Ingrid Bergman: From Luminous to Scandalous to Illustrious


To see the Ingrid Bergman films available on FilmStruck, click here.

Ingrid Bergman stepped in front of a camera for the first time 85 years ago. Bergman fans will be delighted to discover that FilmStuck offers 13 of her films, including a recent documentary by Swedish critic and filmmaker Stig Bjorkman titled Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words (2015).

Instead of Bergman’s glamorous Hollywood star turns—Gaslight (1944), Casablanca (1941), Notorious (1946)—FilmStruck offers her lesser-known European films, including seven early Swedish roles, four melodramas by husband Roberto Rossellini, one film made for Renoir, and her penultimate screen performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978).

I recommend starting with Bjorkman’s documentary, which weaves together excerpts from the actress’s diaries and correspondence with home movies and interviews with her children. Bergman reveals how she felt about herself and the events of her life and career—perspectives that are sometimes unexpected or at odds with those expressed in the press or in publicity. More than most stars, Bergman’s career was affected by public perception, press opinion and industry manipulation. I decided to track down the stories, the reviews and the publicity to better understand the rocky path of her career.

Bergman attended the Royal Dramatic Academy in Stockholm, but, like other actresses, she was tempted by the money and opportunity in Sweden’s successful film industry. Her first screen appearance was as an extra in Landskamp (1932) in a scene in which the 16-year-old actress stands in line with other girls. She is noticeable because of her height and her fresh face—and I mean that literally. Ingrid Bergman had the most radiant complexion of any actress of the period, and this physical attribute became part of her identity and screen persona from the beginning.

the count of the old town_1934

The oldest Bergman film available through FilmStruck is a comedy titled The Count of Old Town (1935), which represents her first role. She plays Elsa, a chambermaid in a hotel full of misfits. Not only was her character youthful and innocent, but Bergman’s healthy glow makes Elsa stand out. Reviews at the time noticed her “statuesque” height as well as her “fresh” or “refreshing” face. It was the basis of her beauty. In 1936, Bergman starred in the Swedish version of Intermezzo, the story of a young pianist who has an affair with her mentor. The story and character helped construct a star persona for her as a beautiful and pure woman torn between youthful passion and proper decorum, or between passion and duty/responsibility. The healthy, wholesome fresh face was key to creating sympathy for a character who finds herself on the wrong side of a moral dilemma.

David O. Selznick saw this version of Intermezzo and sent his story editor to Sweden to sign Bergman to a contract. In one of his famous memos dated June 9, 1939, Selznick noted Bergman’s “exciting beauty” and “fresh purity,” and he was determined to exploit her look using “artsy” cinematography in a remake of Intermezzo. He replaced staff cinematographer Harry Stradling with the more accomplished Gregg Toland after the latter’s tests better captured Bergman’s luminous complexion. Selznick also mentioned that their publicity build-up for Bergman should stress her conscientious work ethic and her real-life sensible behavior. He felt it was “completely in keeping with the fresh and pure personality and appearance which caused me to sign her. . . .” Later that year, Selznick sent a written thank-you to makeup artist Monty Westmore for avoiding the use of noticeable make-up on Bergman in publicity photos. He related, “. . . the public and the press [are] all commenting widely on the fact that her eyebrows look natural, and that she isn’t smeared with Hollywood make-up.” If Bergman’s Swedish films established her onscreen identity, the Hollywood star-making machine cultivated and circulated it.

Bergman remained under contract to Selznick until 1946, but he repeatedly loaned her to other studios during this time. Other producers and directors capitalized on her healthy, wholesome image and radiant complexion in one fashion or another, and she continued to play women in moral quandaries who struggled between their personal passions and feelings of responsibility, as in Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946). Duty and responsibility generally won out, with her wholesome beauty helping to smooth over any sinful behavior. Fanzines played their part in circulating Bergman’s star image. In June 1944, Movieland magazine devoted one page to Gaslight. A film still took up three-quarters of the page, which left enough room only for a caption. The author described Bergman in one word: “luminous.”

Where Bergman’s career deviated from other Golden Age stars was the left turn it took because of a notorious scandal. In 1949, Bergman shocked the public and the press when she left her husband and eight-year-old daughter to move to Italy with director Roberto Rossellini. When news leaked that she was also pregnant with Rossellini’s child, the scandal escalated, with press from all over the world waiting for the birth of “the Stromboli baby.” Bergman and Rossellini were married in 1950, but that did little to quell the furor. She was castigated by fans, movie fanzines, women’s groups and politicians. She was denounced as “Hollywood’s apostle of degradation” and a “free-love cultist” on the floor of the Senate. I can’t help but wonder how much this reaction was the result of violating her star image as a sensible woman who placed responsibility over passion.

However, her career was hardly over. Behind the scenes, several studios made offers to her, though Bergman chose to continue her acting in Europe with Rossellini. They made six films together before divorcing in 1958. The first, Stromboli (1950), was shot in Europe but produced for RKO while it was under Howard Hughes’s leadership. A mix of Rossellini’s signature neorealism with melodrama, Stromboli, Europe ’51 (1952), Journey to Italy (1955), and Fear (1954) offer stunning portraits of middle-aged women in crisis, though none were successful at the time of release. Unlike his Swedish and Hollywood predecessors, Rossellini was not interested in her luminous complexion or her star image.


As the official story goes, Bergman came back into the Hollywood fold through an excellent performance in Anastasia (1956), which earned her a second Oscar. Director Anatole Litvak convinced her she could make an international comeback as the title character in the film, which was shot in London. But, it took more than one award-winning performance to make the public forgive and forget.

Just as publicity had generated and circulated a star image for Bergman, and just as it had skewered her during the scandal, so it was used to reshape the events from 1948 to 1958 into a narrative that seemed to make her past actions relatable and worthy of sympathy. It began in 1956 when she graced the cover of Life magazine in her comeback role as Anastasia. Two years later, after her marriage to Rossellini was annulled, interviews and articles in such women’s magazines as Collier’s and Redbook accelerated. The cover story of Look magazine for September 1958 set the tone: “The Whole Story of a Troubled Life.”

A 1958 interview conducted by Ralph Cooper worked extra hard to reshape Bergman’s past and make it palatable to the public. Syndicated by the UPI in several major newspapers, the lengthy interview was titled “Ingrid Bergman Tells Her Own Story of Her Stormy Life and Loves.” It’s not that the interview is wholly inaccurate or a lie, but there is a goal or purpose to what Bergman says and how Cooper frames it. If a twisted spin on the events of her personal life got her booted from Hollywood, a positive spin would get her re-instated.

Cooper established in the first few paragraphs that Bergman was not angry, bitter or placing blame. Instead, she took the high road, illustrating her mature attitude by recalling something a costar had told her when she was young and making movies in Sweden. He caught her crying over a falsehood printed in the papers, and he said, “If you are going to cry about a little thing like that, what will you do when you are a big artist? Always remember that the higher you go, and the more talent you have, the harder it will be.”

She and Cooper went on to remind the public of her other admirable traits. She told readers that, no matter what, she had been honest about everything that happened, taking responsibility for her decisions. She never took “the hypocrite’s way—the hidden way,” she said, which would have been easier for her. “To be honest one has to be courageous,” she asserted.

Cooper established sympathy for her by exaggerating the way studio execs supposedly treated her during the scandal. Bergman claimed an MGM exec visited her in Rome after her son Roberto was born. He told her she could come back to Hollywood if she left Rossellini and gave up her son for adoption. He reportedly said, “He need never know who his mother is.” The statement was designed to outrage readers on Bergman’s behalf. This was followed by anecdotes about repairing dress hems and darning socks to tout Ingrid’s mothering skills. Cooper declared that her children were never far away from her, an assertion contradicted by Bjorkman’s documentary.

As for her ouster from Hollywood, Bergman decided that it all worked out for the best, which took some of the sting out of her exile. She claimed that if she had not left because of the scandal, she would have left for another reason. She was growing tired of the limitations placed on her by the studios who forced her into roles that fit her carefully cultivated star image, which she dubbed “the good and beautiful girl.” Her remarks set up moviegoers for her new, mature star image that identified her as a revered actress—an image built on age, scandal and her European roles.

Susan Doll

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7 Responses Ingrid Bergman: From Luminous to Scandalous to Illustrious
Posted By AL : July 31, 2017 1:57 am

Susan–allow me to thank you for introducing me to KIESLOWSKI and DECALOGUE–I’m half-way through and it’s just Blowing my mind ! A very sincere thanks…

Posted By Susan Doll : July 31, 2017 10:26 am

You are welcome, Al. It is truly a masterpiece of art, not just cinema.

Posted By Arthur : July 31, 2017 11:30 am

Thank you for this concise, informative review of Bergman’s career.

I saw some of her early Swedish films. (I heard that she had to lose weight when she came to Hollywood.) I enjoyed them all. She made one called DOLLAR. Though shot in 1938, its attitude toward sex was quite liberated, expressing Swedish openness about relationships. Which is what Bergman apparently exhibited in her own affairs. And it took Hollywood and the US a while to catch up.

What drew her Rossellini, perhaps more than anything else, was the brilliant realism of his work as opposed to the make-believe of other filmmakers.

DOLLAR is also interesting in how whites and Blacks relate in a relatively egalitarian manner and in how everyone is proficient in a number of languages. And how many could Ingrid Bergman speak. At least three, if not more. . .

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : July 31, 2017 10:45 pm

Another fine article, Susan. Thank you.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 31, 2017 11:09 pm

Thanks for the kind words. I truly appreciate my readers.

Posted By Lyndell Smith : August 1, 2017 11:57 am

I actually prefer the Swedish version of INTERMEZZO to the American. She was delightful in it, and I can see why Hollywood grabbed her.

Posted By swac44 : August 17, 2017 5:05 pm

I still have a soft spot for the Hollywood Intermezzo because, well, Leslie Howard.

(I also have a fond memory of watching it in high school with a cute piano playing friend of mine, so that might tip the scales somewhat.)

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