The top lines of the Ingrid Bergman story are usually of martyrs, conflicted women and saints, on screen and off. After a promising start in her native country, the Oscar-winning Swedish actress, who died in 1982 on her 67th birthday, was signed by David O. Selznick, who later shrewdly took the credit for her then-revolutionary refusal to undergo the usual glam Hollywood image machine makeover and name change. That simple, earthy goodness and dignified presence became her image, one that is celebrated in a new retrospective now on at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
But as film historian David Thomson writes in his study, Bergman was much more than "just a sweet, virtuous, 'natural' Swedish girl – she was a dark sensualist over whom many men might go mad. Her very gaze delivered a climate of adult romantic expectation." It did so in unexpected ways – Bergman is the subject, for instance, of wistful, erotic longing in lyrics by the otherwise politically and socially charged folk singer Woody Guthrie. (Unheard until set to melody by Billy Bragg for 1998's Mermaid Avenue, the song was written in 1950, after Bergman had made Stromboli.)
Then there is the chapter of the scandalous adultery, the child out of wedlock with neorealist director Roberto Rossellini (after writing him a fan letter in 1949) and her subsequent banishment from the U.S. The narrative of Bergman's stardom, fall from grace and eventual restoration is a case study that says a lot about mid-century America, celebrity and the film industry.
She was slut-shamed by influential syndicated columnist Hedda Hopper not because of the pregnancy but because competitor Louella Parsons got the scoop first. The scandal was of such magnitude she was denounced in Congress (as an "instrument of evil" – though a formal apology was entered into Congressional record in 1972).
But what matters more than these details are the consistently good, or at least interesting, projects Bergman chose to make throughout her career, whether she was saint, sinner or simultaneously both.
Almost inevitably, many parallel her own biography – from Joan of Arc and Grand Duchess Anastasia to the Marchesa Casati and Golda Meir. In Anastasia (1956), she is a princess attempting to win back the public who has left her for dead; in Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata (1978), she is a concert pianist who has not seen her daughters for seven years (during the Rossellini years, she was estranged from eldest daughter Pia Lindström for six); and in her final role, in the A Woman Called Golda (1982) TV movie, she is the feisty, fragile and dignified older Israeli prime minister dying of cancer.
The screen icon comes down to earth and flesh vividly in Ingrid Bergman: A Life in Pictures, edited by Lothar Schirmer and daughter Isabella Rossellini (Chronicle Books). There's a transcript of Bergman's splendidly candid on-stage interview with film historian John Kobal from 1972, but the main attraction is that it's a hefty album that combines rare and personal photographs of film, theatre and personal life with just the right biographical details, including Bergman's own observations and reminiscences and those of friends and writers (such as John Updike and Liv Ullmann).
TIFF's mini-retrospective of her bigger pictures – Casablanca, Gaslight, et al., including the lesser-known Alfred Hitchcock entry Under Capricorn – overlap with the last of the Lightbox's Summer in Italy program that includes restored versions of several Bergman/Rossellini collaborations. Together, the couple made uncanny psychodramas.
In Europe '51, for instance, Bergman is a bereaved socialite atoning for neglectful parenting; soon, an uneasy marriage is in peril in the influential Journey to Italy (disintegrating) and more so again in Fear (based on the Stefan Zweig novella; disintegrated, full stop).
I wish there were some of the more obscure titles in the retrospective, though, because The Visit is another such curiosity – the dark 1964 Cinecittà revenge drama about what happens when a town's prodigal daughter returns triumphant, imperious and filthy rich after being shunned for immorality. Think The Scarlet Letter meets The Lottery. It could be the allegory of her Hollywood experience.
Notorious: Celebrating the Ingrid Bergman Centenary runs from Aug. 22 to Sept. 6 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.