Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words: A Full Picture of a Life

On Film / Essays — Aug 16, 2016

Stig Björkman’s remarkable 2015 documentary Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words is one of the most unusual films ever made about a major Hollywood motion picture star. It is the story of the legendary Swedish actor, who won three Oscars, performed in five languages, starred in movies across six decades and six countries, forged a theater career, conquered television, and also managed to marry three times, survive a notorious scandal, and bear four children. These facts are enough to create an interesting documentary, but facts are not what make Björkman’s movie exceptional. Instead of relying only on interviews with coworkers and scholars—although such things are included—In Her Own Words focuses primarily on the private story of Bergman as a woman, wife, mother, and, surprisingly, filmmaker and diarist, weaving around it the public story of her career as an internationally acclaimed actor. The audience is shown excerpts from the many interviews she gave but also sees into her personal world through the home movies she made throughout her life (with her own camera), hears intimate words read from her diaries by actor Alicia Vikander, and listens to her children talk about happy times (and sad ones too) with “Mama.” In Her Own Words provides an insight into the complete life of a major movie star. It is a documentary of a sort that is seldom possible to make.

To accomplish the goal of presenting such a full picture of Bergman, In Her Own Words makes intelligent use of materials from the actor’s personal archive, lovingly accumulated by her children and entrusted to the Wesleyan Cinema Archives in Middletown, Connecticut. As the original curator of this material, I am well aware of the accuracy of Bergman’s saying, as she often did, “I’ve always saved everything . . . So I’ll always have my memories with me.” Over the course of four decades, she moved from Sweden to Germany to America (both Rochester, New York, and Hollywood) to Italy to France to Sweden again, and on to England, always taking her treasures along with her. She was a professional international wanderer, but a wanderer with baggage. And her baggage wasn’t jewelry and clothes and furs—the usual star trappings—but the emotional baggage of memory: little gifts, letters, photographs, remembrances, school papers, locks of hair, valentines. Her true home was never geographical; it was archival. She held things close because she couldn’t always hold people close. Björkman understands this Bergman as well as he understands Bergman the actor. His film is not an external documentary but an internal, emotional one, combining Bergman’s private thoughts and personal images to confirm the words heard on the soundtrack right at the beginning: “I am Ingrid. This is my story.”

The public Ingrid Bergman is, for most viewers, a familiar image. On the screen, she is well remembered for such iconic moments as the one in Casablanca (1942) in which she softly tells Dooley Wilson to “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” And audiences recall her unadorned (by Hollywood standards), virginal beauty and tender strength as a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), a role those who saw it at the time believed in so totally that they were scandalized a few years after its release when she undertook a very public extramarital love affair with the Italian neorealist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. Also memorable are her touching portrait of a young bride manipulated toward madness by a ruthless husband in 1944’s Gaslight, her flirtatious con woman drinking peaches in champagne (and wearing a black wig) in 1945’s Saratoga Trunk (“You are very beautiful,” says an observer. “Yes,” she replies. “Isn’t it lucky?”), and her breathless scene with Cary Grant in which they kiss as they move through space followed by a voyeuristic camera in 1946’s Notorious. In Her Own Words contains these familiar film clips to remind viewers why Bergman matters. It also showcases footage from her original Hollywood screen test to show how she came to matter. In the test, she wears a minimum of makeup, has a simple hairstyle, and sits calmly and confidently under the hot lights. A star has already been born. (“I always knew I was going to be famous,” Bergman once told her daughter Isabella Rossellini.)

That Ingrid Bergman was and is a star is not exactly news. What In Her Own Words reveals is Ingrid Bergman as a prime example (although an extraordinary one) of the twentieth-century woman. She personified the female who both wants and needs love, wants and needs children, will follow her heart even into dubious decision-making, and unapologetically wants and needs significant work that matters to her, a career of her own. In her time, she was not perceived this way, but the documentary clearly shows her attempts to integrate these often incompatible elements, which she undertook without guilt or remorse, and which were acted out publicly and with courage—“I’ve gone from saint to whore and back to saint again, all in one lifetime,” she once said—and although her life is seldom held up as an example of feminist struggle, that is, in fact, what it was.

Bergman’s career could easily have died many times for many reasons. She made potentially disastrous decisions—leaving her European success behind to take her chances in Hollywood; surrendering to the tight control of David O. Selznick, who rented her out to other moviemakers; abandoning a major American career in mainstream movies when she fell in love with Rossellini (she received a public denunciation on the floor of Congress for that decision)—any one of which would have erased a lesser talent. The story of this Ingrid Bergman, the movie star, is present in In Her Own Words, but the excitement lies in the behind-the-scenes Bergman who can be discovered there.

The story of Bergman’s early years is one of loss. She was an only child, and her mother died when she was two. Raised by her father, a loving presence in her life, she suffered his death at the age of thirteen, and that of his unmarried sister, who had become her surrogate mother, only six months later. Before she was a teenager, Bergman was alone. She found solace in her work in the Swedish theater and survived emotional trauma by maintaining forward motion in her relationships, renewing the privilege of love as she needed to and when she needed to, discarding old passions for new, replacing former commitments with fresher, more useful ones. She was never heartless, but she was self-focused, always carrying with her the physical “memories” that grounded her.

The awareness that those memories existed and could be shared with an international audience inspired Bergman’s daughters Isabella Rossellini and Pia Lindström to collaborate with Björkman on the occasion of Bergman’s centennial in 2015 to create In Her Own Words. The film seems to show Bergman as the star of her own life, the one her memories have written. Those memories can be found in the Ingrid Bergman Collection at Wesleyan; among them are such items as snapshots of all four of her children, her “first wedding dress” (as reads a note she pinned to the gown), her own baby pictures, and autographed books from friends like Ernest Hemingway—anything that sustained her and recreated a permanent home for her in her mind. Her archive is a complete record of her life. It has her professional awards, connections to her fellow celebrities, evidence of her moments in the limelight, her Cecil Beaton photos, and her Dior gowns. She kept correspondences (drawn from extensively in the film) with three women who supported her and influenced her: Ruth Roberts, her Hollywood English-language coach; Kay Brown, Selznick’s astute assistant, who guided her early days in Los Angeles; and Irene Selznick, the remarkable daughter of Louis B. Mayer (head of MGM) and wife to Selznick, who herself became a major Broadway theatrical producer. Bergman kept reminders of her own imperfections, in order to strive to be better. In her archive exists a detailed two-page list of “instructions” that Selznick dictated regarding Bergman’s Paramount Pictures screen test for the role of Maria in the 1943 adaptation of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Included are implied criticisms of her physical appearance. Her pants must be properly tailored so she won’t look too heavy in the hips. She must wear a girdle and low-heeled shoes. No one should touch her eyebrows. She should use lipstick, wear no wig, and be sure to favor the better side of her face, etc. Dated July 28, 1942, this lengthy memo is a testament to the scrutiny to which even a woman as beautiful as Bergman would be subjected for the Hollywood camera.

As interesting as these things are, the most appealing objects in the archive are those that reveal the remarkable secret of Bergman as a photographer and filmmaker. In Her Own Words uses all this material well. Bergman’s father, the only parent she ever knew, was a photographer. As a result, no motion picture star has a more complete record of how he or she looked from birth onward than Bergman. Her father photographed her constantly, and it’s not hard to trace a line from her memory of him, camera in hand, to Bergman’s warm and confident appearance in front of the motion picture camera. For her, a camera was always a loving presence, a thing to trust. After her father was gone, the camera remained. Bergman continued relating to the object she first knew as love. (It’s no surprise that she fell in love with a famous photographer, Robert Capa, and then ran away with a successful filmmaker.) Eventually, she herself took up the camera, retreating to its other side to photograph her own children, since that was her primary definition of parenting. She kept all the photographic records of her life her father had made, and she added to them. She saved stills from her films and took her own photographs on set and around the house. Bergman’s 8 mm and 16 mm home movies are particularly amazing. In these little films, In Her Own Words shows us the actor aiming the camera at her children, who are swimming, playing, looking back at her. She hands her camera off to others and can be seen as she was in daily life: straightforward, often unadorned, looking into the lens with both surrender (Here I am, I am the story) and dominance (And I am the most interesting thing you’ll see today). These movies add an unplanned and unposed element to the look and movement we have long associated with Bergman as a film star.

Unrehearsed images as biography are rare for legends. In Her Own Words is full of them. On display in the film are Bergman’s four children. Beautiful, talented, intelligent, cheerful, friendly to one another, loving, and forgiving, Pia Lindström, Isabella Rossellini and Ingrid Rossellini (her twins), and Roberto Rossellini are an important part of her legacy. Their memories of their famous mother are somewhat bittersweet, as, like all children of celebrities, they were always sharing a parent with the world. Lindström straightforwardly says that when her mother left for her life in Italy, “I was told she wasn’t coming home.” It wasn’t the first time she had been left behind by her mother. When her Hollywood career began to take off, Bergman, after not seeing her daughter for six months, said, “I don’t have time to go home . . . But one can’t have everything.” The three Rossellini children are asked in the film what they would describe as their mother’s most dominant characteristic. “Energy,” says Ingrid. “Quiet courage,” says Roberto. But it is Isabella, the only one of her mother’s children to seriously pursue a career as an actor, who understands the most important aspect of Bergman’s personality. “Charm,” she says. Bergman’s adult children have accepted their place in her life gracefully and generously. (“I was like a friend to my children,” said Bergman.) Thus, her legacy will spawn no Mommie Dearest, primarily because, although she was often absent from their lives, when she was with them, Bergman was just too much fun, and far too charming, for her children to become angry and resentful toward her.

In Her Own Words does indeed let an audience hear Bergman’s own words. Out of her diaries and autobiographical writings come revealing and coolly honest appraisals about how much acting meant to her. (“I love the freedom I feel in front of a camera . . . I belong to this make-believe world . . . If you took acting away from me, I’d stop breathing.”) Her capricious nature emerges. She loves Sweden, but it’s “too far away and too small a country” for the success she wants. “I’ll never leave you,” she tells her first husband, Petter Lindström, but soon she’s telling him she doesn’t have time to come home, and then she’s on to a new man, Capa. “I’ve fallen in love!” she happily admits. She is honest with herself. (“My name in big neon lights and my name alone has been my dream since I was little. My name bigger than anyone else’s in the newspaper.” . . . “I don’t demand much. I just want everything!”)

The first time I saw Bergman in person was in 1967, when she walked onto a Broadway stage in the role of Deborah Harford in Eugene O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions. Although she was fifty-two years old, she had the same spirit and demeanor of Ilsa from Casablanca. She was breathtakingly beautiful, alive with the energy and spirit of a youth she didn’t actually physically possess at the time. Unlike others of her era and profession, she had not been destroyed by fame, scandal, or the inevitable aging process. I wondered how she would be viewed after she was gone, and In Her Own Words answers my question. It reveals Bergman to be both an indestructible icon and a strong-willed woman. While reminding us of her public face, its significance is that it shows us who she was in private.

In the end, everything about Ingrid Bergman is summed up by the words she speaks when a Hollywood cameraman prepares to shoot her for her American screen test. Looking directly into the camera, without fear, flashing her gorgeous smile, she calmly says, “I’m ready.” In Her Own Words shows why and how this was always true, by letting Bergman speak for herself, both in words and images.