Ingrid Bergman: The Transcendental Movie Star

Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words offers a rare glimpse into the inner-life of one of Hollywood's most enigmatic movie stars.

More than any sparkling fixture of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Ingrid Bergman was a restless spirit. Other marquee names went through phases of career (and spouses) like the changing fashion of seasons, but the Swedish born Bergman, who would have turned 100 this year, went through all of life with a transcendentalist flair—often displaying an intense nostalgia for the past while rarely holding a tether to her present time and place. She was, in her own words, “rootless,” and all the happier for it.

That is perhaps the biggest takeaway of Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, a new Swedish documentary about the woman who starred in Hollywood’s most enduring motion picture—1942’s Casablanca—and then years later fled the U.S. for the better part of a decade in scandal and industry exile. But hardly the last act of her career, this self-inflicted banishment represented a uniquely transient attitude that followed her for all her days.

In Her Own Words, which premiered at the New York Film Festival this past weekend, is striking because of its intimacy in knowing the actress. Whereas most documentaries about movie stars still have the glossy sheen of monochrome glory from years past, dutifully following their triumphs and tragedies with the most fawning of rosy hued tints, this film is more impressionistic of the woman’s spirit because so much of it is drafted from her own hand.

Constructed almost entirely through recitals of Bergman’s literary musings, whether in a diary she kept in her youth or through letters she sent all her life to close friends like Irene Selznick (wife of producer David O. Selznick), as well as interviews with her four children over two (overlapping) marriages, there is hardly a single cut of contemporary news reel reporting or breathless paparazzi sizzle here. Rather than the approach of so many Gene Feldman documentaries, which sanitized cinema legends’ lives with the same fairy dust that is sprinkled throughout their careers, Words is intensely personal because of how narrow its focus truly tends to be. For Bergman, this precision was first aimed at her career, and then the personal life, which frequently intruded on the former professional passions.

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Heavily influenced by her father Justus Bergman—a photographer who died when Bergman was just 13—Ingrid photographed and filmed much of her whole life via home movies. They created memories that she held onto far longer than the homes they chronicled. As a consequence, the documentary is aided immensely in B-roll footage of Bergman’s vacations and travels, giving it a more emotional tangibility over meticulous print biographies; it’s indeed a prescient contrast represented between Bergman’s own personal and well documented anxieties and the happiness she filmed around her.

Bergman is most known to American audiences, myself included, for her string of Hollywood classics filmed between 1939 and 1949. In that time of Tinsletown glory, she appeared in Selznick’s Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939), an American remake of one of her Swedish hits, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), Casablanca, Gaslight (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), and Joan of Arc (1948).

Bergman’s appeal, beyond being stunningly gorgeous and sporting a hint of the exotic, is that she often elicited an inner-life of both doubt and defiance that could take even the most reactive of personas and build a tsunami of unspoken conflict in a single glance. It is what allowed her to be torn between Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid in Casablanca, and what likely won her an Oscar in Gaslight, the beautifully photographed and gothic-lite thriller from director George Cukor. In that film, she mostly sat around while being helplessly driven mad by her moustache-twirling husband (Charles Boyer), but that madness was infectious upon seeing a movie star suffering the most unglamorous of breakdowns (by 1940s standards).

Even in Victor Fleming’s Jekyll & Hyde remake, the not-yet-a-star Bergman boils the screen with both sex and weepy pathos as the eternally damned fallen woman of the night who falls in love with Jekyll but allows herself to be ravaged by Hyde. Lana Turner was meant to be the female lead to Spencer Tracy’s good doctor in that picture, but Bergman was where both Hyde and Fleming’s passions lay.

Hitchcock of all people surmised Bergman to be an actress who treated films with more importance than her personal life, and that is an irony that both made her a pariah in the American press and still stands as a paradox decades later. First married to Petter Lindstrom before Hollywood called, Bergman writes she felt a day wasted if she idled at home with her husband and first daughter Pia Lindstrom, and was away too long from film sets. Also, while there were affairs in between Petter and her trip to Italy, it was love that chased her out of the U.S. when she worked with Italian auteur Roberto Rossellini on Stromboli.

When she and Rossellini had a child before her marriage to Petter even ended, Ingrid Bergman was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate and publicly shamed by Ed Sullivan who squirmed his way out of having her appear on his television show.

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Bergman ended up leaving Hollywood by choice and avoided appearing in a U.S. movie until 1956 (years after the offers started returning). Even then, she remained wary of stateside publicity, including via her absence from the Academy Awards where she was awarded her second Oscar for Anastasia.

The most romantic angle to gild the lily of this story would be to say that Bergman was a modern day Nora Helmer of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: a free spirit that liberated herself from moral America’s stuffy Trovald hypocrisy. However, considering the Rossellini marriage that gave Bergman three more adored children ended even faster than her Lindstrom union in 1957, the reality is not so idealized.

The strongest aspect of NYFF’s documentary is that it is partially told by relatively frank interviews with Pia Lindstrom, Robertino Rossellini, Isabella Rossellini, and Isotta Ingrid Rossellini. While all four children love their mother and are quick to defend her actions, each to varying degrees reflects a disappointment in a parent’s life that was always in motion. Ingrid could not bring Pia to her new family in Italy until Pia was 18-years-old (Ingrid was not granted custody after exiting the U.S. in scandal), and after her marriage to Rossellini ended, her three much younger children were left to live in their own separate home with nannies while Roberto visited on Sundays, and Ingrid pursued a new marriage to Lars Schmidt to accompany her stage career in Paris.

The documentary underlines how much Ingrid Bergman loved her children—it is all her home movies are about. But much like she was the star of her photographer father’s filmic essays, she continued to seek out adoring eyes away from family life. In contrast to Petter Lindstrom, Bergman’s next two husbands were either directors or theater producers, and the affairs in between tended to be with other photographers or filmmakers. Performance gave her life meaning, and she went where that career could continue, be it in Italian Neo-Realism (which was a mixed experience for the far more classical Bergman), or later on the Parisian and English stage.

Rather than people or “roots,” Bergman carried her photographs and home movies with her to each new spotlight. She was not the first European actress to become an American star who then gave up the U.S. mirage. But instead of bowing from the screen for retirement and secluded American life (Greta Garbo) or a family and public service one (Audrey Hepburn), Ingrid was always caught interrupted between performances.

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Therefore she must remain somewhat of an enigma, even in a documentary with unsparing, if contradictory, words from most of the children—Isabella Rossellini speaks of her mother with more than a hint of aspirational pride. Indeed, Ingrid’s happy home movies are now scored to a soundtrack of anxious words that Ingrid herself penned.

Nonetheless, she leaves behind a professional and personal life that still endures and even informs. With her 16mm camera, we can watch Bergman witness Hitler Youth march across small European villages long before she conjured up a besieged Ilsa Lund on a Warner Bros. soundstage; and we can view her own insistence of being easy-to-work with while paradoxically warring with fellow Swedish luminary Ingmar Bergman during the production of 1978’s Autumn Sonata.

Prior to her 1982 death (breast cancer), Bergman didn’t seem to live one life; she experienced several in an unbroken chain. The documentary does not wholly answer what pushed her into each one, but after a hundred years, it’s clear she was always thrilled to maintain that forward momentum.