Beauty with Balls; an appreciation of Ingrid Bergman

I think I was in love with her from the start as she gazed steadily at me with moist lips and knowing eyes from the flickering monochrome  screens of such classics as Casablanca, Notorious, Spellbound, The Bells of St Mary’s,  and For whom the bell tolls.   Her face expressed vulnerability and innocence, yet also courage;  a lonely, shy girl next door trying to survive in a dangerous world.  That was her appeal.  Clearly, she needed me and only me to love and look after her.   Aa-ah!   But that was before the brisker virtues of Julie Andrews and the smouldering hot house appeal of Julie Christie.   

Ingrid Bergman was for my sixpence, the greatest film actress there ever was.  She was a natural, right from the start.  She loved the camera; it held no fears for her.  Maybe it was because she enjoyed posing for her photographer father, Julius, so much.  He once commented that one of the children he photographed would some day become famous.  Little did he know that this would be his beloved Ingrid. 

It was perhaps the tragedies of her early life that gave Ingrid that look in the eyes, that orphan appeal for love, that came straight through the camera and said ‘Hold me, look after me.  I love only you and I need you so badly!   It was irresistable!   

Ingrid was deeply affected by the story of  her parents romance. Her beautiful mother, Friedel, had fallen in love with Julius at the age of 15 when she saw him sketching in the park but had to wait seven years before her parents considered his prospects sufficient to look after daughter.  The marriage was blissfully happy, tinged only with a wistful sadness when Frieda’s first two children died in infancy.  Then Ingrid arrived and was adored by both her parents, but just two years later Freida died.  Ingrid had little recollection of her mother, and was loved and cherished by her father, but when she was  just 12, her beloved father died of stomach cancer.  At the time she consoled herself by reading  Friedel’s love letters to Julius during their long period of waiting.  This may well have implanted the longing for romantic love that shines through the eyes in all her screen parts. 

The eyes have it.  Ingrid was not an iconic beauty, she was tall, had slightly prominent teeth , refused to pluck her full eyebrows, but she looked healthy, had flawless skin and that look.  Always the look!  And she was a chum, the girl next door you could lark about with.  She had a mischievous penchant for practical jokes.   

After her father died, Ingrid was looked after by aunts and uncles, who deeply opposed her  ambitions to be an actress, but relented after exacting a promise that if she failed the auditions for the Royal Stockholm Theatre at her first attempt she would abandon all notions of the stage as a career.  She didn’t.  She was a natural.  Film roles followed and by the age of 21 she was a celebrity.  

 Over the next ten years she moved to Hollywood and made a sequence of films.  She was an instant box office success.  People loved her natural beauty, her innocence, her girlishness, her intelligence, her sense of fun.  But Ingrid was a young woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it.  She was a bird with balls.  She would deliberately take on the difficult roles which didn’t always cast her in the best light.  She loved acting.  She loved the challenge and the celebrity.  She loved being loved.

But in real life she was always looking for that special romance, that perfect bond of intimacy, that constant warmth of feeling;  the man who would adore her, cherish her and keep her safe enough to pursue her ambitions.  She wanted the consistency of a deeply intimate relationship to give her the confidence to risk the excitement of the challenge of a new part.  The two were not always compatible and her men did not necessarily want to play the house husband to the famous actress. 

She married Petter Lindstrom, who was a dentist, when she was just 22.  He was her first long term relationship and was somewhat older – maybe that was part of the attraction for her;  Petter could look after her.  But he was a bit cool and distant and tried to curb her exuberance, control her behaviour, watch her weight.   He didn’t like the way she frowned and somewhat  jealous of her relationships with her leading men, although she took her responsibities as wife and mother very seriously and was not unfaithful.   By 1943, at the height of her fame, she suggested to Petter they might get divorced.  There was nobody else but the marriage had rigidified and her career had left it behind.    

Then she met the mercurial maverick director, Roberto Rossellini.  It was love at first sight.  He was married with two children, she with one.  There were difficulties getting divorces.  People were scandalised when she moved to Rome and began living openly with Rossellini and so soon obviously pregnant.   She got terrible letters. Offers of parts in America dried up overnight.  Besides, Rosselini made it clear that he wouldn’t allow her to go back to America or to work for any other director but him.  Their professional association arrested both their careers.  Their affair turned her from goddess to whore overnight.   She needed to draw on great reserves of courage to live through the scandal of her affair and marriage to Rosellini, and the separation from her daughter, Pia and from Petter, whom she still needed as a friend and helpmate.  But she was in love and at times of her greatest loneliness and fear, she could always escape into her role in the play.    

She had three children very quickly by Rosselini, Robin and the twins, Isabella and Ingrid Isotto,  but her relationship with Rosselino was becoming difficult.  He worked like an artist, he wasn’t disciplined.  He used amateurs and never knew the script in advance, expecting the actors to improvise. He would suddenly leave the set and retire to his bed for days.  Ingrid was a professional, she needed consistency.  He gave her the kind of controlling inconsistency where only he knew the answers, which  came to him in a flash of inspiration.  She longed to work with other directors, but Ingrid was his property.   Eventually after seven years, he went on an extended project to India.  He was away a year and returned with his own Indian family. 

Ingrid’s subsequent marriage with the Swedish producer, Lars Schmidt went much the same way.  She was working again, rebuilding her career and may have neglected the marriage a bit, taken Lars for granted.  There was an element of self destruct in Ingrid.  When she had the love she craved, the consistency she needed, she became insecure and bored and needed to escape into another role.  She couldn’t hang on to the marriage.  It sort of drifted away.  Ingrid was always comfortable with acting.  It was life that made her nervous.

 ‘The greatest loneliness’, she once said, ‘was the loss of intimacy with someone you had once been close to, of being with them and finding you have lost the ability to connect.’ 

Ingrid ignored the lump in her breast at first  because she was in a play and about to start a new film.  By the time she got it treated, it had spread, but she carried on acting, often in great pain.  Her last project was a  portrayal  of Golda Meir; she kept her grossly swollen arm elevated all night so she could do the scene where she was required to lift both arms up in a typical Golda Meir gesture – she was that professional.  As she got older she became more forthright, if she didn’t want to do something, she didn’t.   She had no need of pretences any more.

Impulsive, amusing, needy, sentimental,  though at the same time kind and generous and loyal to her friends,  Ingrid was never the celebrity; she could not be aloof.  She needed to connect to people too much.  But there was always something of the orphan about her, clinging on to her previous emotional securities, meaningful objects, letters, photographs, friends and dreams.   She was the beautiful empty princess.  ‘My life was always concerned with finding and holding on to love,’ she commented towards the end.  She never stopped looking for the quality of intimacy her parents had enjoyed but had never realised that their relationship too would have transformed into something more mundane had it lasted.  Better for us, the millions who have fallen in love with the image that Ingrid expressed,  that it didn’t.   


 Ingrid Bergman died of breast cancer in 1982 on her 67th birthday.  The English edition of Charlotte Chandler’s biography ‘Ingrid’ was published by Simon and Schuster in 2007.