Monday, March 25, 2013

Ingrid Bergman

The glow of sensibility and sense

     Turner Classic Movies has run a few Ingrid Bergman movies over the past few weeks and they reinforce the American Film Institute’s selection of her as the 4th greatest female film star.  She was known for her ‘naturalness’ where
she went without make-up and projected an unassuming approachability. What is amazing about her acting was its almost casual lack of pretense. 

     Some impressions about Bergman:

     I don’t believe the sans make-up story because it sounds like a David O. Selznick publicity detail.  Under studio lighting, skin would look sallow or spotted, even in black and white, without make-up, but she probably wore less than other actresses. She retained her real eyebrows and that framed her beauty.
     She spoke Swedish, German, and French, but she didn’t speak English when she arrived at twenty-four, without her husband or infant daughter, in Hollywood for her first Hollywood movie Intermezzo (1939).  Her sunny nature and innate ability immediately set her apart from starlets and set her on the career path of a serious actress and star.

     Casablanca (1942) made her a star and Gaslight (1944) won her the Oscar.  However, I think Casablanca is one of the most overrated movies ever and would be humdrum without Bogart and Bergman’s chemistry, although Rick Springfield stole and updated the basic trope for “Jessie’s Girl.”  Gaslight is fun because Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury – amazing in her Oscar-nominated debut at 17 – are so horrid and Bergman really seems like she might kill Boyer when finally given the chance.  It won her the Oscar.

     One of her best roles came in 1946 in Hitchcock’s Notorious with a witty and genuinely disturbing script by Ben Hecht.  She plays Elsa, the wild, partying daughter of a traitor who is persuaded to work as an agent for the U.S. in uncovering the activities of a group of ex-Nazis in Rio.  Cary Grant is Devlin, the agent who pulls her into this job.  She eventually marries Claude Rains’ character to secure the information that Devlin needs.  Her new husband and his creepy mother, the model for Cloris Leachman’s Nurse Diesel in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety, discover her motives and slowly begin to poison her.   The perverse relationship between Elsa and Devlin is based upon passionate attraction and mutual contempt.   Bergman is blowsy and elegant, tough and vulnerable, but it’s Grant who is the unattainable love object, which is original for a movie from that era.

     Bergman was paired with Grant years later (1958) in a charming, articulate, set-bound (it’s from a stage play) piece of piffle called Indiscreet, directed with élan by Stanley Donen. The gowns and sets are gorgeous and there are some outdoor scenes along the Thames Embankment.  She’s a famous English actress who falls for a married American economist.  The plot hangs on the reversal that he’s actually single, but uses marriage as a cover to avoid long-term involvement.  Unbeknownst to him, she finds out and the comic set piece is where she tries to make him jealous with the confused assistance of her butler and cook.  Again, Grant is the love object and it’s Bergman who has to overcome her insecurity and anger to win him.  Bergman’s rationality smacks up against her desperation and that’s where the comic frisson sparks. 

     It was her rationality, however, that deserted her when she almost destroyed her Hollywood career by having an affair and getting pregnant by Italian director Roberto Rossellini.  Both were married to others and at the peak of their careers.  She’d wanted to make a film with him after seeing Rome, Open City (1945), a thrilling and tragic look at the civil war of being occupied by the Germans that’s shot in a rough, almost documentary style that became known as Neo-realism, and Paisan (1946), a set of vignettes about the Allies moving through Italy in 1944.  

Europa '51: Bergman Embraces Dexter
     Bergman learned to speak Italian and the collaboration would seem simpatico, but the films I’ve seen don’t quite work.  Europa ’51 (1952) is an imagining of St. Francis’s life and philosophy as played out by an upper-middle-class woman in Italy in 1951, but viewers that don’t know this information may feel lost.  Instead, the overarching themes, which became popular with the counterculture a decade later, seem to be the individual against society and the madness of conformity versus the saintliness of insanity.

Journey to Italy
     Journey to Italy (1954) captures the totality of an English couple’s emotions as they travel through Italy to deal with the husband’s inheritance from a recently deceased uncle.  George Sanders is the husband, though the Italian actor dubbing him captures neither his silkiness nor his underlying honestly.  I think Bergman does her own vocal work and she’s very strong, especially in the long, silent close-ups while she’s driving and trying to decide whether to end their marriage.  My problem is that I watch these intelligent, attractive, comfortably off characters interacting with charming, kind Italians ready to do their bidding and I think, why should I care about your problems?  It’s because the set-up is so approachable that I want to shake them; Ophuls, Visconti, or Sirk would have stamped it with an artificiality that would have idealized the conflict.  Instead, it feels thin until the tour of Pompeii and the discovery of the petrified lovers.

     After being castigated in the U.S. Senate and returning triumphantly to Hollywood, Bergman made movies in Europe and the U.S.  She’s the only reason to see The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), besides the car, even though the international cast included the biggest stars of that period.  She had a small part in Murder On The Orient Express (1974), but won the Oscar for her monologue, where it’s tough to figure out if she’s slow or if she’s playing slow until the final reveal.  Again, her wit and common sense inform the performance.

Autumn Sonata
     She worked with Ingmar Bergman in Autumn Sonata (1978) and it’s a tough, painful examination of a mother-daughter relationship with three decades of built-up recriminations.  She’s great in it because it feels like she’s reaching into her own autobiography; it makes me wish that the Bergmans had worked together more than this one movie. 

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