Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman

by David Thomson

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“Ingrid Bergman was far more than just a sweet, virtuous, ‘natural’ Swedish girl—she was a dark sensualist over whom many men might go mad. Her very gaze delivered a climate of adult romantic expectation.”

Adored by millions for her luminous beauty and elegance, at the height of her career Bergman commanded a love that has hardly

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“Ingrid Bergman was far more than just a sweet, virtuous, ‘natural’ Swedish girl—she was a dark sensualist over whom many men might go mad. Her very gaze delivered a climate of adult romantic expectation.”

Adored by millions for her luminous beauty and elegance, at the height of her career Bergman commanded a love that has hardly ever been matched, until her marriage fell apart and created an international scandal. Here the renowned film writer David Thomson gives his own unique take on a woman who was constantly driven by her passions and by her need to act, even if it meant sacrificing everything.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In the initial volumes of this new series, noted film critic/historian Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) brings his opinions to bear on the lives and careers of four stars of the golden age of American cinema, all of whom remained active until their deaths. With classic films such as Jezebel, Dark Victory, and Now, Voyager, Bette Davis was the premiere leading lady at Warner Brothers for some 17 years. Gary Cooper (High Noon) became a star with the introduction of talking pictures and remained one, albeit somewhat diminished, to the end of his life. After being frequently cast as the snarling petty crook, Humphrey Bogart played a series of distinguished roles, climaxing with his Oscar-winning triumph in The African Queen. Ingrid Bergman's roles in Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Gaslight seemed to presage a lengthy stardom, but the scandal concerning her affair with director Roberto Rossellini stalled her in the late 1940s. Thomson presents little more than a brief overview of each star's career but discusses what he considers their best films in somewhat more detail. His look at the actors' personal lives includes his quirky suppositions about their sex lives, and he often writes as if speaking, sometimes quite disconcertingly, directly to the reader. VERDICT These books seem intended primarily for film buffs with limited knowledge of these particular stars as well as curious general readers.—Roy Liebman, formerly with California State Univ., Los Angeles

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Around the middle of the twentieth century, the advances in photography and self-knowledge came together in a generation of people who loved to be photographed, but who may have confused the process with love itself. Take Ingrid Bergman.

The crucial film was called Intermezzo, and the first version, the Swedish, was released in 1936. It is the story of a celebrated concert violinist, Holger Brandt (Gösta Ekman, forty-six at the time), a married man with children. He discovers a new accompanist, Anita Hoffman (Ingrid Bergman, twenty-one). Perhaps it is the force of spring storms melting the winter ice, perhaps it is just their rapport when playing the theme from Intermezzo together. They fall rapturously in love and the burnished, aching face of Ingrid Bergman beholds her own glory and her shame – she becomes prettier in love (this mutation is inescapable) and yet she foresees the ignominy of an adulterous affair that even in up-to-date Sweden threatens social order and the rules of the game. At the level of melodrama, the dilemma is posed, and it will never go away – what is an artist to do with life? Anita Hoffman plays discreet and obedient piano backgrounds to the male soloist she loves, but there is no getting away from the pulse of her own creative aspirations. She wants to be in love and to be glorious and, whatever the obstacles or difficulties, she whispers to herself, ‘Courage, courage!’ Ingrid Bergman is the embodiment of brave discovery: we fall into her face just as she slips away from guilt or friction in the lovely glide of being seen – recognized.

Gösta Ekman is very good in Intermezzo, and it is a film about the male character. He has the spiritual egotism of a lofty artist, but he looks haunted, too, by his love for Anita. Ekman and Ingrid were close. They had worked together several times and Ingrid in her diary had talked of marrying Ekman’s son (who was her age) as the next best thing. Yet it’s clear which man she worshipped, and it’s easy to imagine the warmth between them. Gösta gave her bouquets of carnations after Intermezzo and told her she was on her way. She even doubted that she could act without him. But in January 1938, he died, and the desperate look on his face became easier to understand. A woman like Ingrid Bergman had to learn early that men were going to fall in love with her, and give off that same hopeless look you see in fading flowers.

At 230 Park Avenue, in those days in the building that housed the New York offices of Selznick International Pictures, there was a Swedish elevator operator, and he very likely knew that the important person at SIP – apart from Mr Selznick and his partner, Mr Whitney – was Kay Brown. Ms Brown was a small, busy, brown-haired woman, with an inquisitive, friendly smile and a great deal on her mind. But the elevator operator thought he would tell her nevertheless, and just in the time it took to go up and down he mentioned this Swedish film with the lovely girl. The picture was called Intermezzo. ‘Really?’ said Kay Brown, like someone who was always being offered hot tips, but who had learned long ago that you never could tell.

‘Intermezzo,’ said the operator again. ‘You have to see this picture. The girl!’

In time, Kay Brown would tell the girl herself the story of the Swedish elevator operator, and the girl smiled, as if confirming the idea that life was like a movie where you could be several thousand miles away, absolutely unaware, as something was happening that might determine your life or change its direction. ‘That’s lovely!’ the girl told Kay Brown.

‘Maybe so,’ said Ms Brown, ‘but you’re the lovely one.’

And Ingrid Bergman gave Kay her best smile, that terrific knockout glow that worked just as well life-size as it did on a screen thirty feet high. Here was the thing about Ingrid Bergman: what you got on the screen was there in life. You didn’t have to do anything but turn it loose, and let life do the rest. And Ingrid’s smile flowered, to think that life could be so generous.

But in Stockholm, in 1939, when Kay Brown had flown there in a small plane in the snows to meet the Swedish actress, still the American had wondered about her own job. She was a talent scout and what she saw was amazing raw talent. But Ingrid Bergman seemed happy with her husband and a new baby. Kay Brown made the offer, as was her job – to invite Ms Bergman to come to America. But she was wary. She got Ingrid on her own and she said, ‘You know, you’ve got a lovely home and a lovely baby. If I were you I would think it over very carefully.’

But Ingrid was sure. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘if there are people as nice as you in America and in Hollywood, then I’m sure I shall like it, so I shall go, and take the risk.’

So she went, leaving her husband and the eight-month-old baby. There was another pleasant surprise in the discussions. Selznick International would fly her to America. She wouldn’t have to swim!

The above may catch you unawares. It is something with which you will have had very little experience – it is an Ingrid Bergman joke. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the story I’ve just told is hostile to her, much less that it puts her in a false or an unkind light. It’s just that I am suggesting that Ingrid Bergman had a calling, allied to a gravitational attraction, and a will that was not to be resisted. She had to act, and see most of the things that happened to her as moments in the act. Thus, with even a younger child in hand, she would have volunteered herself as someone who might swim and walk from Stockholm to Los Angeles if it meant a better opportunity to act. This was in no way mercenary. As we shall see, for several years she was ruthlessly exploited by her owner. Yet she hardly noticed the money. She worked for love of the job, for her soul.

Stories, or fiction-like events, happened to Ingrid Bergman – it was as if life was doing its best to rise to her great desire, or need. For example, she made the journey with Kay Brown in the spring of 1939 as her Europe waited for war. She got to New York, and then she took the train across country. And so she came to Los Angeles, to Beverly Hills, and Kay Brown took her up to the Selznick house on Summit Drive on a Sunday morning.

When they got there, Irene Selznick was sitting on the lawn of the great house listening to the broadcast of a horse race on the radio. Ingrid waited patiently until it was over. And then Irene Selznick greeted her and welcomed her and explained that her husband – Mr Selznick – was at the studio where, even on a Sunday, they were making something called Gone With the Wind.

‘Where is your luggage?’ asked Mrs Selznick, and Ingrid indicated just the one suitcase she had put down at the edge of the lawn.

So she was shown her room at the Selznick house and Irene said that Ingrid should accompany her that evening on a social engagement. She was having dinner at the Beachcomber restaurant with Grace Moore, Miriam Hopkins and Richard Barthelmess. Ingrid was to come along, too. And Mr Selznick? Ingrid asked. Oh, he’ll be by.

She went to the restaurant where she rather intimidated Richard Barthelmess by towering over him. And then they all went back to Miriam Hopkins’ house. It got to be one o’clock in the morning and Ingrid was dozing, when someone told her that Mr Selznick was in the kitchen. He was at the table, stuffing himself with food. He looked up and saw her height, he groaned and said, ‘God! Take your shoes off.’ He studied her and said her name was impossible. It sounded German. Perhaps they’d use her husband’s name – ‘Lindstrom.’

The young Swedish woman said, no, that was not possible – ‘That’s the name I was born with and people will have to learn to pronounce it.’

Selznick sighed and turned to other things that might be more easily managed: her eyebrows, her teeth, her make-up – she needed a lot of work.

At this, Ingrid Bergman told her boss, ‘I think you’ve made a big mistake, Mr Selznick. You shouldn’t have bought the pig in the sack. I thought you saw me in the movie Intermezzo, and liked me, and sent Kay Brown across to Sweden to get me. Now you’ve seen me, you want to change everything. So I’d rather not do the movie. We’ll say no more about it. No trouble of any kind. We’ll just forget it. I’ll take the next train and go back home.’

There are ways of interpreting that scene: Selznick was exhausted, eating to get fuel, while she had had the advantage of a nap. Or that she sized him up immediately as a gambler, and called him. It would be a part of that reading that she guessed at Selznick’s chronic weakness, his habit of second-guessing himself, and knew that if she stayed firm and resolute he would be eating out of her hand. If. If? If Ingrid Bergman had it, by force of will and nature, if she had such an immediately likeable personality and such an untouched, natural starriness that any compromise was stupid. And she had to be liked for herself. So he envisaged the package over Miriam Hopkins’ kitchen table. He took her at her own word and saw that time and again this towering young woman from Sweden was going to tell her own story, and succeed or fail on the strength of her bold honesty. You didn’t flatter this one by telling her you loved her and sending her flowers and paying her the earth. You had to love her. So let her have her way – take the easy way out. If only he’d had the good sense then and there to let her great emotional energy rescue him. If only he’d seen that his part in her play was to yield, to agree, to be hers – it might have been the saving of David O. Selznick, even before Gone With the Wind opened. Still, he went as far as he could.

The very next day, taking Ingrid around his studio, introducing her and putting his first spin on her, he said, ‘I’ve got an idea that’s so simple and yet no one in Hollywood has ever tried it before. Nothing about you is going to be touched. Nothing altered. You remain yourself. You are going to be the first "natural" actress.’

Ingrid breaks into the most radiant smile anyone in America has seen yet – a smile like the first time she ever saw her daughter Pia. And this is the moment when some sour comedian telling the story might add, ‘And Ingrid Bergman looks at him, and says "OK, then, you can call me Rumpelstiltskin!"’

There are actors and actresses with unhappy childhoods – or with stories of their own upbringing that seem to beg for sympathy and understanding. It is hard, in fact, to find a life more disturbed than that of Ingrid Bergman’s. But do not expect any great song of loneliness or deprivation from Ingrid herself. In the photographs that survive she seems to shine with confidence as much as she gives off the lounging air of health and vitality. Her early years had been filled with loss and uncertainty. An ordinary person might have become convinced of her own misfortune or unhappiness. But Ingrid Bergman seems to have taken it all in her large stride. After all, it was not quite so much that she was destined to be a person, as an actress. Now an actress cannot have too much happening to her. She collects imagined experiences and other types like a boy steaming stamps off envelopes. A time will come when she may be the greatest actress in the world in scenes of distress, inner misery, heartfelt confession and being a natural victim. But the woman who could convey that turmoil seldom weakened or cracked in herself. She was a warrior. We must not forget that she was half German.

Her mother was Friedel Adler, from Hamburg. As a young woman, Friedel had visited Sweden (there are regular ferries from Hamburg to Stockholm) and she had met Justus Samuel Bergman. The story was that she met Justus walking in the woods and coming on a glade where he was painting. He was thirteen years older than Friedel but they fell in love and wanted to marry. The Adlers were not excited: Justus was Swedish; he was too old; and he did too little. So he stopped painting and opened a photography shop in Stockholm – in his own pictures, he is an amusing, small-featured man, dark, humorous, with a teasing glance into the camera. But he was respectable enough now to be married, and on 29 August 1915 Ingrid was born in Stockholm. When the child was 3, Friedel died of liver disease. Ingrid hardly recalled her except as a figure in photographs, or in the stories told by her father.

Excerpted from Ingrid Bergman by David Thomson.
Copyright © 2009 by David Thomson.
Published in 2010 by Faber and Faber.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Meet the Author

DAVID THOMSON is, among many other things, the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition. His recent books include a biography of Nicole Kidman, Fan Tan (a novel written in collaboration with Marlon Brando), and The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. His latest work is the acclaimed Have You Seen . . . ?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Born in London, he now lives in San Francisco.

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