Those who regard film not merely as a diversion or an industry but foremost as an art are likely to identify the primary movers of this art — its artists — as the directors, the so-called auteurs. This veneration of the artists behind the camera doesn’t always suggest an undervaluation of those in front of it; nonetheless, it’s difficult to ignore the judgment passed on acting by many of the very auteurs that this perspective so prizes: Alfred Hitchcock commonly referred to his actors as “meat-puppets”; Robert Bresson shaped his performers into mechanical, impassive “models”; Stanley Kubrick’s unrelenting perfectionism often reduced his actors to punching bags. For a certain kind of director, the best performances occur unbeknownst to the performers themselves, as a result of the directorial suppression of the bread and butter of acting talent: the very instinct “to perform,” in the sense of conveying a bodily pageantry of affect and sentiment, transforming the features on one’s face into little sensitized machines of subtle or extravagant emotion. In a certain version of film history (one among many), the actor’s art is all but ceded to that of the director.
Few actors have given the lie to this narrative better than Ingrid Bergman (whose 100th birthday would have been today). And this is so not merely because her acting style was largely inimical to the melodramatic staginess that repulsed the aforementioned filmmakers. Bergman was a vital, daring force both in the films in which she starred and — through her bold initiative, forging collaborations and instigating projects time and again — in the course of the history of cinema as a whole. Bergman is an actress who strains the familiar vocabulary used to evaluate, analyze, and wax over acting in film. On the occasion of the centenary of her birth, both the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and BAMcinématek are holding retrospectives of her work.
Early in her American acting career, after leaving Stockholm for New York in 1939, Bergman was cast in several morally upstanding roles of chaste and pure character — a kind of Scandinavian milkmaid. Or a Scandinavian nun, as in Bells of St. Mary (1945), which cast Bergman in the role of a twentysomething matriarch, lightly playing up her austere northern European countenance — her high-arched eyebrows and taught, controlled visage, all framed by her black nun’s habit — while still allowing wrinkles of her naturally playful nature to peek through.
In the early 1940s, Bergman was invariably better than the films in which she starred, often singlehandedly supplying their tonal backbone by dint of her performances — from her rough-hewn, blistering momentum in For Whom The Bells Tolls (1943) to her distracted, vaguely haunted inertia in Gaslight (1944). In the documentary Ingrid Bergman Remembered, Bergman’s daughter Pia Lindstrom shares that her mother considered many of her earlier American roles somewhat limited or unchallenging. The story of Bergman’s career from the end of the Second World War onward can be seen as a restless effort to remedy this, to feel out the boundaries of her craft and also, by extension, of herself.
It was a coup for Bergman to realize her longtime desire to play Joan of Arc, doing so in Victor Flemming’s epic (1948) after years of lobbying, ultimately even staking her own funds to finance the film. But it was her missive to Italian director Roberto Rossellini, written in 1949, that changed her life — and film — forever. The controversy ignited by this fateful union is well known: her extramarital affair with Rossellini provoked the American public — and, astonishingly, members of the US Senate — to declare Bergman a persona non grata (she would be forced to settle her divorce from her husband in Mexico, rather than stateside). This moral storm is pointedly summed up by film scholar Dina Iordanova: “The outrage of a woman seeking affection, plainly and unequivocally, did not go down well in 1950.”
Lost in all the noise, in any case, was the extreme daring of a glamorous actress (only a couple years removed from topping Hollywood’s star ladder) forsaking respectability and security to work in far homelier conditions (around active volcanoes, city slums, and the sun-bleached ruins of Pompeii) with a director whose rough and ready methods couldn’t be further removed from the micromanaged, superintended studio projects she’d known in Hollywood. Rossellini’s method was stark and minimal, but highly poetically attuned; his technique was loose and improvisatory, manufacturing just the right degree of indeterminateness to seize hold of those singular chance moments that constitute the pinnacle of cinematic art. It was precisely this degree of freedom that allowed Bergman to come into her own. She was the anchoring presence in the five films she made with Rossellini, but above all in Stromboli, Europa ’51, and Voyage to Italy (1950–54), perfectly channeling with her whole being the paroxysms of love, faith, and conscience that constitute the exceptional drama of these three.
Watching the films she made with Rossellini, one gets the impression that there is deeply embedded in Bergman something like an inscrutable force, something that compels the films in which she stars to simply be otherwise in a way that is emphatically all her own. Bergman’s presence influences and steers her films like a propulsive motor, without ever overwhelming them or stealing the scene, as virtuoso actors like James Dean and others were wont to do. So many of her peers relied on deploying an empty aroma, a swoon, a swagger, an airy suggestiveness, a brooding or a luxurious éclat, and called this acting. Bergman, on the other hand, both internalized her character’s dramas deeply in her psyche and wore them gently, on the surface of her mien — their desires, fears, hopes, and petty whims. Even their illnesses, as she did memorably in Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), embodying perfectly the glazed, nervous stupor of a fallen bourgeoisie besieged by alcoholism. There is something about the way her eyes radiate a fierce intelligence that was capable of conveying such a striking restlessness. In these roles, her physiognomy becomes a revelation of the intense traversal of a path — be it philosophical, religious, romantic, or convalescent in nature.
In addition to her unique anchoring presence, this concentrated force of hers, Bergman also possessed an intrinsic foreignness — a versatility that stretched her intensity, allowing it to maneuver and breathe. It was not simply because of her generic European sensibility that she played all kinds of roles and nationalities: German playgirl turned spy (Notorious), Polish countess (Elena and Her Men), Spanish partisan (For Whom the Bell Tolls), French saint (both Joan of Arc films), Latvian refugee (Stromboli), English domestic (The Inn of the Sixth Happiness), and Jewish politician (A Woman Called Golda). In Elena and Her Men (1956), Bergman exhibited a buoyant, joking side, playing the romantic interest in a magical vaudeville, while still managing to bring the character back to earth owing to the warm earnestness of her brow. In Autumn Sonata (1978) she plays the stark opposite: a wooden, domineering presence, coolly presiding over her onscreen daughter like a tenebrous monument that, for all its hardness, eventually evaporates upon being touched.
In early October the New York Film Festival will screen Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words (2015), a film composed of letters, diary extracts, memories of her children and friends, and moments selected from thousands of feet of Super-8 and 16mm footage that Bergman shot over the years. The film is, in effect, a self-portrait that acts like a personal coda to a lifetime dedicated to performance — but also, behind and beyond her occupation, a life, and an exceptional one.
Ingrid Bergman: A Centennial Celebration runs at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) from August 29 through September 10. Ingrid Bergman at BAM runs at BAM Rose Cinemas (Peter Jay Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) from September 12–29. Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words will play at the New York Film Festival (Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on October 5 and 6.