|New York Times|
|April 20, 1975|
The Constant Stardom of Ingrid Bergman
By Richard Dyer
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” Humphrey Bogart said, lifting his glass in toast to Ingrid Bergman. That was in the movie Casablanca, back in 1942, and looking at Ingrid Bergman remains a favorite international pastime even today. Thirty-six years after her first American film, Intermezzo, in which she sat at the piano and played Rustle of Spring to an enraptured Leslie Howard, Miss Bergman still commands the admiration of her peers and the enthusiasm of film and theater audiences.
Miss Bergman has just won an Academy Award (her third) for her portrayal of the sheeplike Swedish missionary – the one who wanted to teach the “little brown babies about Yesus” – in Murder on the Orient Express. And for the past few months she has breaking house records across the country touring in W. Somerset Maugham’s comedy The Constant Wife, which opened last week at the Shubert.
Created for Ethel Barrymore in 1926, Maugham’s play about upper-class infidelity seems like an unlikely candidate for revival. “Everyone sits around in hats and handbags while the butler answers the door,” is the way Miss Bergman described it when we talked shortly before the Broadway opening. And when it comes to a “moral,” Maugham has his cake and eats it too. Like Ibsen’s Nora, Maugham’s heroine, Constance Middleton, walks out on her husband, but only after maneuvering matters so that her philandering spouse has to take her back once her own fling is over.
The play is a plush vehicle for an actress, and it is easy to see why it has attracted Miss Bergman. When she is onstage she speaks most of the wittiest lines and gets to smile gratifyingly often. When she goes offstage it is only to change into some still more glamorous costume and accessories, while the other actors discourse on her charm, intelligence and beauty.
She did the play first in London this past season, but only after a certain amount of hesitation. “After all,” she says, “I’ve done a lot of revivals – Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in Paris, Turgeney’s A Month in the Country in London, Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion here in America. I was really looking for something new, but I couldn’t find anything I wanted to learn by heart! The problem is most new plays aren’t worth the money you have to pay to get in and see them. The Constant Wife may be old-fashioned in its structure, but the story is fundamentally true; the ideas are just as modern today as they were in 1926. And people recognize the jokes like old friends; the laughter is deafening.”
Early in her tour, which has taken her to Los Angeles, Denver, Washington and Boston, Miss Bergman broke an ankle. The show went on, and its star went on in a wheelchair. “I was pushed onstage by the butler,” she recalls. “The trouble came in the thrid act. Constance’s final dialogue with her husband is too intimate for the butler to hear, so we couldn’t have him standing there waiting to wheel me off. I said, ‘I’ll push myself out,’ but I had never been in a wheelchair before and I pushed myself right into the wall. I was so busy working the chair that I couldn’t remember my lines. I said in a loud voice to Jack Gwillim, who plays my husband, ‘I don’t know the dialogue anymore!’ That made everybody laugh, and he whispered the words to me and they all came back. Then I ran into the wall again; I just couldn’t get through that door! I did the play in that wheelchair for a week, and after that I limped around on a bandaged foot for a while. It wasn’t until our last week in Washington that I was able to put on a shoe.”
As the conversation went on, Miss Bergman grew still more frank about her reasons for touring in this particular play. “Now I am coming into an older age. I cannot be in the movies and play a romantic person. If I want to continue on the screen, I have to go into character parts, like the ones I played in Murder on the Orient Express and Hideaways. That is quite amusing. But on the stage I can play a much younger woman because the people are so far away that they don’t see your age. Also, theatergoers are not like moviegoers – they don’t care what age you are, so long as you can convey an illusion.”
For a woman of 59, Miss Bergman’s beauty is still remarkably real. While she talked, her hands chopped vigorously at the air; the famous voice, those vowels stretching into music, was always emphatic. As in the play, she smiled gratifyingly often. “My whole life has been acting,” she said. “I have had my different husbands, my families, I am fond of them all and I visit them all. But deep inside me there is the feeling that I belong to show business.”
“When I was young I was in such a hurry to act that I didn’t want to go to school. I knew that you first must crawl before you can walk, but after only one year in dramatic school I went to the Swedish Film Industries and asked for a job. I intended to go back to school after the summer, but I got so fascinated with the movies that I stayed on. But what you can learn in school is very important – teachers can tell you how to walk, move, sit; they can tell you how to use your voice. You have to get the authority that captures the attention of the audience; you have to know how to sustain that attention. You must have those things if you want to have a long career. You can have a couple of years in the movies built on your beauty or your youth or your cuteness – but after that it is finished. I am still working on my craft, on my concentration. I was not perfect at the London opening of The Constant Wife, I’ll tell you that. The critics were after me because I stuttered and mixed up the lines.”
Miss Bergman doesn’t credit her acting skills to any method or school. “I’ve never understood the Actor’s Studio thing, though I won’t say anything bad about it. They make so many difficulties. It is their way, to release what is inside shy people. I’ve never had any difficulty releasing any kind of emotion.”
“I can never answer when people ask me which is my favorite way of acting. The theater is difficult because you have to repeat yourself every evening – and you have to watch yourself all day. Even this noon, when I was eating a wonderful lobster, I had to tell myself, ‘Be careful – not too much wine because of the evening performance.’ I love the contact with the live audience in the theater, but I love the camera too – it is one eye instead of a thousand eyes. That one eye sees everything and comes so close to you that you don’t have to do anything! You have to bring everything out a little more for the thousand eyes in the theater. It is very nice that I have had both kinds all my life.”
She loves to look at her old Hollywood films. “All my old movies were running while I was doing The Constant Wife at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; it was a Bergman festival. I went to see some of them between the matinee and evening performances of the play. I especially like the good ones, such as Notorious, but I really like them all. I’ve never been forced to do a film; I’ve always chosen what I was going to do. Some of my films turned out to be not so good perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see them. I was very happy when I made all of them; I always thought what I was doing was going to be great.”
Miss Bergman is particularly eager to defend the quasi-improvised Italian films she made during the years of her marriage to Roberto Rossellini (and during her seven-year “banishment” from Hollywood). “Those movies were ahead of their time – everything that Antonioni came along with later is in them. It gave me an enormous amount of strength and courage to be in those movies, because working under conditions like that was so difficult. The dialogue was written just before the cameras turned. In the end it was the professional actors who ended up looking unnatural next to the amateurs that Roberto liked to use.”
She is very much aware that the heavily publicized events of her private life exert an effect on her audiences even greater than that of any role she plays. “I came on the Hollywood scene at the end of all the big star business. You remember those film magazines – they were only interested in the stars’ home life. They showed you whipping up a little souffle, playing with the dogs on the lawn. Then come those certain periods in your life when you really just wish people would leave you alone. There are enough difficulties in handling your problems in private – and there they all are on the front page, misinterpreted, misunderstood. The papers always reported, ‘An intimate friend has said….’ And I always wondered who those intimate friends were. It was terrible. Now nobody cares anymore; the new actors are not stars, just actors. There are advantages to being a star though – you can always get a table in a full restaurant,” she says, laughing again.
“And every time the curtain goes up, something wonderful happens. Acting is the best medicine in the world – no matter what is the matter with you. If you are not feeling well, it goes away because you are busy thinking about something that isn’t yourself. We actors are very fortunate people.”
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