Ingrid Bergman, more than anyone else from the golden age of cinema, had a face made for the silvery light of black-and-white movies. The adjectives get overused -- luminescent, radiant -- but watch her in "Casablanca," "Gaslight," "Notorious," or any of her other black-and-white classics, and she really does appear to be lit from within.
Maybe it was those Swedish cheekbones. Maybe it was her professed disdain for the heavy makeup worn by other screen goddesses of the era. Maybe it was the heartbreakingly pure smile of the dentist's wife. Or maybe it was some kind of inner flame -- a burning ambition, an iron will, steely courage -- that forged her character and gleamed in her eyes. Whatever it was, Ingrid Bergman -- who died 30 years ago, on August 29, 1982, and who was born on the same day, 67 years earlier -- had an inner glow that emanates from her films even now, after all these years.
Bergman is one of only five performers in history who has ever won three or more acting Oscars. (The others? Katharine Hepburn, who had four; Jack Nicholson; Meryl Streep; and Walter Brennan.) She won one for each phase of her career: her classic ingénue years, her bitter exile from Hollywood, and her triumphant return as an elder stateswoman.
That first phase, which took place mostly in 1940s Hollywood, is the one for which she's best remembered today, thanks to films like "Intermezzo" (the remake of the Swedish film that made her an international star and brought her to California), "Casablanca" (maybe the most fervently beloved movie ever made, and the one whose blend of rapture and heartbreak, lofty idealism and tough-minded pragmatism, best captures Bergman's' appeal), "Gaslight" (for which she won her first Oscar), and "Notorious" (maybe her swooniest romance, in the guise of a Hitchcock spy thriller). There's also her vivid color performance in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," for which role Ernest Hemingway said she was his only choice.
During those years, Bergman seemed possessed of a wholesome purity; even her bad girls were good at heart. So it was a tremendous shock when, after having played a nun in "The Bells of St. Mariy's" and a saint in "Joan of Arc," she bore a child out of wedlock to Italian director Roberto Rossellini while both were married to others. These days, when such celbrity misbehavior is almost routine, it's hard to imagine what an enormous scandal Bergman and Rossellini's affair was in 1950. The actress who had been America's (Imported) Sweetheart was denounced from the floor of the U.S. Senate and from the Vatican, and she spent most of the next decade exiled from America.
During this second phase of her career, Bergman made half a dozen films for Rossellini, the master of Italian neorealism, which required Bergman to improvise and work with non-professional actors. The best of these collaborations were "Stromboli" and "Voyage to Italy," in which Bergman displayed a new maturity. She and Rossellini eventually married and had two more children, but by the late '50s, their marriage began to crumble, in part under the strain from the poor reception for their pictures and her yearning to return to Hollywood. She accomplished that return via the movie "Anastasia," which was filmed in Europe. It earned her a second Oscar. After seven years away, she had accomplished one of the most remarkable comebacks in film history, and all was forgiven.
In the final phase of her career, Bergman demonstrated how much she'd grown as an actress and how formidable her talent was, now that she no longer had her youthful beauty to fall back on. She showed a rarely-seen comic side in 1969's "Cactus Flower" (in the role Jennifer Aniston would play in the Adam Sandler remake, "Just Go With It"). And she won her third Oscar for her sly turn in "Murder on the Orient Express," in which she upstaged the rest of the all-star cast.
In 1975, the same year she picked up that final Oscar, Bergman was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought the disease stoically and silently for the next seven years, not wanting casting directors to know, lest she prove uninsurable. During those final years, she gave two of her finest performances. In Ingmar Bergman's (no relation) "Autumn Sonata," she brought her own life experience to bear for the role of a brilliant performer whose long career often came at the expense of her family life. And in her final role, in the TV mini-series "A Woman Called Golda," she brought Israeli prime minister Golda Meir to fierce and heroic life. For that role, she won a posthumous Emmy.
Thirty years later, Bergman's legacy persists. Some of it shines through the career of her daughter, Isabella Rossellini, herself a celebrated beauty whose acting career has been marked by independence and fearlessness, and in whose face one can see echoes of her mother's radiance. But mostly, it lives on in those iconic silver images, like her tearful, beatific face at the end of "Casablanca" when Humphrey Bogart nobly, foolishly, forces her to get on that plane. For us, as for Bogart ("We’ll always have Paris."), the memories of her face will be enough to sustain us.