Don’t expect any whimsical half-truths or rambling ruminations in Donald Spoto’s new biography of Ingrid Bergman, Notorious. He offers just the facts about the beautiful Swedish actress who, if it weren’t for Spoto’s thoughtful reporting, could come off simply as a cold careerist, a woman who advanced by using men, a mother who wasn’t very maternal.
Certainly she was all that — to a degree. When she was 18, Bergman had an affair with a 41-year-old married actor-director, Edvin Adolphson, who jump-started her career by casting her in 1935’s Munkbrogreven. Ten years after coming to Hollywood in 1939, she ditched her first husband, nice-guy dentist Petter Lindstrom, and their daughter, Pia, to move to Italy with film director Roberto Rossellini. She then, of course, enhanced her newly scandalous reputation by giving birth to their son, Robertino, out of wedlock. The Rossellinis eventually married, had two more children, and divorced; Rossellini got the kids after a protracted custody battle. Bergman, meanwhile, married her third husband, movie producer Lars Schmidt.
But what saved Bergman from being just a narcissistic opportunist, according to Spoto’s highly readable biography, was that she would readily acknowledge her faults. ”I was too young to be a mother,” Bergman once said of Pia. ”I was so wound up in my career and Hollywood’s star system that I didn’t find time for the little girl in my house….There’s no doubt in my mind I neglected her and for that I have a lasting sense of guilt.” Work, she admitted, was her consuming ambition. After a tragic childhood during which she endured the deaths of her mother at age 3, her father at 14, and a beloved aunt at 15, she trusted work more than relationships. ”That is why I hate Sundays,” she is quoted as saying. ”I can’t wait for Monday. I want to work, I cannot relax and I am unhappy when a picture is over. If you took the stage away from me, I would stop breathing.”
Spoto, who has become an above-average biographer of everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Alfred Hitchcock, exposes the warmth and humanity beneath Bergman’s workaholism. He shows that she had real backbone, standing up to David Selznick when he wanted to change her name (to Ingrid Berryman), pluck her eyebrows, and slather on makeup. She also once publicly dressed down a bullying director, W.S. ”Woody” Van Dyke, winning him — and the cast of 1941’s Rage in Heaven — over at the same time.
And in the end, she seemed to have at least partly won over her children. Though all four were closer to their fathers, they had forged fairly tight bonds with their mother by the time of her death from lung cancer in 1982 at age 67. When Isabella Rossellini had to undergo back surgery as an adolescent, her mother cared for her for 18 months. ”Mama stopped work completely for me,” Isabella recalled. ”I was very touched by that because I know how much she loves her work.”
Still, it was not motherhood that Bergman wanted to be remembered for. ”I hope they put on my gravestone, ‘She acted to the last day of her life. Here rests a good actress.”’ B+