[EDITOR’s NOTE: Please be sure to check out WIll Viharo’s piece Escape from Thrillville, also featured in this issue!]
Talk about a natural beauty. She didn’t even need makeup. This isn’t a personal opinion or a politically correct observation about women in general. This was Hollywood’s cold-hearted, bottom line, cost-effective verdict of a very specific and very feminine face, and their opinion mattered back when a stunning Swedish actress named Ingrid Bergman made an international splash in Intermezzo: A Love Story (actually a remake of a 1936 Swedish film – yea, they did that kinda stuff back then too), opposite Leslie Howard, who was also hot that year, having co-starred in a little something called Gone with the Wind. 1939 is widely considered the greatest year in film history by many (old) movie buffs, boasting an unprecedented slew of timeless masterpiece in all genres (besides Gone with the Wind: The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, The Roaring Twenties, Son of Frankenstein, etc). It’s not my personal favorite year since I’m a grindhouse-noir kinda cat, but I definitely see the validity of that claim. The discovery of Ingrid Bergman goes a long way to proving this argument in the defendant’s favor. But she doesn’t belong to any particular year or era. She belongs to the ages. She belongs to us, whoever we are, whenever we are. Even though we can never touch or talk to her. Therein lies the beautiful sadness of this cinematic dream called Life.
Her universal allure was and remains sensuous but sophisticated – not cool and inaccessible like Grace Kelly, not bubbly and vulnerable like Marilyn Monroe, not sly and dangerous like Ava Gardner. Warm, but not exactly earthy. Smart, but never patronizing. Erotic, but definitely not lewd. She was an effortlessly classy yet sweetly sassy dame (as opposed to “broad”) worth risking your fortune and future for. Just ask Humphrey Bogart as American expatriate/hard-boiled mercenary/disgruntled cafe owner Rick Blaine, who found out the hard and classic way in Casablanca (1942), the roles for which both are best remembered. She portrayed the main reason for Rick’s witty bitterness, Ilsa Lund, a true love he cannot forget, however star-crossed, however tragic, however ultimately elusive.
The film almost everyone on Earth can still quote was based on an obscure stage play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. Though it was never even produced for a paying audience, the celebrated screen adaptation won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Bogey), and Best Screenplay (by ingenious twin brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, along with industry legend Howard E. Koch, who was later infamously blacklisted.) It was directed by Michael Curtiz, whose distinguished and eclectic career includes everything from the gritty gangster melodrama Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), in which Bogey plays second banana to Jimmy Cagney; the fiercely feminist film noir Mildred Pierce (1945); the sentimental musical holiday favorite White Christmas (1954); and the great unsung “Elvis noir” King Creole (1958). Many elements make Casablanca a memorable masterpiece and the standout in Curtiz’s impressive resume. Not least of those is Ingrid. Her poetically porcelain visage resonants across time like an angelic phantom, radiating wholesome sex appeal and lost romance, symbolizing not just an impossibly stylish if uniquely troubled period in our collective history, but an idealized femininity that sets the standard for eternity.
Following Casablanca was a string of hits that epitomize 1940s Hollywood glamour and brilliance: Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), her first Oscar-nominated role; George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), for which she actually earned her first Oscar; The Bells of Saint Mary’s (1945), playing a painfully sexy nun opposite Bing Crosby; and her Alfred Hitchcock trifecta, Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), and the full-color and lesser-celebrated Under Capricorn (1949). In between she earned another Oscar nod her stellar work in Joan of Ark (1948).
She was busy being “Ingrid Bergman” when she wasn’t in front of the cameras, too – entertaining troops in Alaska, starring in various stage productions, and perhaps most telling of her true character, publicly denouncing racism during a press conference promoting one of her plays. Beneath that seductive skin was an equally compelling spirit. And a fearless passion that ultimately if temporarily alienated much of her formerly faithful fan base, while setting her once adoring press on fire.
At the very peak of all this glory there exploded “the scandal.” While filming Stomboli (1950), one of five films she made for Italian neorealist pioneer Roberto Rosselini, a torrid behind-the-scenes affair with her director was revealed, resulting in not only an uproar amongst polite if morally hypocritical society, but a son, Renato Roberto Ranaldo Giusto Giuseppe Rossellini (say that five times fast, or even once). Ingrid – still hitched at the time to her dentist husband – was shunned and condemned by everyone from Ed Sullivan to the United States Senate. It seemed her career was over due to this sudden fall from public grace. Sex sells, but it also kills.
She “redeemed” herself partly by ditching the dentist (who became a neurosurgeon, so he turned out okay) and marrying Rossellini in Mexico. They added two daughters (who already had an older half-sister named Pia) to the extended family, Isotta Ingrid and the better known Isaballa, much later of Blue Velvet fame. After all, later it came out Ingrid had a very private affair with Gregory Peck while making Spellbound. It is a hard fact: she, like all celebrities and artists, was only human and not a heroine. Movies can be delightfully deceiving.
Flash forward past this hysterical blur of controversy to 1956: she won her second Oscar for Anastasia (1956). Hollywood has a short memory, especially when it comes to easily commercialized beauty – and undeniable talent. She won her third Oscar for the star-studded adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and a posthumous Emmy for her (final) role as Golda Meir in the TV mini-series A Woman Called Golda. In between she earned her seventh Oscar nod in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978). Given the similarity in their names, it was about time the two iconic Swedes teamed up and added to the general confusion, even while creating inevitable celluloid magic.
Awards and accolades only tell part of her story. The public part. The private part is her own, buried with her corporeal body. But her impact on the private lives of many people in the general public endures.
Ingrid Bergman left this world (specifically London) at the relatively young age of 67, in 1982, succumbing to the savage beast known as breast cancer.
But despite the toll Time eventually takes on all flesh, she remains one of the Immortals, the Chosen Few, the movie goddess forever beyond our reach but always within our view.
You can look, but you can’t touch. Ever. But it still feels good to look.
Ingrid Bergman can break your heart with a smile and a tear.
You must remember this.
Will “the Thrill” Viharo is a freelance writer, pulp fiction author, B movie impresario and lounge lizard at large. His novels: A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge, Chumpy Walnut, Lavender Blonde, Down a Dark Alley, Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up to the Room, It Came From Hangar 18 (with Scott Fulks), and the entire Vic Valentine, Private Eye series (including Love Stories Are too Violent For Me, Fate Is My Pimp, Romance Takes a Rain Check, I Lost My Heart in Hollywood, and Diary of a Dick) are now available. The original “Vic Valentine” cocktail is now being served exclusively at Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda, CA. For more info swing by The Thrill’s cyberpad at http://www.thrillville.net/