to be so disappointed with the final product that he cried at a screening and died 4 months after it was completed. The fate of the film became even more complicated when Bergman began her very public affair with Roberto Rossellini. Audiences stayed away from the film, finding it hard to believe Bergman as the virgin saint while she herself was a fallen woman. Over the years, the film has also suffered from cuts to the original version that took out almost an entire hour of the film. (The version I watched was the complete 2 and half hours. Lucky me.) Joan of Arc has held a fascination for people for centuries now, and despite Bergman's best attempts, she deserves better than this relic of a film.

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Reader Comments (9)

I actually quite like The Messenger. Milla Jovovich's almost hysterical resolve worked for me.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAgent69

{gulp} i've never seen this one. Bad classic actress, fan. bad classic actress fan.

March 10, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

There is no beating Dreyer's film-just keep reissuing it in theaters every ten years to keep people from trying, in my opinion.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Fascinating subject +one of the world's greatest actresses + high class studio production somehow = ponderous seemingly endless film.

As a history buff I started to watch this with sky high expectations which dropped consistently as the film progressed. I also watched the full version and it was a slog though Ingrid can't be faulted. Jose Ferrer however irked me every minute he was on screen, which is my usual reaction to his smug performances.

Well made but the filmmakers obviously felt this was AN IMPORTANT PROJECT from the get go and that is often the kiss of death for a film.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Yeah, if given the choice between Luc Bessonian stylistic bombast and the thudding doe-eyed "Importance" of the prestige style, give me the former any time. Even if it's "bad", it's a fun kind of bad.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

nathaniel - how. very. dare you. actually, don't feel bad. I'm pretty sure no one would remember this movie if it wasn't for its Oscar history.

john t - THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is an artistic masterpiece. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen with a live orchestra a couple years ago.

joel6 - agreed about ferrer. i'm surprised he got a nomination for this. but as smug and smarmy as he is, I kinda wish that he had gone even further with it.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

I haven't seen this in a while, but I remember as a child, it had its impact. I was quite frightened by the third act, and was entranced by Bergman's intensity.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I was lucky enough to see the Dreyer film with live orchestra several years ago. It was fantastic as both film and viewing experience.

I sort of liked the Bresson version. As long as you don't expect more than hysterical scenery chewing (from everyone including the scenery), its fun. And no one can say Milla wasn't committed to the performance.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

This was by far the most tedious to watch of the Actress nominee films that year. I too saw the loooong 2.5 hour cut. Great write-up.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

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