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Two Swedish Heroines

The resemblance between two women, born 300 years apart, is striking. And we have the silver screen to thank for their examples - in years of legendary acting and in a new film - all expressions of their liberating destinies, their lives and talent, and why they are national icons in their own right. Here is part 1 in a series.


Ezra Pound proclaimed artists to be “the antennae of the race.” It is interesting how film alerts us to new dilemmas or ironically shows us that dilemmas of earlier generations are not our own; we have new ones.

Drama and film immerse us somewhat like a Greek chorus into an alternative situation where we can observe and learn – in this case, from a character or from an actor whose learning and life experience helped strengthen her. Whether or not grasped by her own generation, others would learn from her example.

Two Swedish heroines are good examples of this; and in their confident independence and dedication to fulfill their liberal and liberating destinies, we have drama and film to see expressions of their lives and talent, and why they are as noble as any celebrated as a national hero.

They are Queen Kristina and Ingrid Bergman.

Sweden’s distinguished history of cinema was at Sweden’s Pavilion during the 100th anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco, providing an opportunity to coincide the commemoration of that centennial with the centennial of the birth of Sweden’s internationally famed actress Ingrid Bergman. And in October, the Mill Valley 38th Film Festival presented a multi-media exhibit commissioned by Strandverket Art Museum in Marstrand, Sweden, The Saga of Ingrid Bergman, in 30 photographs and a multimedia video chronicling the life and career of this triple Academy Award Oscar winner.

Swedish author, critic and journalist Ulrika Knutson visited the film festival to speak about Ingrid Bergman, and having so recently seen The Girl King about Queen Kristina (see part 2 in the next issue), I was interested in the similarities between the lives of these two Swedish women who lived centuries apart. Part II of this story: Queen Kristina, the Girl King

Celebrating a Swedish heroine
From a very early age Ingrid Bergman played make-believe, assuming the roles of people, animals or inanimate objects. In her father’s studio, she loved to dress up in her mother’s clothes to act among his settings and stage props. While her father had encouraged her to study opera, she simply loved acting in his photo studio; he photographed her occasionally.

While Kristina grew up as a studious and athletic tomboy, playing more with princes than with girls, Ingrid also seemed cloistered, if not with books, at least with her characters and their dramas. Ingrid was admitted to Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Academy, much as Greta Garbo had been, and began acting professionally from her first year there.

In both cases, such publicity while still an apprentice was objected to by the academics. So, Ingrid left after a year to learn better lessons on the set rather than in the academy. And her youthful passion for acting strengthened as she tried to express each character to perfection.

She married an ambitious dentist, Petter Lindström, who was initially very helpful in managing her career. Her career progressed as her talent and beauty were noticed, and each movie advanced her to a better role, to better directors, and to better films. She was paired with a major Swedish actor, Gösta Ekman, in the Swedish film Intermezzo (1936), catching the eye of impresario David O. Selznick half a world away — rather like Barnum had imported Jenny Lind — bringing her to the U.S.

As they did to Kristina, older authoritarian men tried to make Ingrid conform to their rules: Selznick wanted to change her name and her shape, and apply makeup to her like all Hollywood stars. She refused and he accepted, rationalizing his decision as revealing her natural beauty. She persuaded Selznick to accept a one-year contract over the multi-year one he offered her. Later he offered her a seven-year contract, but she chose a shorter one. Ingrid expected to return to her country and family to continue her career, she was neither star struck nor desperate for Hollywood’s adulation. That was never her goal; she only wanted to be a superb actress.

On her return to Sweden she acted in the Swedish movie, A Woman’s Face (1938), a rather horrific film about a woman whose burn-scarred face turned her toward a life of crime, only to be rescued by her victim, a plastic surgeon, who redeemed her life. The success of that film led to her co-starring with Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), under the direction of Victor Fleming, fresh from Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Rather like Kristina practicing militarism and becoming a skilled swordswoman, the beautiful Ingrid now was “out of character” starring in her second horror film. And once again she exerted her will for the betterment of her career but against the advice of the experts.

This film, interestingly, was an expression of her delight in playing ambiguous roles rather than sweetheart ones, into which directors tried to predictably fit her. Here she turned down the lead — the studio offered it to Lana Turner — allowing herself to take a more interesting but minor role that she could really develop, an overtly sado-masochistic one with a daring sexual performance, but which nevertheless displayed new artistic heights and the breadth of roles that she could not merely fill but fulfill.

That role and the success of the film launched her into her most famous film, Casablanca (1942), with Humphrey Bogart. Though never expected to be the classic it is, the actors and their roles are all superb, and it is always rated among the best films ever.

In her next film, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), author Ernest Hemingway had specifically chosen Bergman for the part of Maria. The film did poorly but Ingrid was excellent, and Hemingway expressed how much he admired her as Maria. Knutson mentioned in her presentation that the shamed girl with her chopped haircut as played by Bergman still looked so fetching that she became a fashion trend-setter, and women everywhere now wanted “Maria curls.”

The following year she starred with Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944), another horror film of a manipulative husband driving his wife insane until she turns the tables on him. Once again, she had a most challenging role and makes it eerily credible. But this characterization of a young woman trusting the guidance of a dominant older man seemed to presage her own marriage.

While Ingrid’s career kept her away from home, her husband raised their daughter, Pia, even as he also attended medical school in the U.S, eventually becoming a brain surgeon who later lived and practiced in San Francisco. For seven years his management had freed Ingrid to concentrate on her career. Bergman’s biographer, Donald Spoto, discovered in their correspondence that Lindström was always berating and belittling Ingrid. The marriage already seemed to be on the rocks, said Knutson. Under these circumstances, and while surrounded by admiring and handsome men, perhaps it is not surprising that she had a number of affairs with her cinematic colleagues. Perhaps this is what made her acting in Gaslight so authentic, for which she earned her first Oscar for Best Actress.

Ingrid turned to the master of suspense films, Alfred Hitchcock. She was his first blonde bombshell, yet their lifelong friendship was genuine and remained one of mutual admiration. The first of her three films with Hitchcock was Spellbound (1945) with Gregory Peck, but the magic really happened with Cary Grant in her second Hitchcock film, Notorious (1946). Her last film with Hitchcock was Under Capricorn (1949), which followed a role she had wanted to play since coming to Hollywood and which she had played on stage: Joan of Arc (1948). She was admired as one of the most accomplished actresses in Hollywood.

Journey to Italy
Ingrid saw two movies by director Roberto Rossellini, notable for his Italian realism. She was so moved by these movies and his use of real people — rather than celebrity actors — in realistic settings and circumstances, that she went home and wrote the director of her admiration for his work and her interest in acting in one of his films. He invited her to act in his next film, Stromboli (1950), about volcanoes and love, and by the time they began filming, their love and life together was already the talk of Italy. (His mistress was so furious that she erupted by producing another volcano film, which opened at the same time as Ingrid’s. Italy began taking sides in a national debate - not about Ingrid’s affair and pregnancy as much as in objection to Rossellini’s preference for a Swede over an Italian.)

As the film opened in the U.S, Ingrid birthed her son, divorced her husband, and married her director. This created a scandal in puritanical America – creating a most glaring similarity between the public reaction to Ingrid’s adultery and to Kristina’s homosexuality, apostasy and abdication.

This period in her life forged the steel in her character. Ingrid chose to lead her life by love and to nurture the passion for her craft. With Rossellini she had three children and was particularly protective of them against the paparazzi who pursued them. Lindström, however, would not allow their daughter, Pia, to have any communication with Ingrid during the child’s adolescence, and when they finally did meet again, it was widely publicized and almost celebrated throughout Sweden.

Together Bergman and Rossellini produced six films; however, while the director remained fascinated by the photogenic face of his beautiful wife, they drifted apart and divorced. After their last film, A Trip to Italy (Viaggio in Italia, 1954), even the U.S. studios were once again clamoring for Ingrid’s return.

Her next picture, Anastasia (1956), co-starring Yul Brynner, captivated America, as symbolized by a cover of Life magazine. In our anti-communistic hysteria during the Cold War, we were willing to forgive the Swede, and to cap off her return, Ingrid was awarded her second Oscar for Best Actress.

She still refused to be typecast, though she returned to her role as a pious person in Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), where she starred as a heroic missionary in China to help rural communities abandon foot-binding. Almost a dozen films and almost a quarter century later, she would again play a missionary in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), when, true to form, she rebelled against conventional experts typecasting her as the lead, preferring the complexity of a minor role, for which she won her third Oscar, this time for Best Supporting Actress.

By 1978 she fulfilled another lifelong ambition: to work with Sweden’s other famed cinematic Bergman, when she and Ingmar Bergman teamed together on Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten, 1978). This was a defining moment, for though she did not publicize it, she was dying of cancer throughout the filming. The working relationship between the two Bergmans was contentious because Ingmar felt a proprietary right for having written the script and for directing the film, while Ingrid felt a proprietary right to interpret the character.

Characteristically the director consistently dismissed the actress as antique and inflexible, even after her death. As Knutson noted, it is truly ironic that Ingmar took umbrage when a French critic noted that this film, a masterpiece for each of them (for which she received her seventh Academy Award nomination), was truly “an Ingrid Bergman film,” while Knutson called Rossellini’s last film with Ingrid his “Ingmar Bergman film.”

Over the course of her lifetime, Ingrid appeared in 50 films, seven television productions, 14 theater plays, 51 radio shows and three audio recordings, all in the span of half a century. During the filming of her last film, the actress never complained nor slackened her work schedule or the demands of her character, although she knew she was dying. Indeed, after finishing the film, she died of breast cancer on her 67th birthday on August 29, 1982 in London, England. Most of her ashes were scattered in the sea around her beloved village of Fjällbacka on the west coast of Sweden where she often summered, and a small portion was buried in a family plot in Stockholm.

Centuries apart, striking similarities
The similarities between Queen Kristina and Ingrid Bergman are clear and intriguing: Both women had unusual and formative childhoods. Each was tested on multiple occasions. Each found love in relationships that were supported neither publicly nor officially. Both had a passion for understanding and furthering human intelligence and compassion. Both were nurtured by the arts and patronized other artists. And both achieved international recognition for their accomplishments.

One is almost tempted to invoke Polonius’s advice: “To thine own self be true,” until one remembers that the conclusion of the sentence is: “and it shall follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Perhaps we should leave Shakespeare with the last word, with that irony tweaking us. I’m sure both Kristina and Ingrid would delight in the premier dramatist’s quotation applied to their own circumstances and the ironic weight upon the final word.

By Ted Olsson
San Francisco

The Girl King is distributed in the U.S. though Wolfe Releasing and will be available on DVD, VOD and in select theaters in December 2015.
Rialto Pictures has the North American theatrical rights to Ingrid Bergman - In her own words. The film, which had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on November 13 and later in select cities and theaters. For more info, see www.rialtopictures.com


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