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Ingrid Bergman: The shy actress with a lion inside

A revealing new documentary gives an insight into the life of the Swedish film star who scandalised Hollywood but enchanted a generation

By Paul Whitington

Published 13/08/2016

Screen chemistry: Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, 1942
Screen chemistry: Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, 1942

The great stars of the 1930s and 40s can sometimes seem trapped behind an impenetrable layer of monochrome, but at the start of Stig Bjorkman's documentary, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, we see the actress in colour. She's sitting for a David O Selznick screen test, is 23, and utterly flawless. Whichever way she looks, her extraordinary beauty is invulnerable: with her dark blonde hair, perfect, peachy skin and huge, soulful eyes, it's not hard to see why Hollywood, and America fell in love with her.

Most touching of all, though, is the shy and bashful smile she gives to the camera as the test ends: she's come from a quiet place, and has no idea what lies ahead of her. Bergman's life would never run smoothly, and her Hollywood career was interrupted by a personal scandal that was blown out of all proportion. Hounded by the Press and denounced on the floor of the US Senate, she fled to Italy to begin a new life, but that wouldn't be the last of Ingrid's adventures.

They began in Stockholm, on August 29, 1915, and Mr Bjorkman's moving and intimate film runs more or less chronologically through her story with the help of testimonies from family and friends, entries from Bergman's exhaustive diaries, and clips from home movies she took herself. The actress was obsessed with film and photography, and left behind a fascinating personal archive.

Ingrid was the only child of a German mother and Swedish father, but when she was just two, her mum died of jaundice. Her father, Justus, doted on her: he was an artist and photographer, and was probably responsible for her lifelong love affair with the camera.

But when Ingrid was 13 tragedy struck again, as her beloved father died of cancer. Distraught, she sought refuge in make-believe.

In an interview with Michael Parkinson, she recalled being "a sad child, and very lonely, and I think that is how I saved myself, to invent the characters that I could talk to. Because I was terribly shy, shy in school, and if I had all these imaginary characters around, you see, I could talk to them and they answered back ... and that was how I became an actress."

Within a year of her father's death, she confided to her diary that "I'm head of the school's theatre club, I like dancing and being popular". At 18, she was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatre School: her talent blossomed, and within a year she'd left to pursue film acting full-time.

Bergman made 10 films in five years and soon her beauty and on-screen presence were being noted outside Sweden. In 1939, in a letter to her friend, Mollie, Ingrid confided that: "The heart of the film world has contacted me a couple of times, but this time I accepted. David O Selznick wants me to be in a new version of my big success, Intermezzo." By this time she was married, and had a little girl, but that was not about to deter her.

She was 23 when she left for Hollywood to sign with Selznick Pictures, leaving her young family behind for the moment. On the voyage someone said to her: "You'll never be an actress - you're too tall." Bergman remembered thinking to herself: "He knows nothing about me."

"I was the shyest creature in the world," she said later. "But I had a lion inside me that wouldn't keep quiet."

David Selznick took her under his wing, put her up in his own house and introduced her to Hollywood by throwing a lavish party. Ingrid sat in a corner, and "watched people arriving, Clark Gable, Joan Bennett, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper. I was so happy, I couldn't speak. To think that I, a girl from Stockholm, was here, surrounded by film stars".

She was assigned a personal voice coach to knock the edges off her heavy accent, and Ingrid was a quick study. After modest success in films like Intermezzo (the US version) and Rage in Heaven, she was cast opposite Spencer Tracy in Victor Fleming's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. That got her noticed and led to more interesting work.

In 1942, she mentioned to her friend Mollie that she was working on a movie "called Casablanca, an exciting film. Humphrey Bogart is the male lead, if you know who he is. He's interesting, not the typical 'glamour boy'".

Nothing much needs to be said about the luminous quality of her performance in that film, and in 1944 she won her first Oscar in Gaslight, playing a woman driven to the edge of insanity by her scheming husband. By this stage her husband and daughter had joined her in Hollywood, but Ingrid had a restless spirit, a desire for adventure that seemed to overwhelm her.

Before his death, Gregory Peck spoke of his affair with Bergman during the making of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Spellbound. In 1945, Ingrid met and fell in love with Robert Capa, the war photographer. But the final straw in her first marriage came in 1949, when she saw an Italian film called Paisan and was so moved she decided to contact its director, Roberto Rossellini. She wrote a letter offering her services, he cast her in his next film, Stromboli, they fell in love and she fell pregnant.

Back in America, the knives were out. Studios were pressurised not to use Bergman, and a US senator publicly denounced her. Bergman stayed in Italy, and rode it out.

She had three children with Rossellini, and starred in a string of his films. But maintaining a private life in Italy proved, if anything, even more difficult, and the couple and their kids became the paparazzi's favourite prey. Rossellini was difficult, and controlling, and though Bergman was excited at first by the spontaneity of his neo-realist films, she quickly realised they weren't suited to her talents at all.

He refused to let her appear in other people's films and, in 1957, the couple separated. "I experienced such happiness with Roberto," she confided to her diary, "but such misery, too. I tried so hard to live with him. But I know my life has changed. He has left me. He's going to have a baby with a woman in India. I feel strangely relieved."

The perceived wisdom about Bergman's life is that her affair with Rossellini destroyed her career, which she later tried and failed to resuscitate, but this isn't true at all. She loved her profession, perhaps above all things, and once said that if "you took acting away from me, I would stop breathing".

Just before her separation from Rossellini, she was persuaded by the great Jean Renoir to appear in a charming and underrated French period comedy called Elena et ses Hommes (1956). Working with Renoir helped restore her confidence, and the same year she teamed up with Anatole Litvak to make another period film, Anastasia. It won her another Oscar, and when she returned to America to receive it, she was welcomed with open arms.

In 1958 she was reunited with her old friend Cary Grant to make the hit romantic comedy Indiscreet. And when film roles began drying up in the 1960s, she turned to the theatre instead, helped by her third husband Lars Schmidt, a noted producer.

As she entered her 60s, she kept furiously working, and arguably saved the best until last. Her final film was a thoroughly Swedish affair: directed by the great Ingmar Bergman and co-starring Liv Ullmann, Autumn Sonata charted the dark and complex relationship between a mother and her daughter.

She was brilliant in it, and conclusively proved that her greatest asset as a film actress was her ability to appear completely natural and at ease in front of a camera. She was just 67 when she succumbed to breast cancer, in 1982, leaving behind a unique and utterly distinctive legacy.

A nosy reporter once asked Ingrid Bergman if she had any regrets about what she'd done. She replied with a blinding smile: "No, I don't do regrets at all - I regret the things I didn't do, not what I did. I was given courage and I was given a sense of adventure, and that has carried me along."

Belfast Telegraph

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