Part 6: Simply the Best: Another “Look” at Liv Ullmann

The biggest part of my talent is instinct.

— Liv Ullmann

Making a surprise contribution to our modest little dialogue on female acting in cinema is none other than screen legend Liv Ullmann, a pioneering woman who appears on the list for her unparalleled work in Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face. The ice blue-eyed star of such classics as The Emigrants, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and Scenes from a Marriage, Ullmann virtually defined a nakedly emotional, natural style of acting that few have come close to approaching, in terms of the level of quality and honesty, since. She also happens to be one of my favorite actresses of all time (gee, could you tell?).

At the recent DocFest at New York’s Paley Center for Media, Ms. Ullmann, whose glowing countenance belied her near-70 years, was on hand to discuss an ultra-rare documentary about her life and her acting process, which she says consists of four basic conceits: “Observing. Wondering. Reading. Technique.” Made in the late ’70s, Richard Kaplan’s A Look at Liv: Norway’s Liv Ullmann/Liv Ullmann’s Norway shows the star frankly discussing feminism, single motherhood and the “constant guilt” that she felt as a modern, successful woman in the world media’s spotlight. She pointed out that if a man had the kind of career she had, he would have been congratulated, whereas she was sometimes criticized in her heyday.

Ullmann took a few interesting detours when her Bergman troupe co-stars were mentioned. The results? Three extremely insightful, generous anecdotes about three of the performances on this list, one of her personal choices, and a once-in-a-lifetime addendum by the glorious Bergman super trouper Bibi Andersson herself, who just so happened to be in attendance to support her life-long pal.

Needless to say, my life is now complete. I got to watch the stars of Persona watch themselves in Persona. Think about that.

On Harriet Andersson:

Matt Mazur: Cries and Whispers is my all-time favorite film and I had the good fortune of speaking with your co-star Harriet Andersson a few years ago in Berlin (at the 2006 Berlinale). What is your reminiscence of making the film?

Liv Ullmann: “I just loved it. We had so much fun while making the movie because we were doing it on location and we were many women in the leads. In the evenings we met — Ingmar didn’t want us to do ‘party life’, and so, he told us after dinner to stay in our rooms. He went in his room, so he didn’t know that the moment he went… (riotous laughter). We drank and had joy and told each other all the secrets of our lives. Not the least, Harriet Andersson who is doing the most incredible performance in that movie. And the next day, all of us had two or three hours of sleep, every night, we met and we did, you know, I think very, very good performances. And Ingmar didn’t understand anything. He just knew that we had a kind of secret life. It was very good and the women, during that time, we became very close because we told each other stories.”

On Bibi Andersson:

Ullmann: I’ve never in my life, apart from Ingmar, had a friend like Bibi. My life would have probably been so much different if Bibi had not been my friend. Because she happens to be the most generous and wonderful friend you could ever have and I just feel I have to thank her. Since I was 20 years old, she has been a part of my life.

Bibi Andersson (from the front row of the screening room, on Persona and Ullmann): Liv has one version, and Bergman has another version and then there’s my version. We made a film together when I was just breaking away from Bergman and she was desperate to know everything, so it became such an intense, confessional story with me telling her how it was and she absorbed everything. I thought ‘Oh God, I hope she doesn’t meet him one day because now she knows everything.’ He made Persona because we looked alike, that’s how I understand it. We were doing another film and he cancelled it because he became ill.

Ullmann: We were doing this other film and it was cancelled. I had a very small part in it and Bibi was doing the lead. Bibi and I went to Poland and to Czechoslovakia, just on a tour, and when we came to Czechoslovakia… maybe this isn’t true! (laughing) I’ve been telling this it for so long. When we came to Czechoslovakia, the Swedish embassy came to us and said ‘Ingmar is now feeling much better’, because while he was in the hospital, he was looking at these pictures of me and Bibi together and got this idea to make another film based on the likeness of us. We left Czechoslovakia in a plane, left the people we were traveling with…

Andersson: (loudly, from the front row of the screening room) It was Poland!

Ullmann: (laughing) Poland, Czechoslovakia…and then we went to Sweden. This movie came in on a very short preproduction but it was while he was in the hospital looking at these pictures that he got the idea and very quickly wrote this script.

Andersson: That’s possible, yes.

Ullmann: (laughing) Is that possible? It’s my story. I think it’s true.

On Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata:

Ullmann: “She was fantastic. I used to be so proud to be a woman working with her. At this time she already had cancer and knew about it and never abused it by coming in late or leaving early or whatever. She and Ingmar, at times, had a difficult way of relating, (laughing) because she would ask questions that we had learned not to ask. At the first reading she would say ‘why do you say it like that? That doesn’t sound right’, and we knew you don’t say that, and you shouldn’t, but she did say that –- she was very honest. I remember, actually, I really adored her, I thought she was fantastic, I really did. There was one scene where this daughter, I’m 40 years old and I’m still blaming my mother for my life being so unhappy because she was [busy] being a pianist and going on tours, and I say that because she went on tours, that’s why my life was so unhappy. So, there’s a full night where my 40-year-old woman, with pigtails and so, is telling her mother ‘you ruined my life, you’re terrible and I hate you’. She goes on and on and on and on, and Ingrid Bergman, you know, shocked and everything, says something like ‘oh please hold around me, please love me.’ I remember when I read that I was thinking ‘oh, if I had those lines, I would say them and make them all weep’ or whatever. What happened was, first we did it with me because I had this long monologue saying all these terrible things to my mother, and then the camera is turned toward Ingrid and then Ingrid says ‘I’m not going to say that -– I want to slap her in the face.’

They started to scream there. They went out in the corridor and we heard them screaming and going on and we thought ‘the movie is over’ and then it [the fight] was over and ‘The Genius’ and Ingrid came in again and it was his script so she was to do what he said. She didn’t do it my way. She said, after having heard that horror from her daughter, she said it with the face of women though the centuries that have said ‘I’m sorry I’m here,’ and we harbor this anger. ‘Please, I don’t want to say I’m sorry anymore, I want to be who I am’. And for that, I admire her so much. That’s why that scene was so great because she really, really played against, I think, what Ingmar had thought and what I had thought about. Maybe she learned that from what happened to her in her life, what happened much earlier. She didn’t say ‘I’m sorry’ anymore. She was a great lady, we all loved her.”

Andersson: (again, with pitch perfect comedic timing, interjecting from the audience) “Which line did she say, finally?”

Ullmann: “She said the lines: ‘Please hold around me. Please love me.’ She said the lines, but with the anger of somebody who one more time had to say (emphatically) ‘I’m so sorry, that I misbehaved again. I think a lot of women, at least, recognize that.

Andersson: A good choice.

Ullmann: It was a good choice!

On one of her favorite performances, the dynamic Lena Endre in Faithless, which she directed from a Bergman script (and I swear was a strong runner-up for my own list):

“I loved that movie! Lena Endre played the lead and I just think she’s fantastic. What I learned from Ingmar is really is if you have a lily, as an actor, you don’t try to make that actor into a rose. You water the lily so it comes to its full bloom. I had an incredible, incredible actress, and she knows the stories like all of us women. Those times you can never take back when you make a choice that is more for you than for your children or those close to you.”

Ms. Ullmann is currently listening to the blues while prepping for a dream theater-directing gig: Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire with Cate Blanchett for the Australian National Theater, which will hit Sydney first, then Washington, and finally Broadway, sometime next year. Arguably our greatest living screen actress, Ms. Ullmann continues to inspire me to generate hysterical amounts of hyperbole at a fevered pitch, and is one of the reasons I decided to pursue a life of work in the film industry in the first place.