Art-House Ingénue


She has never gotten an Oscar, and her pictures don’t exactly back up traffic at drive-ins, but Norway’s Liv Ullmann is, arguably, the preeminent actress in the world today. She has won either the National Society of Film Critics or the New York Film Critics best-actress award for five pictures in the last seven years, an achievement without precedent. This year both groups are honoring her for the newly released Scenes from a Marriage, directed by her ex-lover Ingmar Bergman. Needless to say, the National and New York Critics juries, if more discerning than the Motion Picture Academy electorate, carry an eastern esthete stigma that probably scares away as many U.S. movie-houses owners as it attracts. And all of Liv’s prizewinners to date have been Swedish, including three others by Bergman (The Hour of the Wolf, Shame, Cries and Whispers), plus the Jan Troell epic, The New Land.

Inevitably, that sort of art-house recognition led to a crash attempt to bring Liv’s fjord-blue eyes and luminous face out from behind subtitles and into the wonderful world of box office. The buildup began in 1971, when she was cajoled to the Santa Monica Auditorium to accept a special honorary Oscar for Bergman. The idea, presumably, was that Scandinavia—from which descended the screen goddess of the ’20s and ’30s in Garbo and of the ’40s in Ingrid Bergman—would give birth to the star of the ’70s, Ullmann.

But this new Thor never quite struck lightning. For one thing, Liv let herself be talked into some misfiring properties like Lost Horizon, Forty Carats and, most recent, The Abdication. Then, too, except for that very special piece of Danish, Streisand, this is not a time for screen heroines. As Liv told one interviewer in a screamer of a slip, “All anybody wants to see is Paul Redford.” Finally, not least of all, the whole Hollywood hype was anathema to Ullmann’s professional seriousness and latent Lutheranism. “What bothered me,” she says, “was always having so many phones ringing, so many people suddenly having a share of you.” She was queasy about the “fake side” of the life. “The glamour, the jewels, the cars,” she soon concluded, “were very shameful.” And as for such hallowed promotional institutions as premieres and talk shows, Liv regarded them as positively “dangerous. If you’re not careful, you’re presenting something that isn’t you. If you start acting at the best moments of your life, as in making love, you are taking away the best things, and in the end you’re alone, and what are you.”

What is Liv Ullmann? Certainly a uniquely unpretentious and introspective sort of star. Something of an intellectual, she reads Proust and Doris Lessing, and has written a 210-page manuscript “about being a woman and a human being.” It is not sufficiently polished for publication, though, she has decided. “I want people to say more than just, ‘My God, she knows how to write.’ ”

Even beyond artistic standards, Ullmann’s ultimate loyalties are to her roots. To her mother and to her own daughter by Ingmar Bergman, Linn, now 8. To Norway, where she has established a home outside of Oslo for the three of them, though the climate is not exactly Palm Springs—”in winter,” she says, “we have fewer than two hours of daylight.” And to the stage. Six-figure film star though she has become, Liv toured the Norwegian countryside by bus last year in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She is now rehearsing for a short American run of her national classic to begin Jan. 31 in Philadelphia. She has just completed her next movie, Leonora, for director Luis Bunuel’s son Juan Luis, and upcoming commitments include another Bergman film.

For all her sense of nationhood, Liv was born 35 years ago on the other side of the world, in Tokyo, where her father was working as an aircraft engineer. With the approach of World War II, the Ullmanns moved to Toronto with the “little Norway” colony in exile, which included part of the royal family. Her father died in a tragic accident, walking into an airplane propeller. Her mother repatriated the family to Norway, where Liv became stagestruck, though she felt herself to be painfully unattractive. She failed in tryouts for the Norwegian national theater and coaxed her mother to take her to Britain for further training.

Shortly after her return, she married Dr. Hans Stang, who was later to become a psychiatrist, and she began to appear in Scandinavian films. In 1964, while walking down a Stockholm street with Swedish actress friend Bibi Andersson, she was introduced to Ingmar Bergman, who soon made her part of his personal acting troupe—and eventually his mistress. “To me,” she now recalls, “he was God. When he spoke, I blushed.” She was 25, he 46, and as their movie collaborations began she also became pregnant by him. Liv divorced Stang, created a cause célèbre in Norway (where morals are much less permissive than elsewhere in Scandinavia) which ultimately required her to make a public apology on national television.

Worldwide, in the increasingly enlightened ’60s, what she now calls “the thing with Ingmar” did not lead to the ostracism or career hiatus suffered by Ingrid Bergman for her love affair with director Roberto Rossellini. Though Liv never became Ingmar’s wife (he has now had five), she stayed with him for five years until, she says, “we were both strong and so much alike we canceled each other out.”

The personal breakup did not damage their professional rapport, maintains Liv. “In those days, when we were living together, little frictions at the breakfast table could affect our work that day. Now we work together like brother and sister. In Scenes from a Marriage there were a number of places where I thought my character would not say what he had written, and he agreed to change it. Of course, he doesn’t always give in. I wanted to change one speech, but he insisted on it, so we compromised. We decided I would say it but act as if I didn’t mean it.” To reviewers who suggest that unless she is under the midnight sun—and the thumb of Bergman—Ullmann has been a failure, Liv drolly retorts that the one Bergman picture she did not appear in since 1965, The Touch, was a bomb. Touché.

Her own life and her role in Scenes from a Marriage—a sort of Nora in Doll’s House updated—have made actress Ullmann something of a woman’s movement model. “All women,” she says, “should have the right to find out who they are, what they want and the freedom to choose and live accordingly, like men have had for so long. Of course, women will experience new problems and responsibilities with the new freedom—so far women have enjoyed the advantages of unconsciousness. Women’s lib is fine if it teaches women their rights and possibilities. But it is harmful if it orders everybody to wear red stockings or put away their kids in day institutions, regardless of the actual need to do so.” As for her own daughter, Liv says, “Linn and I have a good relationship. But I’m not the kind of mother who will sit home knitting, baking cakes or playing games. I wish I were, but I’m not. It is not the quantity of attention you pay your kids that counts but the quality.”

As for marrying again, Ullmann seems basically skeptical, rankling at the gossip-column speculations which inexorably focus on her every new co-star—and even on Henry Kissinger after a couple of appearances with her last year. “He’s a very interesting man,” she says, “but there was no romance—not so much as the touch of a finger.” Liv says of other men in her life, “It’s normal to live with somebody, but I will be very careful to take that step, because I don’t want Linn to have fathers coming and going.”

She is not persuaded by the medical specialty of her ex-husband or by its cult-like acceptance among her own acting colleagues. “Psychiatry is quite dangerous,” she says, “especially in America where everyone is indulging too much.” Yet for all her seeming Earth Mother intuitions, her name Liv literally translates “life,” which to Ullmann means youth. “Deep inside,” she feels, “I’m the very same person I was when I was a 13-year-old girl. I think almost everybody is still basically 13 inside. The problem is that most people won’t admit it.”

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