Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Actress Files: Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(won the 1956 Best Actress Oscar)

Why I Waited: As I've said, I was saving up winners at a certain point, but I'm not sure how she ended up in the final group. I've never been eager enough to make a point of seeing it, nor skeptical enough in that Farmer's Daughter way to purposefully get it out of the way. Her thin slate of competitors did not imply that Bergman needed to be exceptional in order to win.

The Performance: Anastasia is sort of Pygmalion with pop-historical aspirations and dark overlays of lingering tragedy and psychic distress. Or at least that's Anastasia's intended center of gravity, when it isn't throwing itself off-balance with the kinds of broad-comic asides and primary-color parades through Tivoli Gardens that had Derek wandering in saying, quite affronted, "What are you doing watching an MGM musical without me?" Probably not what this 20th Century Fox mystery-drama is going for. Anyway, he missed the early, much grayer scenes when Yul Brynner's, Akim Tamiroff's, and Sacha Pitoëff's characters are grilling Ingrid Bergman's Anna Anderson. Anna is a beleaguered-looking blonde recently manumitted from a French asylum where she claimed to be Anastasia, the grown daughter of Czar Nicholas, who ought to have been assassinated with her parents and siblings ten years previously by a Bolshevik firing squad. Anna is now an amnesiac, and the truth is, she isn't positive she's Anastasia. Wisps of self-recognition have pointed in this direction, but given the implications, no wonder she is barely more comforted by this provisional bio as an orphaned survivor of a globally pertinent massacre than she is by the alternative of a totally voided identity.

No wonder, too, that she is plucked at the outset of the film from the side of the Seine, where she prepares to drown all her sorrows, whomever they belong to. Out of the firing squad and into the fire, though: Brynner, Tamiroff, and Pitoëff know there's a bounty of £10 million in Romanoff family legacies to be reaped if they can prove they have nabbed their rightful heir from the thin air of rumor, so they pummel Anna with questions about what she remembers. When that proves inconclusive, they force-feed her facts, bits of etiquette, and physical bearings that will make her an incontestable facsimile of the Princess Anastasia, had she survived. Anna flails, unsurprisingly, amidst all this mercenary imposition. "All these questions—I've lost the answers!" she protests, even before the interrogation starts, and she slightly revises her protest, howling against these "questions that can only be answered by lies!"

There is something a little pornographic in the durability of the Anastasia myth. Even now that DNA testing has established the fact of her annihilation, she still resurfaces in pop culture as the Loch Ness Monster of the imperial wreck, a mirage rippling across the black tarn that swallowed the fallen House of Romanoff. Imagine the pain of this person if she did exist, and how unready and ill-served she would be by our vociferous urge to force the truth out of her or into her, whichever way we could get it. Anastasia foregoes any of the sobriety it might have attained in black & white and courts a King and I opulence whenever it can, while it circles the character. Screenwriter Arthur Laurents, far from his home base, inserts dozens of idioms related to pretense and theatricality. Even the last line of the script is, "The play is over – go home." But the producers and the director, Anatole Litvak, seem motivated by two different aspirations: to orbit and outfit Bergman's Anastasia as a frigid, incongruously elegant emblem of tragedies survived (putting her somewhere in the Hollywood family tree that leads down to Streep's Sophie, the ivory statue of inner decimation), and to watch that emblem shiver into pieces as her self-appointed creator-destroyers lay into her. We know from Gaslight that Bergman can withstand a brainwashing with the best of them. She gives great spectacle as the world tries to break her, bridling and crying like a stallion trapped in a flaming stable.

By 1956, Bergman is a more controlled technician than she was in Gaslight. Her tremors and jags have fewer ragged edges than we see in her performance as Paula Alquist, though at least that one benefits from the impression of the actress being at sixes and sevens. There's no distance between Bergman's frenzy and Paula's, which speaks to her greenness but also her felt connection to the character. In that respect, more than a decade later, Bergman seems like a more capable, confident mistress of her own performance. To the extent we can still see an effortful actress pushing her way through a demanding part, she has the twin alibis of the role's eager solicitation of showy playing and the screenwriter's unsubtle emphasis on performance as a governing theme. If these shifts from Bergman's first Oscar-winning role to her second seem to put her in a position of power, though, not everything about Anastasia preserves her in that state. We also know that in 1956, making her first appearance in a Hollywood movie after seven years of basically forced exile over her affair with Roberto Rossellini, Bergman was subject to a dual predicament not unlike Anastasia's: the film seems to revel in showing her off as an indestructible icon, made only more tantalizing by all the luridness she has withstood, but it also bespeaks a lip-licking appetite for seeing Bergman squirm, pant, writhe, and submit. I wound up appreciating the boldly synthetic color palette, which tends to make Anastasia look rather plastically staged (compared to the exquisite, sinister gorgeousness of Gaslight), because it puts a laminating sheen of fiction over a film that can seem too much look a probing test of the actress herself: we'll welcome you back, Ingrid, but we'll also make you wrack and weep for your ticket. As Anastasia continues, it follows a truly bonkers evolution into a kind of love-vs.-duty framework. Yul Brynner, the implacable Svengali, winds up suddenly as the lover and, even more amazingly, the beloved. The film has Anastasia make a climactic decision on the Brynner character's behalf, but she does so offstage, as it were. I received this initially as an open admission that the threadbare little love-plot couldn't hold a candle to the "historical" pomp, the family drama, or the political weight of what it has so floridly presented on screen; looking at both, the puniness of the "happy ending" would be all the more absurd. But I realize, too, Anastasia probably can't focus too much on Brynner because it has no way of deciding if he is her torturer or her redeemer, and it hasn't pushed us to resolve that question about ourselves, either. Everybody wants everything both ways.

And so, disappointingly, does Bergman—speaking of "questions that can only be answered by lies." Her tirades no longer feel like things she believes, but like routines she knows well how to execute. I guess I enjoyed passages of Anastasia, but aside from its blocky, stagy awkwardness as a film, I find it hard to imagine this vehicle surviving all the parallel resonances that Bergman forces on this story through her sheer, post-scandalous presence. The film already can't decide whether to feel sorry for Anastasia or enjoy her discomfort, whether it wants her to be crazy or correct, pitiable or triumphant, a house of cards or a bride of death—and having every scene play, inevitably, like an inquiry into Bergman only gives Anastasia one more way to feel distracted and indecisive. Lines like "She also has a rather intriguing strangeness" and "She's too something: too crazy, too clever, too tricky" don't help, and there are more where those came from. But her rather arbitrary and bloodless demonstrations of skill aren't any easier to connect to than this dingy exploitation of her scarred reputation. Amid her virtuoso melismas of anger and despair, her perfected look of Haunted Introspection, Bergman doesn't look like she's made nearly enough of her own decisions about whether Anna is or isn't Anastasia, whether she is or isn't mad, whether she clings to the Dowager Empress Maria (Helen Hayes, very tasty) because she at last recognizes someone, her grandmother no less, or because at this point she's desperate for anyone who might love her and, better, protect her. I have to give Bergman credit for what looks like a dignified refusal to even countenance the silly conceit of having Anna fall for Brynner's general. She just isn't willing or interested, and if that means the narrative design of the script is hanging by a slim thread to the performed experience we behold on the screen, then so be it. Good for her. She has her limits.

But she also has her limitations. The rigid vocal and physical carriage she exhibits even in some of her most glamorous performances—the slightly stolid deliveries that conjure the image of Bergman at home, studiously learning her lines—is another of the ghosts plaguing her Anastasia, who's already got plenty to be haunted by. On the plus side, her sense of her own stateliness, which is understandable but a bit off-putting as early as For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Bells of St. Mary's, is a kind of necessary force in holding Anastasia together. When Bergman's angry she forgets everything but the anger, when she's forlorn she's nothing but sorrow, when she's bitter she sounds like she's got oil on her tongue. Still, she never stops looking as though she feels herself to be quite a personage, and whether that's acting or whether that's Ingrid—and after the slings and arrows of the past six years, why shouldn't she?—it gives the movie an anchor. She's a happy, believable drunk during an evening of too much champagne, confusing her syllables and sh-sh-sshsh'ing her S's. She memorably flouts the doggedness of her interrogators, mordantly enumerating all the rivers and madhouses she's jumped into or straggled out of. She can be imperious on cue, certifying her bloodline of Czarist arrogance in the face of a skeptical expatriate, by barking at Tamiroff, "How dare you smoke in my presence without asking my permission?"

Actually, she can be almost anything on cue, and that's a strength as well as a huge part of the problem. Bergman's ability to give herself over from one full-bodied emotion to another doesn't efface the artificial, rather literal edge she brings to most of them. She always seems like she's acting, and in a way that feels like a kink in her approach to performance, not like a concerted response to the "all the world's a stage" motif in Laurents's screenplay. Bergman was a good actor, a great movie star, and a rather chilly and danger-prone celebrity. Anastasia captures Bergman acting for a director who prefers actors to movie stars, and without the radiant patina of stardom (which Cukor and Hitchcock never stopped feeding, even as they took her performances as far as she could carry them), her acting looks forced and her recent notoriety rather pruriently hauled with her onto the stage, like Mary Tyrone's wedding dress. The casualty of all this is Anastasia, or Anna Anderson, or Anna Koreff, whoever the woman is on whom all these pasts and futures are projected. Yes, she's an amnesiac, but not the way Bergman plays it, like an actor who isn't building enough bridges from one scene to the next, sometimes from one line-reading to the next. She's extremely proficient but not all that believable; it's her lack of a synthesizing element, not Anna's, that frustrates, and in the final sequences, as a life starts to coalesce around this woman's fistful of puzzle-pieces, Bergman shows us that she's... what, exactly? For the script to keep us guessing may be deliberate and even important, but for the actress and character to feel, if anything, less substantial by the end than by the beginning implies that major opportunities have been missed beneath the style and pyrotechnics.

My heart went out to Helen Hayes's empress, who sometimes wants more than anything for this stranger to be her granddaughter, and sometimes more than anything for her not to be. In between these polar moments, she's a pool of agitation and annoyance, and underneath all of that is despondency, the aching echo of the great wound. Bergman doesn't have an "in between." Logically, that could be the point of this performance, but I never felt this as a satisfying explanation. Among her sisters in Oscar's winner's circle, her closest analogue for me is Kate Winslet's Hana in The Reader, another performance that's so overloaded with concepts (history, illiteracy, sexuality, memory, evil, beauty, guilt) that you can't fully blame even a supremely capable performer for struggling to tie it all together. But surely they could tie a tighter knot than this, or make us feel like there's a genuine bundle of personality in there to tie the knot around? Or maybe a practiced professional like Bergman or Winslet, the kind of actor who hits all her marks with separate blows of her scrupulous hammer, is finally less persuasive than a greener but more porous actress might have been, someone less hungry for an award and less cognizant of her abilities. Not someone whom you'd look at and think about rehearsals and makeup tests and taking notes on her own dailies, but someone whom you'd look at and think, There's a woman with a broken heart.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 8 to Go

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Blogger Fritz said...

A very intersting review on Bergman. I basically completely agree with your thought on her performance but I was a bit more genenrous and gave her 3,5. It's a very showy part and I can easily see people going nuts for it back in 1956 but sometimes there seems to be no soul in her performance and she seems to be more concerned with impressing even the last row of the movie theatre.

3:07 AM, June 01, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

Kate called and said "I'm gonna stick my cigarette in his eye! Maybe that will make him see how great I was!"

I managed to calm her down :p

Lovely write-up and made me wonder why her performance in Autumn Sonata was so much better than most (all?) of her other ones.

No, I'm not trying to fool you into writing an essay :p
I just can't grasp what it was that made her that good. Was it the star quality of the character that suited her? Was it Ingmar? Maturity? The coldness of the character?

6:52 AM, June 01, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Very excellent writeup, though I have not seen Anastasia, I never feel the urge to which is strange that Gaslight (and Ingrid in it) are two things I'd easily consider my favourites.

7:34 AM, June 01, 2010  
Blogger Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Nick, do you make films/have you made films? At least as a hobby?

Filmmaking and film analysis are generally worlds away, but this level of insight and sensitivity would surely translate. I can only imagine the kind of characters you'd create even with a half-decent actress. Of course, I and the world would prefer to see them rather than just imagining..

8:33 AM, June 01, 2010  
Blogger Kelsy said...

I have an inexplicable love of this movie. To be fair, mostly it is to watch Yul Brynner walk around in that poised way he does, and then because the Anastasia myth has always caught my attention. But you're right: it's an uneven movie. It has a lot of great ideas surrounding it, but it's too long in parts, and some of the characterizations are unclear. But I keep going back to it. It's just a fascinating movie.

10:01 PM, June 01, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Fritz: So, you thin it would have looked more impressive in '56 than it does now? I wonder... The list of nominees puzzles me a bit, so it's hard to know what to think.

@James: I'm not trying to tempt her into harming me, or self-harm, or anything, I promise. I gather Bergman had a bit of real-life experience to call on for that Sonata role, but it also must have been hugely exciting to work with Ingmar. She always responded well to genius directors. As well one should!

@A:EE: It's hard to know if being a Gaslight fan will dispose you positively or negatively to Anastasia. I suspect you'll like it, but not as much.

@Goran: You're very kind! I really, truly, with no false modesty at all, do not think I would be good at this. I'd be thrilled if I had a solid go of adapting a novel I love into a workable script that someone else could direct some life into, but I imagine I'd overthink everything and be relentlessly critical of myself. Thanks for the vote of confidence, though!

@Kelsy: I'm certainly a big believer in loving movies that aren't as "good" as the ardent feelings we have for them. Anastasia's not on my personal list, but I certainly do have them... Thanks for commenting!

11:31 PM, June 01, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

I meant that the period in which Bergman won her second Oscar was surely favorable to these kind of showy performances when you look who won before (Grace Kelly and Anna Magnanai) and after her (Joanne Woodward and Susan Hayward). Bergman probably knws the importance of the part and so she made sure that everybody realized that she was ACTING.

I've done this year on my blog and you're right that this year is not very exciting. My ranking is:

1. Deborah Kerr
2. Carroll Baker
3. Ingrid Bergman
4. Nancy Kelly
5. Katharine Hepburn

3:29 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger John T said...

I've only seen three from this year-I'm suspecting Baker will be my favorite, but honestly I have to say Kerr is my favorite thusfar, and while I love her regal-always-a-lady approach, I don't think The King & I deserves this top trophy, particularly in such a good year for male actors.

7:17 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

For me, it's very close between Kerr and Baker but Baby Doll didn't really impress with as much as I expected and while Carroll certainly burns up the screen, her works feels a bit limited.

It's somehow funny that I would give Best Actress to Kerr but at the same time I think that Brynner is one of the worst winners ever...

7:35 AM, June 02, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Fritz: Ah, a very good point! For me, I'd flip-fop your #1 and #2 and your #4 and #5, but both of those are close. We're essentially in agreement.

@John: Everyone I know who loves Baby Doll loved it the second time they saw it. It's pretty defiantly weird, and it's hard to know how to watch it the first time. Kerr was my easy pick otherwise, and that is strange, for the reasons you cite. How is it that Dorothy McGuire couldn't get on this list, despite the NBR award for Friendly Persuasion and the heavy haul of noms for that movie?

10:43 AM, June 02, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually disliked her turn in the film (and the film itself too), but I could never elaborate the reasons like that. Great read.

3:29 PM, June 11, 2010  

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