Love through a lens: how Ingrid Bergman took the worlds breath away
From marital scandals to on-screen magnetism, a documentary about Ingrid Bergman salutes an actor who consistently defied expectations
Nearly 20 years ago, I went to stay with my husband in a house owned by the family of Roberto Rossellini, the great neorealist Italian film director. We spent our days as you do when you find yourself in an idyllic hideaway in the Italian sunshine: reading; lying by the pool; watching the light through the trees. And I thought about Ingrid Bergman, who must have visited this secluded villa at a time when her life was in free fall.
Its hard now to imagine the kind of scandal Bergman caused when she became pregnant with Rossellinis child, while still married to her first husband Petter Lindstrm. She wasnt just a wife, she was a mother, and had left her daughter Pia behind when she went off to Italy to work with Rossellini. The outrage was scalding. Bergman news jolts Hollywood like an A Bomb screeched one newspaper headline, neatly combining two of the most important news items of 1949.
In the US, religious groups began a campaign to ban her films on the grounds that they glorified adultery. In Italy, she and Rossellini were followed everywhere by paparazzi, their companions for the rest of their tumultuous life together.
I was a danger for American womanhood, she told an interviewer, years later. Even my voice over the radio was supposed to be dangerous. Of course I was hurt, but I didnt think that what I had done was so much other peoples business … If you dont like the performance, you can walk out, but to criticise peoples private life, I thought was wrong.
That defiant statement of intent is quoted in Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, a new documentary film directed by Stig Bjrkman that tells the story of one of Hollywoods most enduring stars. It draws on her diaries, letters and interviews, interspersed with home movies, and glimpses of the actor in all her screen glory, from her Swedish debut in 1935 to her Hollywood heyday in the 1940s to her final roles nearly 40 years later. It is a revealing insight into a woman who consistently defied expectations.
In her first American screen test, in bleached-out colour and silence, with no makeup as the clapper board proclaims, she shines. It is as if she is in possession of a secret and that knowledge illuminates her from the inside, as she glances directly at the camera, or smiles with a warmth that could thaw a Swedish winter. Its a sign of all that is to come. If you think of Bergman on screen, in Casablanca, Notorious or Gaslight, it is that radiance that first comes to mind.
In part this was a simple matter of her beauty. Daniel Selznick, son of the powerful David O who first swept Bergman away to Hollywood, told her biographer Charlotte Chandler: There is no one I have ever met, of any age, of any generation, that took ones breath away at every meeting the way she did. The complexion, the lips, the cheeks, the ears, the nose, the eyes, the body of a goddess. And she was just completely unselfconscious. Gregory Peck, her co-star in Hitchocks Spellbound, suggested that she was even more beautiful away from the studio cameras a judgment vindicated by the home movie footage that shows her relaxed with family and friends.
But there is some other mysterious force at work. From the very first, she was confident in front of a camera, and it is Pia Lindstrm the daughter she abandoned when she ran off with Rossellini who offers a psychological explanation for her mothers dazzling impact on screen. Bergmans mother had died when she was two, so she was brought up by her father, a photographer, whom she adored, until he too died when she was 13.
Love would come right through that lens, suggests Lindstrm. She was looking through that lens and she is looking at her dear dead father, and she would flirt and play with him and pose with him. She was completely comfortable with the camera and knew how to pose.
Bergman herself was aware of her gift. She was a poor little orphan girl, lonely and bereft, yet filming made her feel alive. Theres a photograph of her going to her first ever job as an extra that is notable not only for her staggering loveliness, but for the sheer vitality of her pose as she peers along the line of waiting hopefuls, looking outwards and forwards. I love the freedom I feel in front of the camera, she said.