Had she been alive today, the great Ingrid Bergman would be turning 100 this month. Bergman was a unique character in the Golden Age of Hollywood; in the ’30s, Hollywood starlets were sassy, sexy, and all-American. Ingrid Bergman, in her own words, was the “shyest human being ever invented”. Her awkwardness, however, disappeared once she was on camera. Who else can say they were best pals with Hitch and eloped with Roberto Rossellini? She went from zero to hero to zero to hero again in the public eye, and the films she chose to star in throughout her career reflect her turbulent life.
Her upbringing was tragic. Born in Stockholm, Ingrid’s mother died when she was two, and her father passed away when she was thirteen. Despite this turmoil, she won a place at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre and quickly rose up the ranks. Bergman’s film career began in 1934 with The Bridge of Monks, a comedic turn in which she played a maid. Whilst not a career defining performance, she earned the exasperated admiration of her director, Edvin Adolphson, by offering direction for a scene in a fishmonger. It was upwards from there, as Bergman made a name for herself in Swedish cinema. Her films included Intermezzo (1936), a moralistic romance about a violinist who fell in love with his accompanist, and A Woman’s Face (1938), where she played a girl whose face had been disfigured in a fire. Even in her early career, she sought roles which would challenge her.
“Be yourself. The world worships the original.”
Intermezzo brought Ingrid Bergman to America. David O. Selznick’s studio was on the lookout for foreign films to remake in America, and rave reviews were enough to fly Bergman out to L.A. Intermezzo became Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) with Leslie Howard as the lead role, and the Swedish star was introduced to the world. There were, however, teething problems. Bergman’s English wasn’t perfect, and she looked all too foreign by Hollywood standards. But aside from a little dialect coaching, Bergman wouldn’t let Selznick change a thing: she said she’d rather get the train home than change her name or face. So, she became the world’s first “natural” actress. It worked. Intermezzo was a hit and so was she.
Bergman starred in several successful Hollywood films after that, including Adam Had Four Sons and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (both 1941). Then, of course, there was Casablanca (1942). As Ilsa Lund to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, Bergman’s heritage was particularly symbolic in this film, representing a crushed and defeated Europe saved by America. Bergman’s signature watery eyed stoicism is on top form here, and she literally sparkles from the screen: DoP Arthur Edeson filmed her with a softening gauze filter and catch lights to enhance this impression. Although it frequently tops the ‘Best Film EVER’ lists, both Bergman and Bogart considered jumping ship due to its on-the-hoof production. Just a bit of trivia for you there, folks.
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Over the next ten years, Bergman starred in a huge array of Hollywood films, working with many industry stalwarts. Ernest Hemingway himself requested Bergman for Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). The performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Maria’s a peasant, fighting against the fascists who killed her family and Bergman brings an emotional depth, particularly notable when she tells Robert (Gary Cooper) of her experiences. Her description is so powerful and intense that Robert cannot bear to hear it. The scene is a pure example of Bergman’s skill, magnetism and sincerity.
Her first Academy Award came for Gaslight (1943), where she played a woman psychologically manipulated by her husband. The Oscar is well deserved: Bergman proved she could do crazy, and then some. After Gaslight came a run of Hitchcock films: Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and the lesser loved Under Capricorn (1949). Of her Hitchcock collaborations, Notorious is the best. Bergman is typically dazzling, creating a perfect pairing with Cary Grant. She plays the daughter of a Nazi spy, who goes undercover in order to aid the American police. The film is famous for its saucy kiss which managed to outwit the Production Code’s ban on smooches longer than three-seconds, by taking breaks to achieve a two-and-a-half minute kiss.
La Dolce Vita?
Things were going swimmingly for Ingrid Bergman. She’d been critically and publicly acclaimed, and Joan of Arc (1948) was about to hit cinemas, a role she’d longed to play onscreen for years. Then, she fell in love with the wrong man. Director Roberto Rossellini charmed Bergman through his films; she fell in love with his art. After seeing Rome, Open City (1945) with her then husband, Petter Lindstrom, she declared the director “an absolutely heavenly human being”. Her desire to meet Rossellini led her to Italy to star in Stromboli (1950). One thing led to another, and the pair went off to Capri together, leaving Bergman’s husband and daughter, Pia, behind.
The press went wild. She finished Stromboli, declared to the world she was retiring, and then gave birth to Roberto, the first of three children she would have with Rossellini. Joan of Arc crashed and burned in the box offices at the chagrin of the American public: Bergman was even personally attacked in the Senate. Retirement didn’t last long, and the Swedish star made five neorealist films with Rossellini: Stromboli, Europa ’51 (1952), Siamo donne (1953) Viaggio in Italia (1954), Giovanna d’Arco al rogo (1954), and La Paura (1954). The aim with these films was to ‘defy audience expectations’, and having Bergman star alongside unknown Italian actors and working off script for much of the process certainly achieved this.
“I’m going home.”
Ingrid returned to Hollywood with Anastasia (1956), and divorced Rossellini in 1957. Anastasia was a clever move: the American audiences loved the part of a European with historical resonance. She won a second Oscar for her efforts.
Bergman was back. As well as marrying her third husband, Lars Schmidt, she continued to ease her way back into the hearts of the public with several sentimental roles full of moral goodness, including The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness (1958). Based on a true story, Bergman plays a wannabe missionary who saves orphans. No risks with controversial roles here. Whilst several of her later films were a little bit cheesy, Bergman manages to circumvent this with her natural talent, raising the game of everything she’s in.
Ingrid continued to star in film, television and on stage. Her final Oscar was for Murder On The Orient Express (1974), a film adaptation of the seminal Agatha Christie novel. Sidney Lumet originally asked her to play the part of the Russian princess. However, Bergman wanted the part of the Swedish missionary, servant to the princess, requesting that she look “absolutely awful” in it. It’s a humble role which encapsulates the trajectory of Bergman’s career — the fact that she shone in an all star cast and won an Oscar for such a small part says a lot.
Ingrid Bergman died from breast cancer on her birthday in 1982, after making the TV miniseries A Woman Called Golda (1982). As expected, tributes flooded in from around the world. In her 67 years, she starred in over 50 films, won three Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, four Golden Globes and the Tony Award for Best Actress. Gustav Molander applauded the “three totally original characteristics of her work: truth, naturalness and fantasy”. Couldn’t have put it better.
Happy Birthday, Ingrid.
Top 5 Ingrid Bergman films:
Casablanca (1942): Ingrid is Casablanca. This is one of the best films ever made. Endlessly quotable and a cultural touchstone, its influence is everywhere.
Notorious (1946): One of Hitchcock’s best. It’s a feast for the senses, and encapsulates the complex relations between espionage and human emotion. The chemistry between Bergman and Grant is electric: James Bond, eat your heart out.
For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943): Worth a watch just to see if you can sit still for its 170 minute running time.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974): Despite Ingrid’s small role, it’s a fantastic film with a perfect plot. Watch out for Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall and Sean Connery. No spoilers for whodunnit.
Gaslight (1943): Bergman’s emotive performance is entrancing: you feel everything her character does. And Boyer is pure evil.