Sunday, June 07, 2015

Reading about Ingrid Bergman

Filming Notorious. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock became friends for life. Click to enlarge!
Ingrid Bergman och Alan Burgess: Mitt liv. (My Story. New York: Delacorte Press, 1980). Översättning av Ann Henning. Första svenska upplaga: Stockholm: P. A. Norstedt & Söners Förlag, 1980. MånPocket, tryckt i Ungarn 1984. 542 p.
    Ingrid Bergman personally supervised the Swedish translation and "approved every word of it" (Donald Spoto).

Many cinematheques and festivals are celebrating the centenary of Ingrid Bergman this year, and so will we.

I started an Ingrid Bergman reading project by revisiting some of the greatest pieces written about performance, stardom, and identity. Andrew Britton has written with original insight about Ingrid Bergman's distinction as an actress for instance in his programme notes for National Film Theatre in January 1986. His film-by-film remarks are worth revisiting.

Inspired by Britton, Robin Wood wrote a special chapter on Ingrid Bergman for Hitchcock's Films Revisited (1989) and a further star-centered chapter on Bergman in Gaslight for Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1998). Those chapters are among the finest written by the film critic I rank the greatest besides André Bazin.

A motto for both Britton and Wood stems from a remark by Jean Renoir who directed Bergman in Élena et les hommes: Renoir wanted to restore Ingmar Bergman's smile after her recent chilling studies of alienation such as Angst. Britton and Wood highlight films such as Gaslight, Spellbound, Notorious, and Under Capricorn. Bergman's distinction was her radiant natural Nordic health, spiritual and physical. Her character was being undermined, drugged, poisoned, addicted, tortured and burnt at the stake (Joan of Arc), and the ultimate suspense was about the mortal danger to her spirit. The immortal expression of that spirit was the Ingrid Bergman smile.

I am very grateful for Ingrid Bergman's memoirs "as told to" Alan Burgess, the author of the book on which The Inn of the Sixth Happiness was based. Years in the making, through a turbulent and confused process, the finished book is composed in an unusual way as a symposium and a montage where we have passages of Ingrid Bergman's first person account followed by third person passages with many other protagonists also getting the floor in extended first person passages of their own. Entire letters and documents are included. Still it is a good read.

At first reading I especially loved Chapter 29 on Ingmar Bergman and Autumn Sonata. It is an anthology piece, an account of the clash of two great artists, illuminating strengths and weaknesses of both in a direct and honest fashion. Beside Ingrid Bergman's we get also the viewpoints of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. Reading it, I laughed and cried.

Both Ingrid and Liv reproached Ingmar stating that no mother would abandon her child for seven years. Maybe it did not occur to them that Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman's character) was on a profound personal level a self-portrait of the director himself.

The greatest drama in Ingrid Bergman's life circled around the Roberto Rossellini relationship. Reading these memoirs I first realized the enormity of the catastrophe it created in Ingrid Bergman's private and professional life and also the profound meaning of the atonement in Hollywood and the national apology to Ingrid Bergman by Senator Charles Percy included in the Congressional Record in 1972. The Ingrid Bergman witch-hunt had nothing to do with the simultaneous political witch-hunts in Hollywood, but there is an odd affinity in the lynch mob mentality when some of the most beloved artists of all time, such as Charles Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman, were ostracized in Hollywood.

Ingrid Bergman belongs to the rare film stars who have succeeded in many completely different film production circumstances - Svensk Filmindustri in the 1930s, Hollywood in the 1940s, Roberto Rossellini in the 1950s, and an international career in many countries afterwards. She made films in Swedish, German, English, and French. (Ingmar Bergman has interesting remarks about actors and their mother tongue in Chapter 29 of My Story / Mitt liv).

Britton and Wood make a convincing case of "actor as auteur" about Ingrid Bergman, yet key producers and directors were of the essence: Gustaf Molander, David O. Selznick, Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Leo McCarey, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Jean Renoir, and Ingmar Bergman. Molander and Selznick realized her star quality. Fleming revealed both her sexuality (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and her spirituality (Joan of Arc was her dream role since childhood). Cukor, McCarey, and Hitchcock were her best directors, allowing her complete range. Rossellini and Bergman changed film history with the six films they made together, studies in alienation and a modern soulscape before Antonioni and Vitti. (But I agree with Jon Wengström that Bergman does not seem to have realized what they achieved). Afterwards it took Renoir to "restore the smile" that had vanished in Rossellini's films with Bergman. But Autumn Sonata is most doggedly and almost perversely about destroying that smile.

Many of Ingrid Bergman's best films (such as Europa 51) were hardly distributed at all at the time. After Rossellini and Renoir she made mostly safe and familiar quality entertainment. There were no more masterpieces, but she was enormously popular and successful to the end, also on television and at the stage in many countries. She never lost her talent but she never had a profoundly sympathetic director of the calibre of Cukor, McCarey, Hitchcock, or Renoir anymore.

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