I saw a film about Ingrid Bergman last weekend called “Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words.” It was a documentary that included not only her words, but home movies of her as well, recorded in the misty past before video. In some ways the film was almost amateurish and thus at odds with a woman whose epic career included Casablanca and two oscars. But I think the amateurishness was part of the charm, and let us see the woman in an unexpected light.
My friend and illustrator, Alison, said watching cine film movies evokes memories (At first I had no idea what she was talking about because here in America we call cine film super 8.). The English are understated and literal, referring to “moving film,” (cine = kine = movement), and here we Americans like things to be “super”. Well, whatever you call it, film is behind us, because now we, English and Americans alike, record everything with retina screen ready iPhones.
And we don’t film home movies, anyway. We take selfies in all their forms. My feelings about retina screens and selfies are mixed.
So a little bit about Ingrid Bergman. She was born in 1915 and both of her parents were dead by the time she was 12, along with quite a few close friends and relatives. Her early life, then, can safely be described as tragic. She was also born in Europe during a time that positioned her to live through two world wars, McCarthyism, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the sexual revolution — along with an incredibly productive time in the film industry.
Photographs and film, along with her diaries and letters, were how she held onto her past. Making films and acting were how she made her way through the present. She said that if she could not act, she would stop breathing.
She had four children and, at one point or another in their young lives, she abandoned each of them. Each time, there was a man involved, and/or long stretches of filming on location. It’s hard to say what motivated her more to leave her children — love, work, or fear of being alone. There were hints that Italian film maker Rossellini was a controlling and difficult misstep in her career.
Whatever the motivation, she both chose to have children and to leave them to focus on her relationships and her work. She was twice divorced, and her first divorce led her to be ostracized for a period of about seven years from the Hollywood film community. The American public rendered its verdict: guilty by reason of bad morals.
Today, of course, women get divorced all the time. Today, of course, women are “allowed” to have careers and to be mothers. They are even encouraged, at élite levels, to lean in. Poor women don’t have that luxury. In their case, what looks like leaning is actually hunching as a result of heavy burdens — no nanny in sight.
Ingrid Bergman did not lean. She stood tall and owned her choices, but she was maybe one generation too early. You could consider her a trailblazer, or you could think of her situation as tragic. Interviews with her children showed them to admire her greatly and love her dearly while expressing regret that their mother was in some ways more of a friend and beautiful visitor to them than a parent.
As a single mom, relationships are hard if you are committed to your children. You feel torn between trying to nurture a new relationship and being loyal to your children. Your partners will often seem to love you despite your children. It would be so much nicer if they could love you in part because of your children. It’s probably a lot to ask, so women (more than men it seems) make compromises and hard choices.
Managing your career is hard, too, if your career is a passion or if you have a passion on top of your career. It’s so much harder to “have it all” than Sheryl Sandberg would have you think, and Ingrid Bergman didn’t try. Ingrid Bergman had colossal talent and a true passion for acting that she made an absolute priority to share with the world.
I don’t know how torn Ingrid Bergman felt, either because she never wrote about it or because whatever she did say about it didn’t make the cut. Whatever the true nature of her relationships with her children, the cine film home movies of her made those relationships look by turns graceful, appealing, and fun.
But then again, she was an actress. Alison said cine film evokes memories, and I agree, especially when they are of Ingrid Bergman, who is incandescent on film no matter how scratchy. But what the cine film did for me, at least in this context, was evoke curiosity. Watching her home movies awakened within me questions about the true nature of being a mother, worker, and lover.
As a woman with more ordinary resources and a more ordinary set of circumstances, what can I learn from Ingrid Bergman? Are there areas in which I could be stronger, and more courageous? If I showed her same level of focused determination, what would the impact be? What would I lose and what would I gain? What if lots of women stepped into their choices the way she did? Would the world be different?
With her very sad youth and a love life that was replete with both loss and joy (which love lives tend to be!), I know things weren’t easy for her. Even if you decide she was selfish, it would be hard not to acknowledge her strength and courage.
It takes strength and courage to know yourself well and confidently act on that knowledge — despite the wishes and concerns of those close to you.