A friend provides an intimate portrait of Ingrid Bergman
OVER the years, writer Charlotte Chandler’s friendships with an impressive array of figures of the American and European cinema have resulted in a series of revealing and engaging biographies on Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder and others. Her latest is “Ingrid,” a personal biography of Ingrid Bergman. Chandler avoids analyzing her subjects and their careers, instead bringing them to life through their words and those of relatives, friends and colleagues gathered over many years. Chandler’s tenacity drove her to seek out a nearly 100-year-old Leni Riefenstahl, who assured her that the reason Joseph Goebbels did not make a pass at Bergman when she made a film in Germany in 1938 was that she was too tall for him.
Chandler got her director friend King Vidor to persuade Greta Garbo to talk with Chandler about her two brief encounters with Bergman. Chandler also has amassed in this book a treasure trove of revelations from Bergman; her second husband, director Roberto Rossellini; their twin daughters, Isabella and Ingrid; and countless others. Clearly, Bergman, who died on her 67th birthday in 1982, intended Chandler to tell her life story, and Chandler’s description of this book as a “personal biography” is apt, although it ends up being as much a biography of Rossellini and is all the richer for it. Bergman and Rossellini emerge as individuals of much passion and generosity of spirit, inspired and cherished by those whose lives they touched. (Anthony Quinn was forever grateful for Bergman’s efforts in getting Fellini to cast him in “La Strada.”)
Bergman was born in Stockholm in 1915 to a mother who died when she was 3. Her devoted, loving father died when she was 12. Bergman discovered her passion for acting as a teenager and swiftly attained screen stardom in Sweden before arriving in Hollywood, where she would become a major star of the 1940s in such films as “Casablanca,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Gaslight,” which won Bergman an Oscar for her role as a young wife whose husband (Charles Boyer) tries to drive her mad. She made three films for Alfred Hitchcock: “Spellbound,” “Notorious” and “Under Capricorn.”
As wholesome as she was talented, Bergman was much admired for her naturalness, her beauty and unpretentiousness. By the mid-1940s, Bergman was a top box office draw, yet, according to Chandler, was growing unhappy with her devoted but controlling husband, Swedish dentist-turned-physician Petter Lindstrom, who was tall, handsome and athletic but short on passion.
Seeing Rossellini’s landmark neorealist “Open City,” a gritty, jagged epic shot in the streets of Rome as World War II ended, changed Bergman’s life, plunging her into one of the great scandals of the 20th century. Bergman famously sought out Rossellini, offering her acting services, which resulted in the film “Stromboli” (which was grievously cut by RKO for its U.S. release) and in her pregnancy by Rossellini. Lindstrom proved unforgiving. And when Bergman gave birth to a son out of wedlock, the beloved star, whose most recent Hollywood picture was “Joan of Arc,” was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate for immorality. She would not see daughter Pia Lindstrom for six years.
Curiously, the star famed for her naturalness found it agonizing “to act natural” for Rossellini, who liked to work without a script, because she was used to the meticulous planning of the Hollywood studio system at its apex, Chandler writes. The failure of their five films together doomed their marriage, although their love for each other clearly endured. At the height of the scandal, the American public couldn’t understand what Bergman saw in an already balding, stocky Italian who was shorter than she. Yet Chandler describes Rossellini, one of the giants of the world cinema, as a man of both profound depths and unsurpassable charm. Although there was a growing critical reappraisal of their films together by the early ‘70s, their failure at the time had been so painful and costly to her emotionally that it was cold comfort to her.
Hitchcock, who kept his lips sealed during Bergman’s marriage to Rossellini, afterward told her that Rossellini had ruined her career; she countered that she had ruined his. Gratifyingly, neither was the case: Rossellini embarked on a fresh career in his awe-inspiring, documentary-like historical dramas -- he died in 1977 at age 71. And Chandler recounts how America forgave Bergman, who went on to win two more Oscars, return to Sweden for Ingmar Bergman’s superb “Autumn Sonata” and make the extraordinary two-part television film “A Woman Called Golda,” which won her a posthumous Emmy for her portrayal of Golda Meir.
Kevin Thomas reviews movies for The Times.