There was a detour, however. A stint at the Swedish
Royal Theatre not only imbued Bergman with a grab-bag of
thespian fundamentals the equal of Welles or Gielgud,
but also provided her with the nous to call ‘bullshit’ on
a sub-par narrative. Simply put, by the time she arrived in
Tinseltown to star in 1939’s Intermezzo: A Love
Story, she was nothing short of a bilingual Nordic
goddess wunderkind who could give Olivier a run for his money
on the boards while looking way better in a
cocktail dress. So crucial was she to the project
that instead of just buying the rights to the 1936 Swedish
version of Intermezzo, American producer David
O. Selznick acquired its star. There wasn’t an actress in
Hollywood he believed could do it justice. Lana Turner?
Veronica Lake? Oh, please. Bergman spun phrases of silvery
eloquence when many of her contemporaries relied on teeth
and tits. Consider: “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by
nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” Find me
a comparable tweet from Jennifer Lawrence and I’ll go
By the time she returned to the U.S. in 1943,
after fulfilling some contractual obligations in her
homeland, she was already being hailed, with some
hyperbole, as ‘Sweden’s illustrious gift to Hollywood’. She
delivered a note-perfect performance in what is considered a
near-faultless piece of cinema: Casablanca. As
the star-crossed paramour Ilsa Lund to Bogart’s
Rick Blaine, she blended Katharine Hepburn’s strength with Audrey
Hepburn’s beauty and burnished the two with a
patina of her own. When Bogie raised his glass to her
with the immortal farewell, “Here’s looking at you, kid”,
he did it for men living and yet to be born.
The line “Play it again, Sam” is one of the greatest movie
misquotes of all time. What Bogart actually says is, “You
played it for her, now play it for me, play it, Sam.” But
no matter: the song Bogart was referring to — As Time
Goes By — became an apt soundtrack to Bergman’s entire career.
With each year and film, the adoration grew deeper.
Her gifts in front of a camera were almost as good as her
knack of choosing roles like a veteran thesp. In
refusing the mighty Selznick, she once said: “I won’t do this movie
because I don’t believe the love story. The heroine is an
intellectual woman, and an intellectual woman simply can’t fall in
love so deeply.” You said it, sister. And this was more than
10 years before Marilyn was reduced to flashing her underpants
in order to create memorable movie moments.
In 1943 Bergman received an Oscar nomination for For
Whom the Bell Tolls. A year later she won it
for Gaslight and 12 months later celebrated
another Oscar nomination, for The
Bells of St Mary’s. It was off screen in 1949
that Bergman faced her greatest challenge. While
filming Stromboli in Italy she
fell hard for director Roberto Rossellini and soon left
her husband, Dr Peter Lindstrom, and her daughter.
Conservative America was outraged that a woman could abandon her
family in such a manner, especially as she was pregnant
to her new lover. But Bergman was never one to be pushed into roles
she wasn’t interested in, so she responded to the ‘home
wrecker’ taunts with characteristic sangfroid. “I have no
regrets,” she said. “I wouldn’t have lived my life the
way I did if I was going to worry about what people were going to
say.” And as with her screen performances, you believed
She and Rossellini married and the couple had two
children, Isotta and Isabella.
But talent and box-office allure trumps the moral majority every
time. As Cary
Grant noted: “There are only seven movie stars
in the world whose name alone will induce American bankers to lend
money for movie productions, and the only woman on the list is
For 1956’s Anastasia, Bergman took home her second
Academy Award. As the decades rolled by, she settled into a
patrician grace, and in 1978 received her final Academy Award
nomination, for the bittersweet Autumn Sonata.
The scandal was forgotten and the word ‘icon’ was the go-to
phrase. Wryer than a fresh-baked sourdough, she would later remark,
“I’ve gone from saint to whore and back to saint
again, all in one lifetime.”
True to form, she forged new territory in her final
performance, as the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the
1982 TV mini series A Woman Called Golda.
Bergman won the Emmy for best actress but died in London from
cancer before the ceremony, almost as if to ensure we would be
talking about her after she was gone.
Originally published in Issue 39 of The Rake, April 2015.
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