Mark's Best Actress Challenge

…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!

Ingrid Bergman in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (nomination, 1943), “Joan of Arc” (nomination, 1948), and “Autumn Sonata” (nomination, 1978)

Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman may indeed be considered a “goddess” of cinema.  Many of her performances are considered among the greatest ever onscreen, and she was honored with a total of 3 Oscar wins and 7 overall nominations.  She may very well be one of our most endearing and revered actresses of all time – right up there with Kate Hepburn.  A true beauty on camera (let’s face it, the camera LOVED her), she proved time and again that she was more than just a pretty face.  And who else could we ever picture when we hear Bogey say, “Here’s looking at you, kid” or the romantic tune, “As Time Goes By”?   Casablanca aside, with this blog, I pay homage to Bergman by watching and commenting on 3 of her pictures for which she was nominated for Oscar’s Best Actress: For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Joan of Arc (1948), and Autumn Sonata (1978).

Surprisingly, Ingrid Bergman’s first Best Actress-nominated performance was for a role that almost eluded her.  Due to being at a different studio, Bergman was initially denied playing the role of Spanish native Maria in the screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s sweeping drama, For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1943.  After several negotiations between studios and despite the fact that Bergman’s outward appearance screams Norwegian rather than Spanish (especially with the closely cropped blonde hair), Bergman won the role.  The story centers around Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper), an American working with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War.  Jordan has been hired to take to the hills and find a bridge used by the fascist enemy as a communication center and conduit and blow it up with dynamite.  Along the way, he encounters a band of guerilla soldiers and enlists their help, but not without a great deal of grumbling and betrayal in the process.  Bergman, as Maria, is part of this rugged group – and she has her own tortured history of watching her parents brutally die for the Republic they loved and fought for.  She and Jordan rather swiftly fall in love, despite Jordan’s warnings that his line of work does not permit for longstanding emotional attachments.  Clocking in at just about 3 hours and 40 minutes, For Whom the Bell Tolls is overly long, tiring to watch, and ambitious, and its moments of special note are usually when Best Supporting Actress winner Katina Paxinou takes the scene (she’s quite simply perfect as the rough-hewn, brash-talking Pilar).  The cinematography in glorious Technicolor is quite breathtaking at times – especially in beautiful close-ups of both Bergman and Cooper, both extremely good-looking people.  Still, for nabbing a nomination, Bergman does little but play second fiddle (if that) to Cooper, Katina Paxinou, and an especially menacing Akim Tamiroff (in a Supporting nominated performance).  She is often swallowed up in the action and plot of the film, and it is little wonder that she lost the Oscar in 1943 to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. She did, however, bounce back the following year to garner Best Actress in the gothic suspense film Gaslight.

The story of Joan of Arc gets the epic treatment in 1948 from reknown director Victor Fleming, with Bergman starring as the inimitable French maid.  Guided by faith and the voices of heavenly angels and saints, Joan led her countrymen to victory and freedom in battle from the British and crowned their Dauphin king, only to be betrayed by him and sentenced to death at the stake.  Despite being too a little too old to play Joan, the 34 year-old Bergman was no stranger to playing 19 year-old Joan, for with this film, she reprised her stage role in Maxwell Anderson’s play on which the movie was based.  And she truly is quite powerful and perhaps born to play the role, perhaps coming as close to brilliance if not being strongly comparable to her Oscar win in Gaslight four years prior.  As one who has always been fascinated by Joan of Arc’s story, I found myself caught up in this film as the hours passed (like For Whom the Bell Tolls, it is a lengthy movie, but thankfully more engrossing and not as tiresome).  The script at times betrayed some slight weaknesses (there is actually a moment during battle when Joan murmurs, “To die by fire is terrible” – a little too obvious foreshadowing there), but good performances make up for trite lines.  The movie picks up momentum with Joan’s trial and Bergman truly shines in these scenes.  At times, I think I even got goosebumps, she was so assured and convincing.  Joan’s fate is made even more saddening.  The ending is poignant, wonderfully filmed, and meaningful;  you truly need to see it.  Also look for Jose Ferrer’s screen debut (and Supporting Actor nomimated performance) as Charles, the Dauphin and eventual king of France.  Bergman lost 1948’s Oscar to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, truly as good and powerful a performance, but in a simpler film.

Lastly, we come to Autumn Sonata from 1978, which was Ingrid Bergman’s final onscreen performance and her final Oscar-nominated role.  While she lost the Oscar to Jane Fonda in Coming Home, this is without a doubt one of Bergman’s strongest performances in really a rather ‘small’ and artistic foreign-language (yes, subtitled) film by famed director Ingmar Bergman.  In typical [Ingmar] Bergman fashion, the characters in this film voice their thoughts out loud – between each other and even by themselves.  This may come off as unsettling to the average viewer, but it works effectively with this film to establish the subtext.  The story involves a sudden visit by famous concert pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) to her estranged daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) at her country parsonage home.  Throughout her life, Charlotte had little time or energy to put into raising her children due to her career.  From the get-go, Eva’s quiet reserve and awkward tension around her mother at the start of the visit betrays the fact that emotions will eventually boil to the surface as the film progresses – and it does.  Mother and daughter have a very probing and deep discussion into the night and Eva’s feelings of hurt and resentment pour forth.  Charlotte is confronted with the reality of her failure as a mother.  Adding to her anguish, she discovers from Eva that her lover, Leonardo, who has recently passed away, once seduced her daughter Helena.  Upon his casual dismissal of the incident, Helena became physically and mentally ill, and is now living with and being taken care of by Eva and her husband.  Though she promises to make amends with her daughter, Charlotte’s immediate and typical reaction is to flee once more.  Despite her hurt and frustration, Eva still attempts to reach out to her mother at the very end.

Bergman and Ullmann are perfect in this film.  I was especially impressed with the raw fragility Ullmann exhibited; indeed, though Bergman took the lead actress nomination, Ullmann drives much of the film.  She has a number of strong monologues which carry her through a gamut of emotions.  Even when she is not speaking – as in one moment when she stares into her mother’s face as Charlotte plays a concerto on the piano – there are a myriad of complexities playing across her face.  I, for one, enjoy films that thoroughly flesh out resentments, emotions, and feelings because of their intense theatricality and exploration of human nature (hence my love of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, perhaps) – and this film is no exception.  Bergman plays Charlotte to the hilt.  From the beginning of the film we sense a cold, detached reserve in Charlotte which has been cultivated by her years of being a performer, removed from sentiment save for what she pours into her concertos.  As she hashes the past out with her daughter through the early hours of the morning, her vulnerability emerges closer to the surface and her facade begins to crack.  Just when we think she is about to open herself up even further, she does exactly the opposite of what we expect – she runs away.  Then again, perhaps we do expect it, because it is so customary of her.   The ultimate reconciliation resting in the hands of normally cool Eva is the true surprise.  Autumn Sonata is one of those films that sits with you a little while after viewing it; a testament to the genius of Ingmar Bergman. The movie won Best Foreign Film of 1978 – deservedly so.

Sadly, Ingrid Bergman was very ill during the filming of Autumn Sonata, and after a performance as Golda Meir in a television movie, she retired from film.  In 1982, she passed away on her birthday.  Her legacy is remarkable… she is unforgettable.  Her three Oscar-winning performances include: Gaslight (Actress, 1944), Anastasia (Actress, 1956), and Murder on the Orient Express (Supporting Actress, 1974).


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This entry was posted on August 15, 2010 by .
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