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Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Notorious: The Life of Ingrid Bergman

This just concluded year was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ingrid Bergman, one of Hollywood's great stars. In his biography, Donald Spoto, who has chronicled the lives of many in the entertaiment industry, chooses Notorious as his title. It is, of course, one of Bergman's greatest pictures, but it also serves Spoto's purpose in another area: for a tmie, Bergman was one of the most reviled figures in America.

She was born in Sweden in 1915 and orphaned at an early age, raised by aunts (one of whom was German and an ardent Nazi). She attended drama school and was an almost instant success. She became a star of Swedish films and one of them, Intermezzo, became a hit in the U.S., attracting the attention of producer David O. Selznick, who signed her to a contract.

While reading this section, one is forced to remember how things used to be: Selznick had exclusive rights to her. He could loan her out to other studios, but she worked only when he said and doing what he said. Also, Bergman had married a dentist, Petter Lindstrom, who negotiated all her business dealings. She had virtually no say over her career.

Over the decade of the 1940s she became a superduperstar. Of course, there was Casablanca. Bergman wrote to a friend: "'The picture is called Casablanca and I really don't know what it's all about.'" Despite the film's unprecedented success, Bergman did not enjoy making it: "Ingrid, who turned in a haunting performance, was miserable during the entire production, and no one had the remotest idea that the picture would become one of the most popular and enduring films in American history."

Other hits that decade were Gaslight, for which she won an Academy Award, The Bells of St. Mary's, in which she plays a nun, Spellbound, and the aforementioned Notorious, which Spoto concludes is her greatest film. Spoto notes: "It is no exaggeration to maintain that Ingrid Bergman was at this time the least controversial, most beloved celebrity in America. Indeed, the entire Western world was hurrying to add her name to the list of those most idolized and honored."

But Bergman's marriage to Lindstrom, mostly due to separation and separate lives, had calcified. She had affairs with photographer Robert Capa and musician Larry Adler. One day she went to the cinema and saw Rome: Open City, the groundbreaking film by Roberto Rossellini. She wrote him, offering her services as an actress. He was eager to take her up on it. She ended up, a few years later, leaving Lindstrom (and her daughter, Pia) to take up with Rossellini, and bore him an illegitimate child. The effect in America was catastrophic. Legions of decency everywhere denounced her, she was even pilloried on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Her career in Hollywood was over.

She made films with Rossellini, and had twin daughters with him (Isabella Rossellini one of them). She did a lot of stage work in Europe, and slowly attitudes changed. She was approached to do a film about Anastasia, who claimed to be the daughter of the Czar. By the time the film was released, all was forgiven, and Bergman won another Oscar.

Eventually the romance and marriage with Rossellini, who was jealous and a brute, fizzled out. But she had one more marriage, and several more triumphs as an actress, including the long-awaited teaming with Ingmar Bergman in Autumn Sonata and her last role, in a television movie as Golda Meir. By this time she was ravaged with cancer (she was a heavy smoker).

Bergman died in 1982, on her 67th birthday. Spoto notes: "Yes, it had been a good life: in seven countries and in five languages, Ingrid had appeared in forty-six movies, had made eleven stage and five television appearances, and had won every kind of prize her craft bestows. From the golden girl of Stockholm's stage and screen to the ill and wizened Golda Meir--how could anyone ever explain the sheer radiance of Ingrid Bergman, or her profound artistry?"

Spoto certainly tries. It's clear he is enamored of Bergman, sometimes a little too much.  He inserts his opinions far too often. He goes on ad nauseum on how terrible a movie For Whom the Bell Tolls is (it's not bad), but there is a delight as he goes all vicious on the morality police who condemned Bergman (mostly they were American; Europeans, even the Catholic church, couldn't have cared less). But he does get to the bottom of Bergman's gifts: "Ingrid Bergman seemed, in the final analysis, to have no formal technique, and neither an intellectual approach nor a critical analysis attend her preperation. She never partook of learned or pretentious conversations about the psychology of acting...The greatness of her achievements came not from academic analysis or psychological examination but from the rare gift of empathetic and imaginative awareness."

If that weren't enough, Spoto cites dozens of instances in which she acts as a perfect lady, not putting on airs, relatable, approachable, and what might best be termed a good egg. She certainly was a great performer, it's nice to learn she was a good, if flawed, person.


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