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‘Gaslight’ 80th anniversary: Remembering the film that won Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar

The term “gaslighting” has come to describe someone who uses manipulation and lies to gain psychological control; the terminology has gained popularity over the past few years, but its origin dates back nearly 100 years to a British play by Patrick Hamilton, “Gas Light.” In 1940, a British film adaptation was released, and four years after that, MGM produced a version that resulted in the first Oscar victory for a three-time winner, the film debut of a screen legend and a memorable storyline that remains part of our culture eight decades later. On May 4, 1944, “Gaslight” had its premiere, and it remains as haunting and thrilling as ever. Read on for more about the “Gaslight” 80th anniversary.

In “Gaslight,” which is set in 1875, Ingrid Bergman portrays Paula Alquist Anton, an orphan who had been raised by her aunt, a famous and wealthy opera singer, who had been brutally murdered years before by an unknown intruder. In the years since, Paula has become an acclaimed singer in her own right. Having recently married her accompanist Gregory Anton, she is convinced by her new husband to live in her aunt’s home, which has been unoccupied since the crime. In the ensuing weeks, Paula is haunted by the memory of her aunt’s murder, and she begins to “lose” items and to hear mysterious sounds from the attic, where her aunt’s belongings have been stored. She also notices the gaslights dimming when Gregory is away, which he claims is in her mind – the manipulation that gave birth to the phrase “gaslighting.” As Paula’s mind apparently begins to deteriorate, her duplicitous husband pushes her deeper into insanity with the help of a ballsy young maid, while an old friend tries to save her.

SEE Watch our lively chats with dozens of 2024 Emmy contenders

Swedish actress Bergman had made her American film debut in 1939, with “Intermezzo: A Love Story,” beginning a decades-long career that included numerous successes as well as one of the biggest Hollywood scandals of the Golden Era. Bergman did not speak English upon her arrival in Hollywood, and refused to conform to the industry’s expectations of beauty, or to change her very German-sounding name. But her natural beauty and quiet tenacity set her apart from her contemporaries, and she rose to become one of the biggest stars of her time; she received her first Oscar nomination in 1944, for “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” That natural beauty and stubbornness served her well in her portrayal of the insecure, frightened Paula, playing the character with believability and empathy, when she could have easily slipped into a caricature of a lady gone mad. It is one of her best roles, earning Bergman her first Academy Award for Best Actress.

Going into the 1950s, she would be outcast for her extramarital affair with director Roberto Rossellini, leading to a bitter divorce and child custody battle with her first husband. She continued to make films in Europe, but it would be seven years before she made another film for American audiences, “Anastasia,” and she won her second Oscar in a triumphant return. She is one of the few performers to receive three acting Oscars (winning for supporting in 1974’s “Murder on the Orient Express”), and was the second actress to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting, ending her career with two Emmys and one Tony.

On the other hand, her leading man’s life was not as colorful, but French actor Charles Boyer had a solid career during Hollywood’s Golden Age. He excels as Bergman’s cad of a husband, earning his third of four Oscar nominations for Best Actor. “Gaslight” is his most memorable role, although his character Pepe le Moko in the 1938 film “Algiers” was somewhat “immortalized” in the Looney Tunes character Pepe Le Pew, which was partially based on le Moko. However, contrary to popular depiction, he does not ask anyone to “come to the Casbah” in the film. Although often portraying a dashing cad on film, in real life Boyer led a quiet life, and was married 44 years until his wife’s death. Sadly, their only child had died by suicide several years earlier, and Boyer took his own life two days after his beloved wife died from cancer.

SEE Oscar Best Picture gallery: History of every Academy Award-winning movie

Making her film debut at 17 years old was an actress who would become a beloved figure on television as a mystery-novelist-turned-amateur-sleuth. Forty years before she would reach a new level of fame as Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote,” Angela Lansbury played the young Cockney maid Nancy Oliver, who is delightful as a schemer who enjoys taunting the lady of the house after Gregory tells her not to bother his “high-strung” wife, and who blatantly flirts with her boss. Lansbury earned her first of three Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress; she was bestowed an honorary award in 2014.

Paula becomes reacquainted with childhood friend Brian Cameron, now a Scotland Yard inspector, who becomes suspicious of Gregory’s behavior and is determined to save Paula. Playing in this role alongside Bergman was Joseph Cotten, who had gained prominence as a member of Orson Welles‘ Mercury Theatre company, starring in such Welles classics as “Citizen Kane” (1941). Despite an impressive four-decade career that began in the 1940s, Cotten never received an Oscar nomination, and is often cited as one of the best actors never to have received this recognition.

“Gaslight” was filmed in glorious black-and-white, setting the stage for creepy shadow effects and dreary anticipation, building the tension and setting a standard for psychological thrillers that have followed. “Gaslight” received seven Academy Award nominations, winning two, claiming Best Art Direction (Black-and-White) in addition to Bergman’s win. Although the film was nominated, director George Cukor failed to earn a bid. The thriller would lose to lighter fare, with Bing Crosby, director Leo McCarey, and the film “Going My Way” receiving the honors on the big night. It was a great year for film, with three of the five Best Picture nominees eventually selected for preservation in the National Film Registry; in addition to “Gaslight” and “Going My Way,” Billy Wilder‘s “Double Indemnity” has made the list.

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