As time goes by
- Ingrid Bergman: My Story by Ingrid Bergman and Alan Burgess
Joseph, 480 pp, £9.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 7181 1946 0
There is a kind of woman who refuses dessert and then reaches over with her fork and eats most of her husband’s. Does it tell us something about Miss Bergman’s capacity for self-deception that she could neither leave Alan Burgess alone to write her biography nor sit down and write her own?
Instead, they did it together, the actress and the author. Mr Burgess wrote The Small Woman, from which Miss Bergman’s 41st film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, was drawn. For this book, he began in the third person. She intervened, with increasing enthusiasm, in the first. Narrower margins tell us when we are being shifted from him to her. The result is a blurred hagiography: Ingrid Bergman, to be sure, but softly flattering, the hard outlines left to the imagination.
A pity, because Miss Bergman wants something from her readers. ‘lt could never happen today,’ she says in effect, referring to the world-shattering scandal of 1948, when she bolted Hollywood to run off with Roberto Rossellini, leaving her husband (a Swedish doctor), her young daughter and her place as the world’s most successful and virtuous film star. It couldn’t, could it? she pleads winsomely. Certainly many of the elements in the Bergman-Rossellini drama are as dated as the home permanent. The grande affaire, the world lost for love, are gone. It is unlikely that today an American senator would denounce a pregnant adulterous movie queen from the floor of the Senate for ‘assaulting the institution of marriage’ and exerting a ‘powerful influence for evil’. It is also improbable that a lady veteran of show-business today would find herself so surprised by pregnancy or that she would accept the condition with such passive resignation. Then again in 1948 Italy seemed like the moon – a place not easily reached from LA. Ingrid Bergman did not, felt she could not, return to the United States for seven years. These things would not happen again.
Yet Miss Bergman, in her book, protests too much. The public outcry at the time had more than one cause. Most important, she had abandoned a child as well as a husband. Also she had allowed herself to be marketed as the embodiment of freshness, sincerity and fidelity, the anti-Garbo, at a time – before, during and just after the Second World War – when the public was hungry for stability. It wanted a goddess who could combine eros with wholesomeness, the kind of woman who could say no to Humphrey Bogart and go home with Paul Henreid.
The people who are swept up into the world’s fantasy life may no longer be film stars, but they exist and they are vulnerable. Ask Yoko Ono. Nor has the demand for symbols of purity, even virginity, disappeared. Ask Lady Diana Spencer. The longing for idols does not change, nor does the pleasurable horror when they fall.
Furthermore, Miss Bergman apparently doesn’t realise that she acted out a staple fantasy of English and American literature: the ego drawn compulsively to Italy to meet the id. In everybody born north or west of the Alps, there is an Italian trying to get out. But those who try to turn Italian almost always come to a nasty end. Miss Bergman was lucky. For a time (as the most interesting photographs in this book show), with short smart hair, beautifully cut backless dresses, an Italian husband who adored her, and a bevy of bambini, her new life was a success. Contrary to tradition, she did not die. She escaped, to a new marriage, leaving behind in Rome only the shreds of her film career – Rossellini never managed to exploit her talent – and her children. (They were, she realised, conceding defeat in the second child-custody battle of her life, really Romans.)
The people who emerge most clearly from this book are the three husbands, although drenched in ethnic stereotype. Rossellini weeps over the beauty of his children, waves his hands, drives a wild Ferrari and eventually departs, with boyish guilt, for somebody else’s wife. After a time with him, Miss Bergman makes clear, Nordic rationality (her third hisband was the Swedish producer Lars Schmidt) was pretty appealing. There was, for example, the evening when, with Rossellini’s approval, she invited the pianist Artur Rubinstein and his wife to dinner. The guests arrived, but not Rossellini. Telephoned at the studio, he said angrily that he was cutting a picture and would be late. They started without him. Another telephone call in mid-meal found him still at the studio. Then, as the guests were leaving the table for coffee, they spotted Rossellini, tiptoeing through the hall. He went straight to bed. Miss Bergman, desperate, tried to get him to come downstairs. ‘Tell them I didn’t come home,’ he suggested unhelpfully. She was left to return to the living-room to make impossible excuses, when suddenly the double doors were thrown open, revealing Rossellini with his arms thrown wide for a penitent embrace. ‘Maestro!’ he cried. The two men adored each other and the party was kept up until four.
Dr Peter Lindstrom, the first husband, emerges as an obsessive medical man, struggling to hold on to the beautiful young wife he mysteriously and inappropriately snared early in his career. The glimpse of the Bergmans’ Hollywood life is tantalising: every morning she was off to the studios (where she fell in love with her leading men and directors, time after time) and he was off to medical school, turning himself from a dentist into a brain surgeon. He went to Hollywood parties but sat in a chair. He allowed her every freedom, he said later: why did she leave? He had a fanatical loathing of Rossellini, which deepened his determination not to let their daughter visit her wayward mother in Italy.
The third husband, Lars Schmidt, was a different kind of Swede: the international entrepreneur and lover of the outdoors. He represented a return to Swedishness and even to Sweden; he led the Rossellini children into the icy waters around his island off the western coast of Sweden. ‘Wait until Mr Rossellini will hear that Mr Schmidt is naked when he swims!’ screamed their Italian nurse. This marriage, apparently the best of the three, broke up (it says here) because of Miss Bergman’s real passion: to keep on working, taking the best part wherever it was offered, not getting home often enough.
My Story is not, however, a career woman’s story, nor much of a contribution to the growing history of Hollywood. The Hollywood years are described with a curious flatness. Perhaps because she was not allied to a studio but to a producer, David O. Selznick. The lore does not accumulate as easily around a freelance. Selznick International brought her from Sweden to America on the Queen Mary in 1939. It was Selznick himself who made the big decision:
I’ve got an idea that’s so simple and yet no one in Hollywood has ever tried it before. Nothing about you is going to be touched. Nothing altered. You remain yourself. You are going to be the first ‘natural’ actress.
Miss Bergman, a beautiful orphan, who prayed to her dead father instead of to God, was pliant raw material.
Although she has appeared in dozens of films and stage plays, Miss Bergman has grasped, in writing a book, that it is her life that the public has been interested in. Yet she has pulled her punches, apart from the revelations of her recent battle with cancer. Was she having an affair, pre-Rossellini, with the photographer Robert Capa? (Her co-author describes their love as ‘an association that left them both worried slightly’.) Where did all that Hollywood money go? Rossellini wondered, when she came to Italy, why she had no jewels or furs or other sign of her big-earning years. Why, in truth, did her solid-looking marriage with Schmidt break up?
As a breed, film stars are not good at self-analysis. Bergman, for example, says that when she visited Rouen after making Joan of Arc: ‘I was mobbed, not because I was a movie star but because I was Joan of Arc.’ And why should they be? It would be sufficient achievement just to have made Casablanca. But film stars – of the honest – appearing, intelligent-looking, sincere variety-should not write their life stories unless they are prepared to tell something like all.