Salute to Liv Ullmann

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!

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