Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words

A portrait of a woman who succeeded in the film industry despite playing by her own rules.

In Hollywood’s Golden Age, few stars shone brighter than Ingrid Bergman. In less half a decade, she played the magnetic, mysterious Ilsa Lund in Casablanca (1942), a guerilla fighter in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), an innocent wife who is driven nearly to madness by her husband in Gaslight (1944), the eager and slightly boyish Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), a bookish psychoanalyst in Spellbound (1945), and the daughter of a Nazi spy in Notorious (also 1945).

Bergman was a bona fide movie star, an achievement even more remarkable because her life and career didn’t always fit the mold prescribed by studio publicists. While some contemporary stars entered into false marriages or used studio fixers to cover up aspects of their life that might put off the ticket-buying public, Bergman managed to combine a highly public professional career with a personal life that included multiple marriages, children, and extra-marital affairs. In a time when men but not women were allowed their little peccadillos, she showed considerable courage in living the life that was right for her.

For all these reasons, director Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words comes as a welcome counterbalance to the many potted biographies of Golden Age movie stars. He presents a complex portrait of a woman who lived a remarkable (and in some ways remarkably modern) life, drawing on a treasure trove of pre-existing materials including home movies, archival interviews, and film clips. Björkman eschews voice-of-God narration, with that role partially filled by excerpts from and Bergman’s diaries and letters, read by Alicia Vikander. What shines through above all is a woman who recognized the fickleness of public opinion — at one point she commented that “I’ve gone from saint to whore and back to saint again all in one lifetime” — but refused to allow her life to be ruled by it.

Running almost two hours, Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words begins with Vikander reading from the diary of a nine-year-old Ingrid, who is worried about her father’s illness and regrets failing several school subjects. Her mother was already dead, and her father would only last a few more years, so from age 13 Bergman lived in the homes of various relatives. She studied at Stockholm’s famed Royal Dramatic Theatre, but recognized early on that the Sweden was too small a film market to satisfy her ambitions. Although already married and the mother of a small child (Pia Lindstrom), in 1939 she set sail for America, while her husband and daughter remained in Sweden. It was a pattern that would be repeated many times over the years — Bergman had four children, but often lived apart from them in order to pursue her acting career.

Bergman’s reputation took a huge hit when her affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini became public knowledge. Although the couple ultimately married, the fact that Bergman bore his child (Roberto Ingmar Rossellini) in 1950, while still married to her first husband, drew widespread condemnation in the United States. Ed Sullivan refused to have her on his popular TV show, and Colorado senator Edwin Carl Johnson, who apparently had no more pressing legislative business to attend to, denounced her on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Bergman did not let negative publicity stop her, making five films with Rossellini followed by a successful return to Hollywood in 1956 as the title character in Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia. She then took some time off from Hollywood, appearing in a number of stage productions, before retuning to the big screen in 1970 in Cactus Flower, followed by notable performances in Murder on the Orient Express and Autumn Sonata in 1974 and 1978, respectively. Her final appearance before the camera, as Golda Meir in the TV movie A Woman Called Golda, came in 1982; she was posthumously awarded an Emmy and a Golden Globe for that performance.

If you’re a Bergman fan, or are interested in gender politics (in Hollywood or elsewhere), Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words is fascinating and revealing. If neither of those topics interest you, however, you may find it slow going, with far too many home movies of adorable children and not material directly relevant to her films. For my money, this documentary is exactly the kind of tribute Bergman deserves, because she was not only a great movie star, but also a notable woman who lived her own life and succeeded in her career despite the openly sexist society in which she lived.

The Criterion release of Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words comes with a large package of extras, most of which are interesting without being really essential. My favorite is a deleted scene (three min.) in which Bergman’s three daughters (Pia Lindstrom, Isabella Rossellini, and Isotta Ingrid Rossellini) read a school essay she wrote at age 16 describing how she would raise a daughter.

Other extras include a 2016 video interview with director Björkman (18 min.), some 8mm home movie clips from the ’30s (seven min.), an interview with film historian and collector Rosario Tronnolone (nine min.), several extended scenes (14 min. total) from this documentary, a brief clip of Bergman’s first onscreen appearance in the 1932 film Landskamp (30 sec.), outtakes from the 1936 Swedish film On the Sunny Side (4 min.), a music video of “The Movie About Us” (five min.), a song which appears in the soundtrack of this documentary, and the film’s trailer (two min.). There’s also an ingenious CD insert that doubles as a poster and as liner notes, with the poster and credits on one side and an essay by film historian Jeanine Basinger on the other.

RATING 7 / 10