"The Billy Rose Tribute to Ingrid Bergman"
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Dec. 22, 1997-Jan. 11, 1998
Ingrid Bergman had the greatest downcast eyes in history. That's what I concluded, anyway, when I first fell under the spell of old Hollywood movies and started making up trivia questions about actors and actresses as if they were the Brooklyn Dodgers. I'm not the only one who feels this way, either. Mention Bergman to a female cinephile and she'll let out a sad, admiring sigh. Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis had more zing, Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn were wittier, Joan Crawford had a certain compelling insanity, but Ingrid Bergman felt. She got her greatest effects in Casablanca and Gaslight and Spellbound and Notorious by swooping her eyes down to the floor and darting them back and forth, as if watching a mouse scurry across the room. She was the classic example of an intelligent, dignified woman turned by love into a big fluttering nerve.
Actually, as the recent tribute to Bergman at New York City's Museum of Modern Art makes clear, this image of her is based on a tiny sliver out of her long career. She started acting as a teen-ager in Sweden (her mother died when she was 3, her father when she was 13, and she took to the stage to escape depression) and tackled a wide variety of film roles before arriving in Hollywood. Probably the strongest, and the most surprising in terms of her later reputation for sweetness, is A Woman'sFace (1938), in which she starred as Anna, the sadistic and hideously ugly leader of a gang of con artists. The left half of Anna's face has sizzled away in a fire, and she takes revenge by blackmailing happy lovers. She even blithely agrees to murder a child, but a kind plastic surgeon takes pity on her and restores her beauty--and with it, of course, her maternal instinct. The plot is corn heaven, enough for Joan Crawford, the queen of melodrama, to have remade it three years later. But where Crawford attacked the role with her usual hysteria, flashing her eyes the size of dinner plates, Bergman's Anna was subtle and quietly mean. Another thing you notice in Bergman's Swedish films, something Hollywood later tried to hide, is that she was a giantess, a strapping 5'9," a supermodel about 30 pounds too heavy.
O n the basis of triumphs like A Woman's Face, David O. Selznick brought her over in 1939. When she refused to pluck her eyebrows and had trouble slimming down (with a rather charming lack of vanity, she binged on ice cream and cookies to calm anxiety), Selznick introduced his new Swedish export as a wholesome Greta Garbo--what Garbo might had been like if she'd grown up on a jolly farm. There followed striking performances in a string of heavy-handed movies (Intermezzo, 1939; For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1943; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1941) and then Casablanca (1942), which went so badly during the filming that everyone involved was sure it would be the bomb of the year. During the entire shoot, no one ever told Bergman whether her character, Ilsa, was supposed to be in love with her brave, freedom-fighting French husband (Paul Henreid) or with Rick (Humphrey Bogart), the American she used to love, who had turned into a bitter cynic. Bergman was naturally frustrated and confused--she considered leaving the picture--but her uncertainty translated on-screen into a gorgeously accurate portrait of the way lovers swing back and forth between longing and the fear of too much pain.
The story behind Casablanca is so often told that it wouldn't be worth retelling if frustration and uncertainty did not become the hallmarks of Bergman's high-Hollywood style. Sadly, perhaps, she was at her best playing a woman in love with a man who won't let her know where she stands. In Gaslight (1944), she was a loyal wife to suave Charles Boyer, who slowly poisoned her and led her to believe she was going mad. In two collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, she helped nudge the filmmaker toward his darker, late style, which pivots around a self-possessed heroine whose resistance to love needs to be broken down--often brutally. Like a piece of fancy candy, Bergman had a tough and shiny outside and an inside of bubbling goo. In Spellbound (1945), she was an overly intellectual psychiatrist who loses her cool when she falls for a colleague (Gregory Peck) who may be an insane killer. But her greatest role was in Notorious (1946), as Alicia Huberman, a self-loathing, hard-drinking daughter of a German spy who gets coerced into espionage herself by a U.S. agent (Cary Grant). He's too proud to admit that he loves her, so he encourages her to prostitute herself and risk her life by marrying the head of a Nazi conspiracy. The ending, in which he realizes she's in danger, breaks into the Nazi's mansion, and finds her rotting with poison (but beautiful as ever in the haunting chiaroscuro), may be the most romantic scene ever committed to film. It's typical Hitchcock and typical Bergman: The heroine must be tortured before she can get her reward.
Bergman and Hitchcock seemed to have found a magic formula, but they totally failed on their third try. The MOMA tribute includes a beautifully restored print of Under Capricorn (1949), a Technicolor extravaganza about 19th-century Australia. It's a fascinating catastrophe. The psychedelic emerald and cherry-red costumes don't offset the dull, illogical plot. Bergman, improbably cast as a neurasthenic Irish aristocrat, is mannered and annoying, and the cookies and ice cream are finally beginning to show. She had never intended to stay in Hollywood forever, and after a decade she was obviously crazy with boredom. Soon after shooting wrapped on UnderCapricorn, she ran off to Italy to work with, sleep with, and ultimately move in with the Neorealist pioneer Roberto Rossellini. As it happened, she picked the wrong moment in history to leave her proper Swedish doctor husband, bed down with a Mediterranean Romeo, and aspire to make Art. Clergymen across the land damned her to hell and, in a revolting proto-McCarthy move, Congress forbade the child-abandoning fornicator from re-entering the United States.
Were the movies she made with Rossellini worth this nightmare? Sort of. Rossellini didn't believe in such hidebound concepts as "plot" or "dialogue" or "acting." For their first film together, Stromboli (1950), he asked Bergman to play a sophisticated war refugee who marries a poor Italian fisherman and feels trapped by his backwardness. He sent the actress to a tiny, parched island; surrounded her with amateurs; and told her to make the whole thing up. The result was simultaneously poetic and dull, natural and pretentious. The sound quality was terrible, the dialogue flat and awkward. But Stromboli was a little like an early personal computer: It was clumsy and painfully slow, but in its scriptless wanderings, it hinted at a powerful new freedom. A generation later it was cited as an inspiration by pioneers of the French New Wave.
Bergman made four more films with Rossellini; the two I have seen are intriguing and dull. Then they split, and she survived by performing on the European stage until the United States finally allowed her back in in 1956. She made a number of Hollywood films, a few of which MOMA showed, most of which are charming but disappointingly lightweight. Because she was so unfairly punished for the Rossellini affair, there's a temptation to elevate the reputation of her less celebrated films, to point out the bounty of interesting work that Americans have missed out on or ignored in favor of chestnuts like Casablanca. But I think she did her best and most unique work in 1940s Hollywood. When Bergman arrived, leading actresses were superwomen, admirable but hyperstylized, like Garbo or Hepburn. After 1949, the year she left, they tended to split into two equally fantastical categories: big-breasted bimbos (Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe) and anorexic princesses (Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn). In the middle was the supremely human Ingrid Bergman, sane but soulful, vulnerable but always able to attract and hold the love of men and audiences, for the simple reason that she deserved it.