Ingrid Bergman — by David Thomson

22 Feb

RADIANT — a book review by Bruce Moody of The Great Stars Series — Ingrid Bergman by David Thomson


I was sitting outside Kay Brown’s office covering for her secretary who was at lunch, and Ingrid Bergman stood out in the antique furnished lobby of the New York headquarters of MCA. She was in a simple suit. In profile, she was as slender as a wafer and as mundane. She stood there, modestly, humbly, quietly, waiting. She had come to see Kay Brown. She needed.

A story Dirk Bogarde tells of her. He kept a beautiful home in England where his actor friends loved to visit and sometimes stay. It was a sort of refuge for them. One day he went out into the garden and saw his guest weeding it. “Ingrid, what are you doing?’ “Waiting for a part,” she said.

The only time I saw Ingrid Bergman was this moment in the late `50s around the time of her Anastasia comeback. It was said she was the only actress in the world who could open a film on her name alone. But she was in need.

She was in need of the thing that kept her going on living – which was being an actress, and to do that she had to act, and to do that she had to get a part, and to do that she had to wait for her agent, Kay Brown.

She had never interested me as an actress. But she does interest David Thomson, which is why he writes about her. But when he writes about her, he sometimes smears his watercolors and one doesn’t always know what he means. They sometimes drip down the page irrelevantly. And that may be because he is actually in love with Ingrid Bergman and cannot therefore see her plain. His judgment is perhaps misted by his amour.

Much, of course, this being David Thomson, is good, richly spoken, witty, and always in a voice arising from great knowledge of film and the fun of film and film business. His statement that she had made 12 movies by 1940 is an important statistic in weighing her arrival in Intermezzo her first American film, which I remember at the time. She appeared so fresh that we all thought she must be inexperienced. Not so.

He has done his homework. He is not always accurate about Ingrid Bergman as an actress, but he is always to be trusted. For instance, he cites several movies she might have made had she not taken up with Roberto Rossellini: A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan), Lola Montez (Ophuls), Vertigo (Hitchcock). The idea of her being in any of them is preposterous. For he does not seem to understand the sort of actress Ingrid Bergman was. But he does understand the glamour that obscured him from that knowledge. And his investigation of the films she actually did make with Rossellini is helpful, loving, perspicacious. You can’t do better than to read him, on these matters.

Ingrid Bergman was an actress of the old school, who usually played everything to the second balcony. Biographically she had a fine relationship with her father, who died when she was young, but provided for her training and support as an actress. She probably wanted to be an actress more than to act. Her stance of being an actress was terribly important. More important than being a character. She understood her charm well. No one ever could lower their eyes with such effect. No one could resist her bashful smile. No one photographed so well in full sun.

When she was to appear on radio playing famous women of history, she was sent for accent coaching to the great actress Mildred Dunnock, who was a master at accents. When Mildred Dunnock suggested that she drop her accent to play these parts, Ingrid Bergman said she would not do it. “People like me for my accent,” she said, and the session was over.

That’s the sort of actress Ingrid Bergman was. Aware of her power and unaware that it limited her. When she tried to stretch her craft with Rossellini, she could not do it. She ruined his career; she admits it.

She was radiant. She drew you in. Aside from Casablanca and Notorious her vehicles are no longer watchable, and sometimes neither is she. When her youth faded, when she returned to America a matron with four children to support, her talent, which was a sort of grandstanding “naturalness,” flattened out to a single power, which she had always had and which was still great – her power as a woman.

Even so, people remembered they had loved her. They forgot she had made them do it. She still had her audience. Which is what being an actress necessitates.

Thomson’s book on her brings to bear the business and technical background that helped make Ingrid Bergman a star. It is very good in this regard. His book on Bette Davis is better, because his critical acumen fires fewer potshots at Davis, so his aim is sometimes inaccurate here. But as a brief and yet penetrative examination of this lady, you don’t want to deprive yourself of visiting Ingrid Bergman with him. What David Thomson says about films and film people is always arresting, always worth reading, and always enjoyable to read.

A simple, good, and necessary list of Ingrid Bergman’s pictures closes the book, along with a list of further readings about her.

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