In 1971, a television show called Retro Bites interviewed a rather beautiful and well-preserved 56-year-old woman. "Were you ever worried that you would be compared to Garbo, you both being Swedes?" She, with well over thirty acting awards in her records, answered with: I admire her so much myself that I never thought I compared. I came out to try my own wings, see if I could fly." She flashed a perfect smile to the camera and, on the other side, millions of fans nodded their heads. She could fly alright.
This woman would be turning 97 today. Coincidentally, it is also the 30th anniversary of her death from breast cancer. Can you imagine dying on your birthday? I'm sure she was the only actress ever to do so. And it wouldn't be the first time she made history.
She acted in 5 languages. She was married to the biggest Italian director of all time. She was the second actress ever to win three oscars. She was one of the three actresses ever to win more than two Academy Awards, along with Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep. She was the favorite female star of the greatest suspense director of all time. Some say he had a crush on her. She worked with some of the greatest leading men in history including Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard and Gary Cooper. She is considered by the American Film Academy as one of the top five most legendary actresses on the silver screen and she is not even American. She was a fundamental part of the most well-known film of all time: Casablanca. She presented the only tie in the history of the Academy Awards. She started her movie career in the great year of 1939, and was still able to distinguish herself.
In the much too brief period of 67 years, Ingrid Bergman did just that.
She was born at war, in Stockholm, in an unusually cold night in the end of August of 1915. Everything in that little girl's life would be unusual from then on. At three years of age she would lose her mother and ten years later, she'd become an orphan. The loss of her parents at such a young age turned Ingrid's life around completely: She'd become a nomad, changing houses and guardians like most girls her age changed their clothes. She went to live with an aunt who died only six months later (what was up with the Bergmans anyway?) and then with a more distantly related couple, who already had five children of their own.
Very much like Cinderella, at 17, Ingie left the house where she was an outsider and went, on a full scholarship, to the place where she truly belonged: The Royal Theatre Acting School. This Swedish institute prided themselves in being the place where the queen of silence Greta Garbo had started off to her glorious career. The scholarship was a prize from an acting competition that Ingie had won after impressing the judges with how naturally and spontaneously she accessed her gift. In fact, "natural" could've been Ingrid's middle name, since she was never one to need makeup to look gorgeous enough to kill a horse. She had been learning English, and by the time she got to "Casablanca" (1942), she was fluent, but her charming accent was a proof of how naturally she spoke the language. Ingrid seemed to be unaware of the magic that surrounded her and despite her trying to look and act like the girl next door, it is clear by the first words she uttered that she was made of something very special.
After acting in many films in Sweden and Germany, Ingrid was brought to Hollywood by the likes of David O. Selznick himself, even staying at his house until she found accommodation. Despite looking unusual for the stars at the time (she had thick eyebrows and towered at 5'9'' when most actresses barely passed 5') and looking and sounding Swedish, Selznick let her have it her way. Ingie didn't change a thing about herself, not even her name, despite Selznick's allegation that Americans would have a hard time pronouncing it (What kind of American can't pronounce "Bergman"?).
Her first film, "Intermezzo: A love story", with Leslie Howard, was a hit. It made Ingrid a big star and it remained her favorite until her dying day. From then on, she kept her international career at the same pace: Some time in Germany, some time in Sweden (since her then husband and daughter were still living there) and some time in Hollywood. That is, until 1942, when "Casablanca" came out and changed the cinema world forever.
I have to admit that Casablanca is one of my favorite movies ever, in spite of how cliche that may sound. It was the first classic movie I've ever seen and the one that got me on my knees for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, both still high up on my favorite actors and actresses list. Casablanca was a beautiful tale of love and war, with an exotic setting, all-star cast and perfect timing of release. No wonder it became one of the most famous movies ever. It was filmed in a hurry, with a cast and crew anxious to move on to the next picture and not even the writers knowing how it would end. Neither Bergman nor Bogart had won any Academy Awards at this time, but Casablanca earned Bogie a nomination. Ingie would get nominated too in that year, but for playing María in Hemingway's "For Whom The Bell Tolls". This one was made calmly, in Technicolor and with plenty of preparation. It did not have one third of the success of Casablanca.
Her first Academy Award came in 1944, for the movie "Gaslight", directed by walking goldmine George Cukor. From then on, she attracted the attention of Alfred Hitchcock himself, who immediately demanded that she appeared on one of his films. Spellbound came first, followed by Notorious, where she began a rock solid friendship with Cary Grant, and Under Capricorn. The two had a lifelong friendship. Hitchcock's feelings towards Ingrid are disputed 'til today. Some say he looked at her like a daughter and some say he was so in awe of her that he even had a hint of a romantic feeling for her. We'll never know for sure, but, what we do know is that when he was about to die in 1980, he received visits from many of his stars. When hearing him say "I'm going to die soon.", they replied with "No, you aren't, Hitch! Don't worry about it!". Ingrid was the last one to visit. "I'm going to die soon." "Yes, you are." She replied, "But, everybody dies, Hitch." He passed away in peace.
|Hitch directing his favorite girl|
In the late forties, Ingrid became an admirer of Italian director Roberto Rossellini and wrote him a letter stating that she would enjoy working with him in a motion picture. Italy was in post-war crisis at the time. Ingrid's daughter Isabella later said her mother's action would be as if Hollywood star Julia Roberts wrote a letter to an Iraqi director in the 2010s. Daring or not, Ingrid's letter would result in many consequences: The most lasting of which a marriage with three beautiful children. The first one came in 1950. The couple was unmarried. Scandal! A woman who had sex out of wedlock? We don't want to see her in the Hollywood screen! What the audiences didn't know is that one of their highest-grossing actresses at the time was Katharine Hepburn who had been, well, an unmarried non-virgin for quite some time.
The problem with Ingrid was the typecasting her angel face allowed for. Her sweet smile and blue eyes permitted her to be just right for roles like "Joan of Arc" and "The Bells of St. Mary's". The public came to regard her as a saint. When she was shunned from the Hollywood screen, she became very active in the Italian scene. With Rossellini, she pioneered in the neorealism genre, a genre that focused heavily on the psychological aspects of the characters.
After she separated from Rossellini, she made a triumphant return to Hollywood with her next picture "Anastasia", in 1956. She won the Academy Award again, and this time, it was accepted by Cary Grant. She didn't know how the public would react to seeing her in the Award show and wouldn't appear again until 1958. Coincidentally, a little over 10 years later, she would be back at the Oscar stage to present the only tie in the Academy's History: Katharine Hepburn, for The Lion in Winter and Barbra Streisand, for Funny Girl.
Yet another Award of her own was coming, for "Murder on the Orient Express", based on a great novel by Agatha Christie and with an all-star cast (Including Albert Finney, Anthony Perkins and Lauren Bacall). This one would be for Best Supporting Actress. Her acceptance speech would make history: She thanked the Academy and the fans, but mostly apologized to Valentina Cortese for winning the Award instead of her. A remarkable thing for any actress, but somehow not so surprising for the ever so graceful Ingrid Bergman. Another funny anecdote is the casual way she said "It's always nice to get an Oscar." as if she was thanking someone for an after-dinner chocolate. Ingie was definitely part of a generation of actors who didn't believe an Academy Award automatically made you the last cookie in the jar.
Her last role was in the made for TV movie "A Woman Named Golda". She would finish it very shortly before her death and would be awarded with a posthumous Emmy for her performance. Her career and her life were brutally interrupted by breast cancer in 1982. She was 67 years old. It was her birthday. Two years earlier, she had written an autobiography named "My Story", after her children alerted her that those who didn't tell their own story would be known through other people's words and rumors.
Love her or hate her (I don't see how), Ingrid's ashes are now gloriously scattered off the freezing coast of Sweden. Her physical presence has been reduced to a small tombstone in the Northern Cemetery in Stockholm. But, her spirit still soars alive in her films, in her legacy and in her children. There is no way to turn off the light that was Ingrid Bergman. Despite her being gone for thirty years today, millions of us still remember what she was, what she stood for and what she became. As far as I'm concerned, Ingie has a lot to thank her lucky stars for.
Rest in peace, Ingrid Bergman. Thank you for everything.