After fleeing her family and running off with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, scandalizing the film community, Ingrid Bergman was welcomed back into Hollywood’s bosom in 1956 with her dramatic performance in ANASTASIA. Bergman won her second Oscar as the mentally troubled Anna Anderson who is being tutored by Prince Bounine (Yul Brynner) to impersonate Anastasia, the daughter of slain Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who was it was rumored had escaped the 1918 massacre of the royal family.
Based on Marcelle Maurette’s 1954 play, the film can’t help belie its stage origins. Yet it is still thoroughly entertaining thanks to Bergman, Brynner and the imperious Helen Hayes as the Dowager Empress, who must be convinced of Anna’s ruse for Bounine to collect the reward money. The “reunion” scene between Hayes and Bergman is heartbreaking and why Hayes’s weary, humorous, domineering performance was denied an Oscar nomination is beyond me. Thankfully that didn’t happen to Alfred Newman‘s lush score.
Over the main titles, Newman’s now-classic main theme comes soaring across the screen and perfectly captures Anna’s alternating hope and despair. Contributing to the Russian feel of the film (even though much of it takes place in Paris) is the impressive Russian Easter choral work of Ken Darby in the opening scene. There are marches and polkas and, especially, grand waltzes to sweep the sumptuous ballgowns of the expatriate Russian nobility around the dance floor.
But the score is anchored by that memorable main theme. Whether dressed up in ball gown finery or as more dramatic fare, the theme is one of Newman’s finest compositions. In particular, as the despondent Anna walks along the banks of the Seine, the aching theme (in the always capable hands of the inimitable Newman strings) accompanies her desolation and its poignant, yearning melody keeps her from teetering over the edge.
Whether or not the actual Anastasia ever survived the massacre of her family is not important here. The legend has always provided a dramatic impetus and this film is no different. Newman’s glorious score taps into the legend’s mystique and a false sense of hope.