The Swedish actress triumphed through great losses and tragedy. Like a pearl, she turned challenges into opportunities for growth, and did not shy away from difficult and uncomfortable scenes to portray the right emotions for the role. This is another installment of the Living like a Pearl series. Find the other stories here.
Famous for her role in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman’s acting career spans 50 years, with three Academy Awards and 2 Emmy’s under her belt. She could speak 5 languages: Swedish, German, English, Italian, and French.
Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1915, she suffered great losses in her childhood. First, her mother died when she was two or three years old. When she was 13, her father died of stomach cancer. She was then sent to live with her aunt, who died six months later from heart disease. She was quoted saying that she was “living with an ache.”
Despite the tragedy, she kept going and secured a scholarship at the Royal Dramatic Theater School. She left after just one year after landing roles in Swedish films, and started working full-time.
In 1938 she signed a 3-picture contract with a major film company in Germany, but left soon after filming the first, ‘The Four Companions’. She didn’t know much about politics, but she was quoted saying “I saw very quickly that if you were anybody at all in ﬁlms, you had to be a member of the Nazi party.”
She landed her first acting role in America in 1939, the English remake of ‘Intermezzo’, a Swedish film in which she played the lead character in 1936. She couldn’t speak English at the time, and she looked very different from the typical Hollywood actress – tall, a too-German-sounding name, thick eyebrows, and wearing hardly any makeup.
But her fresh, natural look and hard-working and conscientious personality won critics over. Film producer David O. Selznick once called her “the most completely conscientious actress” he had ever worked with.
Bergman seeked out challenging roles. For the film ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ she was first cast in the role of Dr. Jekyll’s fiance, a “good girl”, but begged the studio to rather give her the “bad girl” role, the saucy barmaid Ivy. The New York Times went on to write a review of her performance “..the young Swedish actress proves again, that a shining talent can sometimes lift itself above an impossibly written role…”
In 1944, she portrayed the role of a woman almost driven to madness by her husband in ‘Gaslight’, for which won her first Academy Award. To prepare for the role, she went to a mental hospital to observe a certain patient. The New York Journal-American said of her performance “she flames in passion and flickers in depression until the audience becomes rigid in its seats.”
Ingrid wasn’t perfect, though. She was jokingly referred to as Saint Bergman after winning audiences' hearts while playing a nun in ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’ and a virgin saint in ‘Joan of Arc’. When she had an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, her fans felt betrayed. She received hate mail from fans and was even denounced on the floor of the United States Senate. Of this she said: “I’m not [a saint]. I’m just a woman, another human being.”
Ingrid’s husband, Petter Lindström, did not like Hollywood and thought Ingrid to be “full of vanity”. He managed her finances and knew about the affair. When later asked by Ingrid’s biographer why he didn’t divorce her, he said “I lived with that because of her income.” After her affair with Rossellini, she asked for a divorce but he refused. She was able to divorce him on a technicality, but he kept their daughter, Pia, away from her for 7 years.
Ingrid left her husband to marry Rossellini. Between 1950-1955 she starred in many of Rossellini’s films, but the films received mostly bad reviews. Rossellini was accused of ruining her career by taking her away from Hollywood. He was also possessive and didn’t want her to work for anyone else.
They separated, and she returned to Hollywood in 1956 with the film ‘Anastasia’, for which she won her second Academy Award.
Ingrid suffered from cancer for eight years, but she kept on working. She had a mastectomy, a few operations to remove lymph nodes, and chemotherapy.
In her last role she portrayed the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, in “A Woman Called Golda.” At the time, the cancer was spreading and her health was deteriorating fast, but she still threw everything into her acting. In one scene, she was required to raise both arms in the air to bring the right emotion through in the film. Because one of her arms was swollen, she could hardly lift it. She would sleep with her arm popped up during the night in an extremely uncomfortable position to enable fluid to drain, so she could lift her arms the next day.
She hardly complained or let others see her suffering. Ingrid died in 1982, four months after filming was completed, on her 67th birthday. She won an Emmy Award for her role, which was accepted posthumously by her daughter Pia.
“Her spirit triumphed with remarkable grace and courage,” wrote biographer Donald Spoto. The film critic James Agee wrote that she “not only bears a startling resemblance to an imaginable human being; she really knows how to act, in a blend of poetic grace with quiet realism.”
In 1999, the American Film Institute honored Bergman as the fourth greatest female screen legend of Classic Hollywood Cinema.