Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ingrid Bergman's Birthday and Death Day

It was thirty years ago today, on 29 August 1982, that actress Ingrid Bergman died after a long battle with breast cancer. It also happened to be her 67th birthday. To this day she remains one of the most famous actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. More often than not she is counted among the greatest actresses of her era. The American Film Institute counted her as the fourth greatest female star in their list 100 Years...100 Stars. She won no less than three Oscars and was nominated for four more.

Today Ingrid Bergman is best remembered for her role in Casablanca (1942), undoubtedly her most famous film. In the film Miss Bergman played Ilsa Lund, a woman torn between her former lover, Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart) and her husband Victor Laszlo (played by Paul Henried). While Casablanca would only be a moderate success at the box office upon its release, it would go onto become possibly one of the most popular films of all time, beloved by audiences and often ranking in the lists of the greatest films of all time. Because of this, the role of Ilsa Lund often overshadows the many other roles Ingrid Bergman played throughout her career.

What this overlooks is the fact that Ingrid Bergman was a very versatile actress who played a variety of roles throughout her career. It is true that as Miss Bergman's career progressed, the American public developed an image of Ingrid Bergman that was "pure," nearly virginal, despite the fact that the image was not warranted by many of her film roles. Much of this was due to her roles in such films as For Whom the Bell Tolls (in which she played the fragile young girl Maria) and The Bells of St. Mary's (in which she played a nun, Sister Mary Benedict). Given this image it was little wonder she was chosen to play Joan of Arc in the 1948 film of the same name. Still, even while the American public was thinking of Ingrid Bergman as "pure" and virginal, she played many roles that were quite different. If Ingrid Bergman is still fondly remembered by many classic film buffs, it is because she did play a variety of different types of characters.

Indeed, for a role that is dramatically different from Sister Mary Benedict one need look no further than Hitchcock's classic Spellbound (1945). In the movie Ingrid Bergman plays a female psychiatrist, Dr. Constant Petersen, who is often regarded as distant and cold by many of her male colleagues. Dr. Petersen was an independent, intelligent, strong willed woman who also serves as the film's primary protagonist. Her role in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) differs even more from Sister Mary Benedict. Alicia Huberman is the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy who finds herself recruited by the government to infiltrate a group of Nazis who had fled to Brazil following World War II. Not only is Alicia a spy, but she is openly sexual. References to her past lead one to believe that she is a woman with some experience. What is more, she goes through with the mission of seducing the Nazi Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) to the point of marrying him. In one scene with love interest T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) Sir Alfred Hitchcock got around the Production Code's ban on kisses longer than three seconds by breaking up the kissing with bits of dialogue. The whole kissing sequence then lasted two-and-a-half minutes, still one of the longest scenes of kissing in film history.

Even Joan of Arc would differ to some degree from the image many in 1940's America held of Ingrid Bergman. While Joan of Arc was definitely virginal, she also led an army. One cannot exactly picture Sister Mary Benedict doing that! Of course, it was during the filming of Stromboli (1950) that Ingrid Bergman had an affair with and became pregnant by married director Roberto Rossellini. This would not only put a end to the preconceived image many Americans had of Ingrid Bergman, but it would also bring an end to her career in Hollywood for a time. To a degree this would actually help Miss Bergman, as in Europe she was able to play roles she might not have been offered in Hollywood. In Europa '51 (1952) she played a grieving mother. In Viaggio in Italia (1954) she played one half of a couple considering divorce. In La Paura (1954) she played the wife of a German scientist who is cheating on her husband. Given her image in the United States prior to her affair with Roberto Rossellini, it seems quite possible she would have never gotten the chance to play roles such as these, even though she was fully capable of doing so.

It was in 1956 that Ingrid Bergman would return to Hollywood with Anastasia. In the film Miss Bergman played a woman who may or may not be the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the daughter of  Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Miss Bergman gave a tour de force performance that won her an Oscar. Her appearances on film became rarer in the Sixties and Seventies, but she continued to play such diverse roles as a wealthy woman who wants her former lover killed (The Visit), a spinster and nurse who must pretend to be her doctor's wife (Cactus Flower), and a Swedish missionary returning to Europe after spending time in Africa. Her final role would be as a concert pianist in Ingmar Bergman's Höstsonaten (1978).

Regardless of how American viewed Ingrid Bergman in the Forties and regardless of how identified with the role of Ilsa Lund in Casablanca today, then, Ingrid Bergman played a wide variety of roles to the point that it is difficult to say that she had a preference for any given type. In a career that lasted over forty years, Ingrid Bergman played everything from faithful wives to career women to not so faithful wives to women of deep religious conviction. What is more, she did all of them well. Very few actresses have ever won three Oscars. More importantly, very few actresses are remembered with such fondness thirty years after their deaths.

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