Friday, 19 August 2016

Ingrid Bergman, in her own words

A new documentary profiles the actress who became a film goddess but loved like a mortal

Written by Ben Felsenburg
Ben-Felsenburg-colour-176Funny people, stars. They’re not quite the same as the rest of us, and that, of course, is the point. They shimmer and swagger and the best don’t even need words: witness the 1939 screen test for a young woman who had found fame as an actress in Sweden and was about to discover whether she could now forge a new career in America. Wearing no make-up, Ingrid Bergman is by turns radiant, sweet-smiled, a goddess in profile and then a friend on the verge of sharing a mischievous secret, or at least that’s what her lyrically expressive eyes seem to say.

Director Stig Björkman’s documentary is full of such revelatory moments, in a profile that’s put together from readings of Bergman’s diaries, newsreel clips, entrancing home-movie footage – much of it shot by Bergman – and interviews with her four children. There are glimpses of her classic movies, from Casablanca to Notorious (apparently a very happy production, much to her surprise) yet Bergman was emphatically not a walking, talking mannequin in the mould of so many stars, but a woman fired with an untameable spirit and it is her private life that is the true subject of Björkman’s film. Though in Bergman’s case ‘private’ was to be an absurd misnomer after she walked out on her husband and young daughter, Pia Lindström, in 1949, to have the baby of Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, creating a storm of moral outrage so great you wonder if the entire world had momentarily taken leave of its senses. One headline of the day read ‘Bergman News Jolts Hollywood Like an A-Bomb’, while a US senator prophesised: ‘Out of Ingrid Bergman’s ashes will grow a better Hollywood.’

The rift between Bergman and America would prove to be only temporary – a few years later, in 1957, she had won a second Best Actress Oscar, for Anastasia, to put with the one she’d got for Gaslight in 1945 – but the nation would never again be her home. Bergman had known early on that Sweden could not hold her – ‘I was the shyest creature in the world but I had a lion inside me that wouldn’t keep quiet’ – and now she roamed with the freedom of a nomad who was feted wherever she would go, from Italy to Paris and, in her last years, London. Her children she would leave behind for their different fathers to bring up, and when Lindström says that she would never bring out the poison pen to write a new version of Mommie Dearest, insisting she wished only that she’d had more time to spend with a mother who was so much fun, you can barely hear the gritting of the teeth.

Bergman doesn’t fit the odd modern notion of a star as role model, and Björkman can hardly be faulted for his ultimate failure to get under the skin of a woman who transcended the realm of ordinary mortals and lived by a code of genteel anarchy. Never mind in her own words, it’s in her eyes and in her smile that we shall forever know her.

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