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If there's anything you still need to know about the life of Ingrid Bergman, you can probably find it in Notorious, Donald Spoto's adoring new biography of the Swedish actress and film star. Bergman, who died of breast cancer in 1982 at the age of 67, was an original and luminous presence on the stage and screen. She was also a significant figure in the history of the movies, if only on account of her famously overpublicized "illicit" love affair with Roberto Rossellini -- and her starring role in Casablanca, the silly Warner Bros. potboiler that many people persist in regarding as one of the greatest films of all time.
Bergman knew better. She remembered Casablanca as a nightmare of misdirection and idiotic dialogue, all of it made worse by the hostility of her co-star, Humphrey Bogart, who thought she was intent on "stealing the entire focus of the film away from every other performer," as Spoto explains. All in all, said Bergman, "It was a very strange experience. Let me tell you, we were never certain what was going on." If Casablanca later went on to stupendous success, it owes everything to American sentimentality and nothing to Bergman's own vision of herself. She had an almost unerring knack for picking the wrong roles when left to her own devices. She was especially awful when she was cast as a "loose" or "fallen" woman, and as a public figure -- even a "notorious" public figure, during the Rossellini years -- she seemed flat and inarticulate. (One of her lovers, the photographer Robert Capa, summed her up perfectly as "a big Swede.")
"Her natural timidity," Spoto writes, "her refusal to appear pretentious or grand, her lack of guile -- all these would never allow her to discuss her art in florid rhetoric or to hold forth on the subtleties of the artist's life. She had no patience with such self-reverential talk, no matter the source." She would have no patience either, presumably, with a biographer who seeks to portray her in those same pretentious and reverential terms. Spoto, who has written books about Alfred Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier and the queen of England, is rapidly becoming the Joyce Carol Oates of celebrity biographers, and he's as important and high-sounding as Bergman was modest and at ease. His description of Bergman's death in London is on a par with the maudlin demise of Dickens' Little Nell, and he has a particular weakness for the psychological cliché. It adds little to our understanding either of actresses or of film to know that, since Bergman lost her mother at the age of 3, she was always looking for "comfort" and "protection," or that, although she had a Nazi aunt in Germany, she was more concerned with her own career than with politics, husbands, children or love. Of course she was. She was a movie star. Like all icons, she was successful exclusively in terms of the image she projected, and she deserves to be worshipped now from a discreet remove. -- Salon