• Salute to Liv Ullmann

    By Peter Cowie

    Flash back to September 1968. The Swedish Film Week in Sorrento, Italy, with its alfresco suppers and its excursions to Capri and Pompeii. Ingmar Bergman was expected, and he and Liv Ullmann were assigned a luxurious villa for the duration. But Ingmar pleaded an ear infection, and Liv was left to cope with the paparazzi, as well as a screening of Shame and some formal receptions with Princess Christina of Sweden.

    We had not met, but one evening I was taken to Liv’s villa by Gunnel Hessel, at that time the Scandinavian equivalent of Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons. Liv received us in a vast, somber salon that might have suited Garbo in all her solitude. She appeared ill at ease with her duties in Ingmar’s absence, although her natural charm overcame her embarrassment and uncertainty. Here was a woman clearly under the gun, reluctant to embrace celebrity.

    Flash forward to the winter of 1972. I had visited the offices of Paul Kohner, a veteran Hollywood agent who represented Bergman and his actors in America. When I returned to my hotel, the phone was ringing. “Would you like to introduce Cries and Whispers at a special Academy screening for the foreign press tonight?” asked Kohner. “But I haven’t even seen the film yet,” I protested. “No problem,” purred Kohner, “you can talk about Liv.”

    So I fumbled my way through the presentation, keenly aware that this was the first film Liv and Ingmar had made together since their breakup at the end of the sixties. At a dinner at Skandia afterward, a journalist approached Liv’s table and “accused” her of lesbianism. I’ll always remember Liv’s red-faced indignation: “Just because Ingrid [Thulin] and I caress each other . . . !” She was more poised, but still getting used to the brazen attitudes of Hollywood. And she was never, one felt, happy in fluff like 40 Carats and Lost Horizon. Instead, she has adored the theater, “the moment of absolute quietness—then there’s real communication between you and an audience,” she told me long ago. None can forget her greatest triumph in the United States, playing Nora to Sam Waterston’s Torvald in A Doll’s House at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

    Flash forward to December 2004. The European Film Awards in Barcelona, and a conference on the craft of acting in European cinema. Liv delivers the keynote address—a magnificent, eloquent speech that for months afterward would be cited by actors and critics alike. “In my profession as an actor,” she said, “my material is the life I am living and the life I am watching, the life I am reading about and the life I am listening to.” Finally she was at ease, gracious and forthcoming, having achieved so much as an actress, writer, and director. Her own memoirs, Changing, had matched Ingmar’s own The Magic Lantern for candor and perception. And so long as Bergman’s Persona and Scenes from a Marriage, or Troell’s The Emigrants, are screened, Liv’s stature will be unquestioned. Almost imperceptibly, she has indeed “changed” from a passionate, ingenuous girl to a mature and sagacious personality. One thing, though, has remained constant through the decades—her warmth and thoughtfulness for other people, exemplified in her work with UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee.

    Happy birthday, Liv!

12 comments

  • By Zach B.
    December 16, 2008
    01:50 PM

    Happy Birthday, Liv! That was a great essay by Cowie. Savvy
    Reply
  • By Sam
    December 16, 2008
    05:33 PM

    Thanks, Peter. Now see if you can convince Criterion to release her 2000 directorial masterpiece *Faithless* which is not available in an acceptable DVD edition anywhere. It would make a perfect addition to the collection!
    Reply
  • By William
    December 18, 2008
    11:40 PM

    Happy Birthday, Liv! What perfect timing. I just recently turned a close friend on to Bergman, and her favorite films have been far and away the ones with Liv in them. Persona, Cries & Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Autumn Sonata, The Passion of Anna. All have left her stunned, and afterward all she could do was rave about how wonderful and beautiful Liv is.
    Reply
  • By Patrick
    March 12, 2009
    05:21 PM

    Will I ever get to see "The Emigrants?"
    Reply
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    • By Bart
      February 04, 2013
      04:00 PM

      Yes, yes you will. I clearly see it in your future. And you shall name your first daughter Pickle. The reason is shrouded in fog.
    • By Crutch
      March 11, 2013
      08:59 PM

      You can purchase "The Emigrants" and the sequel "The New Land" on iTunes for $19.99 each. I've purchased these on my AppleTV and love watching both periodically.
  • By George
    May 15, 2009
    08:36 PM

    As wonderful as Liv Ullman is in all the above fims, no one ever seems to mention her work in Bergman's "Face To Face." I remember seeing it the first time at a theatre in Pittsburgh when the film came out. She was overwhelming.
    Reply
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    • By Charles
      February 04, 2013
      12:43 PM

      I so agree. It remains my favorite performance by an actress PERIOD. And sadly unavailable . Oh Critierion, are you listening?
    • By Jeff Stills
      February 04, 2013
      01:32 PM

      There were rights issues with that movie for YEARS. I am sure Criterion would have liked to do it. The good news is you can get it now from here: http://www.olivefilms.com/films/face-to-face/
  • By Brian Pombiere
    June 20, 2012
    12:17 PM

    My favorite with Liv is "Shame". The best war film I have ever seen or will probably ever see.
    Reply
  • By Gord
    February 04, 2013
    04:04 PM

    I love ALL the women in Bergman's company. All are beautiful, enigmatic, and act their patooties off.
    Reply
  • By Moviefan777
    March 11, 2013
    09:56 PM

    She was magnificent as the narrator of The Danish Poet.
    Reply

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