August 29 was the birthday of Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982) as well as the date of her death. There are times when I must seem to run the risk of falling prey to the cult of numerology here. That might be the case if we attached supernatural significance to the dates, but really dates just provide handy benchmarks, excuses to produce, deadlines. 2022 (as we pen this) contains several related to Bergman: the 90th anniversary of her Swedish screen debut (1932), the 80th of Casablanca (1942), and the 40th of her death, which occurred on this day in 1982. As it happens, Bergman was also 42 when she made her triumphant Hollywood return in 1956 in Anastasia following her famous banishment. But who’s counting? And anyway, this mesmerizing star is overdue for a proper post, as my previous jokey one was about a notable affront to her dignity.
Every so often, show biz entrepreneurs seem to cast their eyes across the ocean and cry, “I need that Swede!” It happened prior to Bergman (Greta Garbo being the most famous example) and happened after her (I’ll use ABBA as my example, as they were formed in 1972). America’s fascination with Swedish beauties goes very far back: Jenny Lind, Anna Q. Nilsson, Tippi Hedren, Ann-Margret, Britt Ekland, Inger Stevens, Candice Bergen. I belabor this point because, real or imagined, Americans seem to perceive this enviable quality of “healthy sexuality” Swedes seem to possess that eludes a people caught up in the false binary trap of saintliness vs. sinning, Madonnas vs. whores, virgins vs. sluts. All actresses have had to contend with this dichotomy in our culture. Actresses like Bergman seem to have the beguiling ability to confound that sort of simple-mindedness. Her virtuous characters are not above desire (hers or ours); her sexual characters are not scheming Sirens. The smartest directors and producers played with this quality or referred to it in some way, and she had very good luck in working with such people throughout her career. She often played women who struggled with their urges, which meant both that she HAD them, and that she had a brain and a heart as well. Audiences could have their cake and eat it too, and that’s always been the best and worst of Hollywood.
In 1941 she played the title character in O’Neill’s Anna Christie on stage in San Diego. What a pity she never played the role in a movie — what great casting! But perhaps it was considered too much of a lift to fill Garbo’s shoes. At the other end of the spectrum, she played Joan of Arc in Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine on Broadway in 1946, reprising the role in the 1948 film and in later stage productions. She played the “other woman” in two versions of Intermezzo, the 1936 Swedish original and the 1939 remake, her first Hollywood film. She’s a nun in The Bells of St. Marys (1944). A music hall barmaid in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). The original gaslighting victim in Gaslight (1944). A wild party girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946).
Though not a blonde per se, Bergman was the first in a series of actresses that Hitchcock famously became obsessed with. He worked with her three times, in Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and the dreadful Under Capricorn (1949). Rear Window (1954) was also inspired by her relationship with photographer Robert Capa, though it would star the next object of Hitchcock’s obsessions, Grace Kelly. Bergman is also supposed to have had affairs with costars Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, and Gregory Peck.
Then news about Bergman’s relationship with Roberto Rossellini broke. Both she and the Italian director were married to other people at the time, and she became pregnant. It was at this point that the themes American audiences had been projecting on to her for a decade spilled out into the real world, and she was shunned, ridiculed, ostracized, and essentially banned from Hollywood — though only for a short time.
In a way, the fickle public did her a favor, for it was at this point that Bergman did something pretty rare for a Hollywood star: she became a highly respected international stage and screen actress. She was in Rosselini’s Italian films of course, but she also did a lot of stage work in Paris, London and the States. As a consequence, people had to come to grips with the fact that Bergman was so gifted that they COULDN’T ban her solely on the basis of her personal choices. She had only studied acting seriously for a year at the Royal Dramatic Theatre School in Stockholm, but in these middle years, she rather fearlessly took on all kinds of major acting challenges others might flinch at. Sometimes TV work falls through the cracks in critical inventories of actors; several of Bergman’s tv performances bear mention. She won an Emmy for the demanding role of the Governess in a live 1959 TV production of The Turn of the Screw. In 1963 she played the title role in Hedda Gabler on CBS with Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson. The following year, a screen version of Durenmatt’s The Visit. On stage during these years, she did Shaw, O’Neill, Maugham, Turgenev.
In 1978, rather magically, Bergman returned to Sweden to star in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata opposite his Norwegian muse Liv Ullman. And then there was that last role, performed even as she was dying of cancer, as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in A Woman Called Golda (1982). That one was a huge television event, not only because of the subject, and the mere presence of Bergman, but also the novelty of the casting. I’m sure some were not pleased with a non-Jew in that particular part, but it must be admitted that Bergman was a dead ringer for the Iron Lady, who coincidentally had died of cancer four years earlier.
Speaking of dead ringers, don’t get me started on Isabella Rossellini! Va va voom!
Anyway, I scarcely talked about Casablanca, a movie that meant a lot to me as a teenager, and that’s because there’s a dedicated post about that movie coming up in a couple of months. Meantime, here are the lyrics to a song that Woody Guthrie wrote about Bergman in 1950 at the height of her scandal. In addition to being a villain in Pinocchio, Stromboli is an island off of Italy, both the setting and the title of the movie on which Rossellini and she began their affair.
Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman,
Let´s go make a picture
On the island of Stromboli, Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman, you´re so perty,
You´d make any mountain quiver
You´d make my fire fly from the crater
This old mountain it´s been waiting
All ist life for you to work it
For your hand to touch the hardrock,
Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman
If you´ll walk across my camera,
I will flash the world your story,
I will pay you more than money, Ingrid Bergman
Not by pennies dimes nor quarters,
But with happy sons and daughters,
And they´ll sing around Stromboli,