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A Star Returns to Center Stage

The Huntington, Getty and Taper collaborate to shed light on Sarah Siddons, a once-celebrated actress now mostly forgotten.

July 25, 1999|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Madonna! O.J.! Diana! Monica! No sooner does one star begin to fade than another emerges at the center of yet another media frenzy. Drawn from the arts, entertainment, sports and the halls of world power, the cast of characters goes on and on, perpetually pushing the limits of what's fit to print or televise and raising questions about boundaries between public and private life.

The fame and fallout of intense public scrutiny might seem to be a late 20th century phenomenon--but only to those who don't know the story of Sarah Siddons. A wildly popular 18th century English actress whose portrayals of grand victims epitomized sublime suffering, Siddons thrilled London audiences for 30 years, from a triumphal performance at Drury Lane in 1782 until her official retirement in 1812. Sparking riots among eager fans as well as the malady known as "Siddons fever," she skillfully managed her image as a model of dignified womanhood while turning herself into a marketable commodity and bringing new respectability to women who worked in the theater.

Nonetheless, fame is fleeting and, as American actor Joseph Jefferson reportedly remarked, "There's nothing as dead as a dead actor." Siddons seems to prove the point.

Despite maintaining an extraordinary level of celebrity throughout her long career and winning a place in history as England's greatest tragic actress, Siddons is mainly remembered in theatrical circles, in art museums that display her image and by fans of "All About Eve," writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 movie, in which Anne Baxter plays a conniving ingenue who wins the Sarah Siddons Award for her achievement as an actress--after betraying those who had helped her.

Mankiewicz dreamed up the award while making the film, his widow, Rosemary Mankiewicz, said. "Joe had studied the history of theater, and he was fascinated by the 18th century English actresses. He had made an in-depth study of Mrs. Siddons' life and work, so he had the prop department of 20th Century Fox make a statuette based on Joshua Reynolds' portrait of her. The statuette is presented to Anne Baxter in the opening scene."

The film itself inspired the formation of the Sarah Siddons Society in Chicago to recognize outstanding stage actresses. In another instance of life imitating art, Bette Davis, who had a leading role in "All About Eve," portrayed Siddons in a tableau vivant re-creating Reynolds' painting at the 1957 Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach.

But Siddons' star is about to rise again in an unusual collaborative venture in Southern California--which is not only the capital of the film industry but home of Reynolds' masterpiece. "Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse" is among the most treasured paintings at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

The project encompasses two art exhibitions, a play and a scholarly symposium. The J. Paul Getty Museum will present "A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists," featuring 10 paintings--with the Huntington's portrait as the centerpiece--along with the results of recent scientific analysis that illuminates the evolution of Reynolds' work.

At the Huntington, "Cultivating Celebrity: Portraits as Publicity in the Career of Sarah Siddons" will explore the actress' mystique in an eclectic assemblage of early portraits, prints illustrating her cult status, satirical caricatures and posthumous tributes, including the statuette from "All About Eve." Both shows will open Tuesday and run through Sept. 19.

The theatrical component is "The Affliction of Glory: A Comedy About Tragedy," a new play written by Frank Dwyer and produced in association with the Center Theatre Group / Mark Taper Forum, to be presented at the Getty on Aug. 19-Sept. 5. The conference, "Performing Arts: Alliances of Studio and Stage in Britain, 1776-1812," will engage an international group of scholars at the Huntington on Sept. 10-11.

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Four years in the making, the collaborative project will revive a fascinating character who lived from 1755 to 1831. The daughter of strolling theatrical players, Siddons made her first documented stage appearance at the age of 11, was married at 19 and gave birth to the first of eight children the following year, but soon distinguished herself in various touring companies. Following a performance in Bath in 1782, when the 27-year-old actress was eight months pregnant with her fifth child, she announced that she must move to London to provide for her family. A few months later she took London by storm, playing the title role of the tragedy "Isabella" at Drury Lane.

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