Ingrid Bergman at 100: When a Star Fell From Heaven

A remembrance of Ingrid Bergman’s life and career on the 100th anniversary of her birth.
Publish date:
Ingrid Bergman Indiscreet Photo

Ingrid Bergman in 'Indiscreet' (1958). (Photo: Warner Bros./Photofest)

Ingrid Bergman was Hollywood’s biggest anti-star.

While most actresses of any stature were shuttled around Hollywood in chauffeured limousines, Ingrid Bergman drove herself around town in a small grey coupe. While some actresses spent hours on their make-up before appearing in public, Ingrid Bergman usually didn’t wear any make-up at all. While other actresses filled their closets with expensive dresses and furs, Ingrid Bergman had to be coerced into buying a mink coat (unimpressed, she eventually sewed the fur into a raincoat to make a warm lining). While some actresses swanned around a movie set, making technicians wait and directors fume, Ingrid Bergman was always punctual, professional, and fully prepared. While most actresses renegotiated contracts at the first hint of success, Ingrid Bergman honored her agreements and kept her word.

Who was this woman and where did she come from? She certainly did not come from planet Hollywood.

Ingrid Bergman came from a frozen land far, far away called Sweden, where the weather was cold but the people were warm, a place where the theater was a national treasure and creative artists really believed in notions like personal integrity and moral principle. For a short, fortunate time in American cinema, Ingrid transplanted these qualities into a soil unaccustomed to them, the overly manicured lawn called Hollywood. In the process, she not only raised the bar for actresses in our cinema, but she also became one of the most beloved and respected members of her profession, honored by peers and public alike.

This state of bliss lasted from her arrival in Hollywood in 1939 until the fateful year of 1949. During that annus horribilis, everything changed almost overnight, and Ingrid Bergman’s life and career would never be the same. She was still the anti-star, behaving like an average person instead of a movie queen, but by then, she could no longer behave that way. She would find out the hard way that movie stars had to play by a different set of rules.

Imported from Sweden

During Hollywood’s golden era in the first half of the 20th Century, it was common practice for movie moguls to keep close watch on the film productions of countries outside of the United States. Although the U.S. dominated the industry both here and abroad, foreign films could be a source for new story ideas or, more importantly, new faces. Movie men would regularly poach stars from overseas productions, especially in the silent screen days, when a foreign accent wasn’t a liability. Soon, European stars with names like Nazimova, Pola Negri, Renée Adorée, and Greta Garbo were imported into the U.S. and became stars here, too. The movie men were able to add exotic new looks to their films, while the actors and actresses were attracted by the higher salaries and raised profiles.

Not all imported actors and actresses handled their success gracefully. The spoiled foreign actress, accustomed to the gratification of her every whim, became something of a Hollywood trope in the 20s and 30s. Like most movie stereotypes, it had some basis in reality, and producers could get understandably gun-shy when it came to importing foreign talent. Garbo, for instance, may have been a great artist on-screen, but getting her up there could be a demanding task.

At first, producer David O. Selznick thought he had another difficult Swede on his hands. When he contacted Ingrid Bergman after seeing her in the film Intermezzo (her sixth Swedish film), he offered her the standard Hollywood contract: Seven years, weekly salary, no choice in scripts. Ingrid, who was quite happy and successful with her Swedish movie career, firmly and politely told him that she was not interested in those terms. When Selznick agreed at last to contract her for one movie only, at her request, she flew to Los Angeles to meet with him. Over a plate of food at a party, Selznick immediately proposed a Hollywood makeover: a new movie star name, shaved eyebrows, capped teeth, a slimming diet. Ingrid looked at him incredulously and wondered what he wanted her for if he just wanted to change everything about her. Ready to fly back to Sweden, she didn’t budge. Selznick capitulated and decided that Ingrid Bergman would be a novelty for the industry: A natural and unchanged movie actress! Such a thing had never happened before in the history of Hollywood.

The 24 year-old Ingrid could get away with stonewalling a man of Selznick’s stature for two reasons. First of all, she was a naturally beautiful woman who needed no make-up to look stunning; her face radiated good health and vitality on screen. Second of all, she was an extremely talented actress who took her work seriously and who had already proven to be a magnetic draw in her Swedish films. If Selznick was afraid of what he had gotten himself into after dealing with such an uncompromising negotiator, he would soon discover that Ingrid was in reality the most hard-working, most cooperative, and least pretentious actress who would ever work for him. “Star behavior” was as foreign a concept to her as the American ice cream sundae – but while she developed a life-long love for the latter, she never did see the point of the former.

Accordingly, she advised Selznick not to build up personal publicity for her first American film, a remake of Intermezzo. Instead, she wanted to appear in the film without fanfare, gauge if Americans liked her, and then if they did, the star machinery could begin to roll. As it turned out, Americans liked her very much indeed: Intermezzo would be a hit in 1939, and Ingrid’s turn would be a star-making one. Although a small love story about classical musicians could not compete with films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (also produced by Selznick) in terms of box office — especially during what is sometimes referred to as Hollywood’s greatest year ever — the film introduced America to the charms of Ingrid Bergman and started a love affair that would last nearly ten years.

A Born Actress

Ingrid Bergman knew from a very young age what she wanted to do with her life. A shy child, she nevertheless had a compulsion to act out scenarios, sometimes to the annoyance of her relatives. When her mother died while Ingrid was only two years old, she came to depend heavily on her father. A jovial, somewhat irresponsible artist, he tried to convince his daughter to think seriously about opera instead of drama, but it was no use. He died when Ingrid was 12 and she lived with aunts and uncles until she was finally able to apply to enter the Royal Dramatic School in Stockholm. During her audition for entry into the program, she had barely started her speech when the judges immediately said “Next!” Crestfallen, she hurried away in tears, only to discover later that her admission slip into the school was waiting for her back at the theater. Her on-stage entrance had been so impressive that the judges had agreed to admit her without hearing another word.

On summer break from school, Ingrid secured work at a movie studio through a family friend. It wasn’t long before she was singled out and cast as an extra in a film. Fully expecting to finish school and be a stage actress, she found instead that she enjoyed movie-making. Here she was, only 18 years old, appearing in films with some of her acting idols and getting paid for it, too. When the Svensk Filmindustri studio offered her a contract, she accepted and left school. Immediately capturing the public’s eye in her first film, Munkbrogreven (known as The Count of the Old Town in America), she would star in several other star vehicles before Intermezzo brought her to international attention.

Once she was in Hollywood and the American re-make of Intermezzo was a hit, Ingrid had to consider what path to follow. Happily married with a newborn baby, she was content in Sweden, but the chance to do so much more in America made it an irresistible choice. After finishing two final Swedish films, she relocated with her husband and child to California, and Ingrid Bergman’s American film career began in earnest.

Each movie she did helped to solidify her position as one of Hollywood’s most talented newcomers. Even in films that were regarded as slight, like Rage in Heaven or Adam Had Four Sons, Ingrid would be singled out for her charm and skill. Soon, the films became more prestigious, the co-stars more glamorous: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Spencer Tracy, Gaslight with Charles Boyer (for which she earned an Academy Award), and of course, Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart (a film that Ingrid didn’t rate highly herself since the shoot was disorganized and she felt she lacked chemistry with her leading man). By the end of the war, Ingrid Bergman was one of the biggest box-office attractions in America: She starred in For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and two Alfred Hitchcock films, Spellbound and Notorious, within a span of two years. In 1946, she was the top drawing female actress in American film, bar none.

Breaking Away

Such incredible success led Ingrid to break away from David O. Selznick and pursue independent projects, one of which, Joan of Arc, fulfilled her life-long dream to play the poor French girl who became a saint. This new stage of her career was just beginning to develop when something happened that changed her life forever: She saw the Italian neo-realist film Open City in the spring of 1948 and walked away stunned by the honest artistry of the film. She sent a letter to the director, Roberto Rossellini, to commend him on his work and offer her services for one of his future films. Through a series of misadventures, Rossellini nearly didn’t get the note (it was rescued from the charred rubble of the Italian movie studio it had been sent to, which had just burned down in a fire), but eventually he did see it. Unfamiliar with Ingrid, he investigated her work, and suitably impressed by both her acting skills and her beauty, he began to correspond with her.

Sparks On The Set: Actress Ingrid Bergman fell in love with Italian director Roberto Rossellini while filming Stromboli in 1950. The two began an affair, divorced their spouses, and married in 1950, resulting in a scandal. Actress Isabella Rossellini is their daughter.

Sparks On The Set: Actress Ingrid Bergman fell in love with Italian director Roberto Rossellini while filming 'Stromboli' in 1950. The two began an affair, divorced their spouses, and married in 1950, resulting in a scandal. Actress Isabella Rossellini is their daughter. (Photo: Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images)

The two wrote to each other for the rest of the year, attempting to work out details for a film. Rossellini finally came to Hollywood in early 1949 to meet Ingrid and work out financing for the film. Ingrid’s friends were often mystified by the alternately charming and unconventional Italian, but Ingrid’s feelings were not complicated and they grew rapidly during Rossellini’s visit. In late February, Rossellini returned to Rome, while Ingrid and her family left for a skiing vacation in Colorado. On March 7th, she and her family returned home to California. Two days later, she packed a bag, flew to New York, and then caught a plane for Rome – alone. She wouldn’t return to America for seven years.

Until that moment, Ingrid had not been strictly faithful to her husband (she had had quiet, short affairs with photographer Robert Capa and actor Gregory Peck, her co-star in Spellbound), but her decision to follow Rossellini to Italy would stun the film community and the American public that had made her a star. At first, she insisted that she was in Italy to scout locations for the upcoming film, but photographers soon caught the couple laughing and holding hands, and it became clear that they were romantically involved. Filming began on the movie as Rossellini asked his wife for a divorce, and soon Ingrid asked her husband for the same. He refused to grant it, sure that her impulsive decision could be reversed. He begged her to return to the U.S. to discuss it. Suspecting she would never come back to Italy if she went back to America, Rossellini kept Ingrid close to him and prolonged the shoot for their film. The situation became more complicated when she discovered that she was pregnant.

In 1950, adultery and children born out-of-wedlock were not the sort of casual occurrences now routinely shrugged off by celebrities. They were dire sins, and Ingrid and Rossellini would be put on public trial for them. Tabloid newspapers published sordid, fabricated accounts of their behavior, and Ingrid’s movies then in release suffered at the box office as the baffled American public tried to understand how the woman they had put on a pedestal had abandoned it so dramatically. A senator from Colorado even denounced her from the floor of the Senate, referring to her as “a powerful influence for evil.”

In a matter of a few months, Ingrid Bergman had effectively killed off her career in America by acting impulsively instead of carefully orchestrating her private life like other stars, whose divorces were quietly granted behind the scenes, and whose personal peccadillos were hushed up by bands of publicity men. The anti-star had disregarded her stardom once again; this time, she would have acted more wisely had she given it more attention.

The Return

Oscar-Winning Portrayals: Anastasia/Anna Anderson, portrayed by Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia (1956). Bergman performed as Anna Anderson, a woman claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who had been murdered during the October Revolution. Though ultimately an imposter, Anna Anderson’s handwriting, as well as her ear, were found to be almost identical to the real Anastasia’s.

Oscar-Winning Portrayals: Anastasia/Anna Anderson, portrayed by Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia (1956). Bergman performed as Anna Anderson, a woman claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who had been murdered during the October Revolution. Though ultimately an impostor, Anna Anderson’s handwriting, as well as her ear, were found to be almost identical to the real Anastasia’s. (Photos: Apic/Getty Images; Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

It would take several years for Ingrid Bergman’s tarnished career to recover its former luster. As the 50s progressed, and the cultural climate of America began to shift, the scandal that she initiated with Roberto Rossellini would begin to recede and her career would begin to revive. From a professional point of view, none of the films she made with Rossellini in Europe had been successful, either commercially or artistically, and as time went by, it became clear that their relationship was faltering on a personal level as well as a professional one. Forbidden during her marriage to make films with anyone but her husband, Ingrid was offered a role in her friend Jean Renoir’s film Elena et Les Hommes and made it clear that she fully intended to take it; Rossellini flew off to India for almost nine months to work on his own film. By the time he returned, it was clear that the marriage was over. Echoing his courtship of Ingrid, Rossellini had begun an affair in India with a married Indian woman who had a child. The woman followed him to Paris, much as Ingrid had followed him to Rome several years before.

Now released from her indentured servitude to Rossellini, Ingrid felt free again to accept American movie offers. Her first American film in seven years, Anastasia, was a big hit in America and earned her the Academy Award for her performance as a young woman who may or may not be the daughter of the Russian czar. The film’s success broke the long dry spell that characterized most of her work of the 1950s, and soon she would capitalize on it by appearing with Cary Grant in their second film together, Indiscreet. In less than two years, Ingrid Bergman was once again one of the top actresses in American film. In a few more, she would become something approaching a legend. But most important of all, she was once again free to be herself without judgement or censure.

The Eternal Star

For the balance of her career through the 60s and 70s, Ingrid Bergman worked indefatigably, moving from stage to film to television and back again. She won another Academy Award for her appearance in Murder on the Orient Express, and she broke theatrical attendance records in plays by Ibsen, Turgenev, Shaw, and O’Neill performed in Paris, London, and New York. Her late-career crowning glory in the cinema was, appropriately enough, her first and only collaboration with that other Swedish Bergman, Ingmar. In 1978, Ingrid appeared in his Autumn Sonata, speaking Swedish dialogue again in an entire film for the first time since her films in the 30s and creating another indelible role to add to the many behind her.

Bergman in the other Bergman's 'Autumn Sonata':

In her personal life, Ingrid raised her three children (one of whom, Isabella, became an actress of note herself), re-established contact with her daughter from her first marriage, and got married for a third time to a Swedish theatrical producer (their marriage, her longest, lasted 17 years). She attained a measure of equilibrium at last, and she exuded the comfortable confidence of a queen wherever she appeared. Some things are more powerful even than queens, however, and in 1974, Ingrid experienced her first incidence of breast cancer, the illness that would claim her life eight years later. Despite numerous efforts to contain the cancer, it felled her soon after she completed work on A Woman Called Golda, a TV mini-series about Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. She died on her birthday in 1982 at age 67.

Like any beloved film star, Ingrid Bergman can never completely die. She thrived on her work and was most alive when performing her craft; fortunately, there are an impressive number of documents of that craft still extant. Even if we can never experience many of her stage successes, most of her films and television work are still accessible, including her early Swedish films. In them, we can still feel the vibrancy and admire the genius of the actress who was not only one of the great on-screen personalities of her time, but who was simply one of the greatest actresses of any time. For all of her desire to push aside the idea of being a star, even now Ingrid Bergman remains one of the brightest our cinema has seen.