Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (Blu-ray Review)6 Sep, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Box Office $0.14 million
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Rialto Pictures gave Stig Bjorkman’s exceptional Ingrid Bergman documentary a token theatrical release last year, but obviously, I was asleep at the switch because Criterion’s new Blu-ray release caught me totally unaware. Well, surprises are nice in a while: In Her Own Words, which also knocked out my longtime bud Leonard Maltin, turns out to be the kind of near-miraculous filmed portrait that can emerge when its subject was one of those individuals who apparently saved everything over a long period (or had friends who did).
To this end, I remember thinking, when Amy took the feature documentary Oscar earlier this year, that newer generations who’ve recorded and preserved their lives-to-date on cell phones will likely transform our expectations of what documentaries can, or perhaps even will be expected to do, when it comes to examining every little nook and cranny of a life (which can seem more important in retrospect). Well, here’s an actress — and one who was a true legend, as opposed to the overhyped kind — who found the time to keep meticulous diaries, home movies and other mementos from even the days before she became a star (though, yes, Bergman’s international career ascension came relatively quickly in ways that made it seem easier than it possibly could have been).
Other highly organized pack-ratters have done the same thing, but we are talking here about a three-time Oscar winner and mother of four who ended up living in Sweden, both coasts of America, Italy, Paris and London — conquering films, the stage and even TV in the process. Just think, for instance, about all the time Bergman must have spent arranging logistics with proprietors of storage units — all to preserve a life history that eventually ended up at Wesleyan University under the eye of the great film scholar and academician Jeanine Basinger (who penned the accompanying Criterion essay and shows up late in Bjorkman’s film). Though in many ways a great mother to children she didn’t always see, Bergman was also driven to compartmentalize her life before that term was used. From an early age, she was going to have a career, and that’s all there was to that — but the home movies and diaries provided a way to preserve much needed and desired family ties when was off in another country performing. These stand-ins proved essential from even the earliest days when she lost her father, mother and only sibling before she was very far into adolescence.
Bergman was already a star in Sweden when David O. Selznick signed her to a Hollywood contract; her luminous color screen test here is one of the documentary’s highlights — footage saved in this case not by Bergman herself but by the producer’s son Daniel Selznick. In folkloric DOS fashion, the industry’s most famous control freak spent most of their association farming Bergman out to other filmmakers’ productions instead of utilizing her himself — without which we wouldn’t have had Casablanca or The Bells of St. Mary’s or her Oscar-winning Gaslight performance or For Whom the Bell Tolls (the last not the film you want it to be, yet the ultimate in star power in her scenes with Gary Cooper when seen on the recent German Region B Blu-ray). Not long after this period, the actress had an un-trumpeted affair with photojournalist Robert Capa while her doctor husband was raising their still-striking daughter (and eventual TV journalist) Pia Lindstrom, who is generously philosophical about her semi-abandonment when interviewed here. Only when Bergman got pregnant by, and then married, Italian neo-realist giant Roberto Rossellini did the American public turn against her; she had played Joan of Arc and a nun in St. Mary’s, after all. A Colorado U.S. senator damned her on the Senate floor (she got an official apology 22 years later), and Ed Sullivan went through tortured self-debate (there’s remarkable footage of it here) over whether to have her on his show. Though a huge scandal at the time, this was all a long way from what we’ve come to expect from Kim Kardashian every morning she rolls out of the sack.
Though their critical reps have improved a thousand-fold over the years and even formed the basis of a Criterion boxed DVD set, the films Bergman made with Rossellini were flops at the time — turning her Oscar-winning 1956 Anastasia comeback one of the more dramatic show biz achievements of that decade. She wasn’t at the telecast, but her Notorious co-star Cary Grant accepted the award on her behalf, a re-entry into the major leagues if there ever was one. After this point, she took work as it came when age-ism was starting to be a factor: sometimes in good projects and sometimes not, though a third Oscar (Murder on the Orient Express), a famed collaboration with Ingmar Bergman on Autumn Sonata and two Emmys were still on the horizon, including one for Golda awarded three weeks after her 1982 death.
Daughter Isabella Rossellini was an instigator of this project in the first place, so she and her two siblings are all here along with half-sister Pia to make this the kind of remembrance we don’t often get to see above and beyond mama Ingrid’s artfully shot home footage (full of swimming pools and oceanside vistas to make the package even more attractive). For a documentary so dependent on archival footage, you can bet that Criterion has some fun with the bonus extras, though my own favorites here are of more recent vintage: an interview with filmmaker Bjorkman (who really seems like a nice guy) and an extension of the feature’s remarkable group interview with Isabella, Sonata co-star Liv Ullmann and Sigourney Weaver (they were on stage together) where everyone is informal and relaxed. Like the greatest documentaries do, this one has renewed my interest. Something’s telling me that I’d break out the recent foreign Blu-rays of Victor Fleming’s swan song Joan of Arc and Jean Renoir’s Elena and Her Men (I can tell you from some quick scanning that the latter looks smashing).