If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
Liv Ullmann, known to most as the Norwegian beauty and muse of Ingmar Bergman’s films in the '60s through the '80s, has turned the tables by reinserting herself into the limelight as an esteemed writer and director. No longer the “face” of arthouse cinema, today she serves as a role model for all women in the film industry.
“Miss Julie,” a film she not only adapted from August Strindberg’s dramatic play, but also directs, made its U.S. premiere on the Opening Night of the 50th Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) this past October. It was Ullmann’s night, complete with a slew of Red Carpet reporters and photographers all anxious to speak with her and star of “Miss Julie,” Colin Farrell.
Ullmann, at 75, looked elegantly stunning on opening night in a long, flowing black silk dress accessorized by a single strand of luminous pearls. To say she was glowing would not be an understatement; this was her night as writer and director in the business in which she has devoted over five decades. She addressed the theater audience to present her film, “Miss Julie.” Ullmann stated that film is a “most important medium”—one that makes theaters a “magic place” where people can see “real life.”
Michael Kutza, founder and artistic director of the CIFF, presented Ullmann with a Lifetime Achievement Award stating, “We are honored to have her here with us tonight to kick off our 50th year with her beautiful film, “Miss Julie.”"
The film is a multilayered psychological drama that takes place on an Irish country estate, depicting a battle for power, class, and entitlement, with Jessica Chastain as the title character, the lady of the manor, and Colin Farrell as John, her servant.
In speaking with Michael Kutza, he clarified the reason her film was the opener.
“We’ve premiered every one of her films at the CIFF, starting in the '60s, and she’s been here every time they’ve opened. It was a natural progression that we open with her film and the timing was wonderful.”
When asked about what Liv Ullmann brings to film, Kutza answered, “She brings humanity. She is a warm person, a real lady. There’s something very real about her. She brings us truth.”
In referring to “art-house” films of the past, Kutza explained that a theater known as an “art-house” specializes in obscure, foreign films, and he continued, saying, “That’s where you’d find Liv Ullmann, in Ingmar Bergman films for all those years.”
And just how well were her films received here in the United States?
Kutza said, “Always very well. Even though they were foreign films, the audiences always loved them; they were crowd-pleasers, so to speak.”
We caught up with Ullmann the day after her opening at the 50th CIFF and met at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Chicago. We discussed “Miss Julie” and the topic of women working in film and, of course, the inescapable topic of Ingmar Bergman.
I began by telling Ullmann that I felt as if I was truly meeting “film royalty,” as she has made her quintessential mark in film history by her notable volume of work as an actress in high-caliber films. (Ullmann was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role in “The Emigrants” (1973), directed by Jan Troell, and “Face to Face”(1977), directed by Ingmar Bergman. Beginning in 1957, to date, she has 57 acting credits, seven directing, and four writing).
She graciously replied, “Thank you. Those are such nice words to say, but at my age, it's good because I feel I was given a gift, and I had the opportunity, by a lot of luck, to meet people who helped me to have such a fantastic life as a creator, as an actor, as a director, and writer.”
Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman met while filming “Persona” (1966). She was twenty-five and he was forty-six. Both were married to others; they fell in love and she had her only child with him—a daughter, Linn Ullmann, who is a best-selling author now living in Norway. Ullmann and Bergman never married, but lived together for five years on the secluded northern Swedish island of Fårö, on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
In Ullmann’s memoir, “Changing,” she describes her life with Bergman in great detail. It was one of passionate love, hate, anger, joy, control, loneliness, betrayal, and, eventually, courage. Yes—courage. Ullmann found the inner strength to leave this ultra-controlling and toxic relationship in order to not only save her soul, but also to secure the future for her child.
The words “muse” and “mentor” are often used synonymously to describe her film relationship with Bergman. Ullmann quantified that she was in eleven of his films and directed two of them; others have stated the number as twelve. When inquiring about what she learned from him as an actor in terms of her directing, she said, “He was a teacher, a wonderful teacher. I believe, I, as a woman, taught him something too because I do not think that his choice for his next movie would be me if he didn't feel that he had something to ‘catch’ from me.
“If I am to be grateful, which I am, I would say, ‘It's the most important career thing that happened to me in my life that he wanted to work with me and that I learned so much from him and that my life became so rich because of him, and I'm incredibly thankful for that.’”
Although Ullmann had the courage to stand up to him personally, she did not always professionally. For example, in contrast, actress Ingrid Bergman (no relationship to Ingmar Bergman) was notorious for disagreeing with directors. When I inquired of Ullmann what she felt Ingrid Bergman might have brought to women in film, she gave an example of her dissent.
“I'm sure she brought a lot to women because she's the first and only person to question Ingmar. I worked with her in “Autumn Sonata” (1978). She disagreed with him, asking him, ‘Why did you write like this? I don't believe in that. Could you change that?’ Of course, he didn't like it. They didn't have a very good working relationship.
This turned into a big quarrel. I had a long monologue, three pages. I was her daughter, and she was my mother, who had a career. I told her how my life was miserable and now, at 40 years old, I couldn't do anything because she said yes to a career.
They filmed me first, and then, the camera was on Ingrid. All she had to say was, ‘Please hold around me. Please love me.’ When Ingmar Bergman turned the camera, and she was to say her lines, she said, ‘I'm not saying it!’ Almost, that day, the movie was stopped. He could not take it.
They shouted to each other and, in the end, of course, he won. He's the director. He's a genius, but when she did finally say, ‘Please hold around me. Please love me,’ she did not dance around saying it. She said it with a hurt that all women will recognize. Her face showed the anger because she had to say these lines.”
It’s a well-known, disheartening fact that women directors are clearly in the minority today, which is unfortunate because women directors can give us different points of view. They also may be able to direct women or men in terms of taking risks or possibly delving deeper into their roles. Ullmann explained the latter point.
“I believe if you're a woman director, you have an even greater chance with men than sometimes a man director because men, in the end, do not have to play that role of ‘I'm the strongest’ as they have to do with a man. They know, from being a son, a brother, or a husband how to really open up for what is most vulnerable in them, and they dare to do things maybe with a woman [director] watching them more than they would with a man.
I felt this with Colin [Farrell], for example. He was not afraid of showing the vulnerable side of John, where anyone else I’ve seen in that part plays the role very macho. ‘I'm full of hate. I'm full of revenge.’ It's such a difficult part, and I've never seen anyone do that part the way Colin Farrell does it.”
How does she feel that being a woman has influenced her style or approach as a film writer and director?
“Well, as you know, being a woman yourself, we experience the world somewhat differently than men. I know that from having very close women friends and they influence me in my life. When I read material, for example, [Alan] Ginsberg, I will read it as a woman and I will even see things that maybe he even missed because he’s very much from a man’s standpoint and he also has some negative positions towards women, which I do not have, but anything I do comes from me understanding life as a woman. Obviously, I write from being a woman, and I know if I were a man, it would look different.”
What does she enjoy most about directing?
“First, I must have great actors and what I enjoy in them is to see them being creative. The fulfillment this also gives me is the material I give them. Perhaps it inspires them and makes them look into their own fantasies so they can find things within themselves that they maybe haven't used before in a movie.
“From my experience, in all the films and plays that I have directed, the ideas I missed when writing a script, that's partly what they create because they know things from their experiences that I do not know. My fulfillment is that they give more to my work than I knew.”
With that said, it would appear that Ullmann enjoys the process of directing. She elaborated, saying, “I enjoy it a lot. I have done so much acting myself, I can almost not surprise myself anymore, although I wish maybe I would get one more film role as an actor, where I could really surprise myself, but I don't know if that actually will happen.”
In film criticism, women are in the minority as well. Does a woman's perspective bring something different to a film?
Ullmann’s face lit up as she answered, “Oh, they bring a lot. Everything, which has been unsaid in so many of these movies that are made today needs to be heard by a woman's strong voice.”
What types of women film-related jobs would Ullman like to see more of?
“I would very much like to see more women writers; I would accept that it might be the most important job. I also wish there were more women producers.”
Does she feel that women's film groups or women panels during film festivals help in fostering possibly more jobs or more exposure for women?
“Yes, absolutely, because women very often are great speakers, because I know when I met you, first of all, you're a great speaker, but generally, some very good [women] speakers—they speak differently than men. I'm always very happy when I can be part of a film panel, and the panels are more often men and we miss something when women are not there.”
What advice would she offer to women who are working in film; possibly producers, directors, or writers?
She answered without hesitation, “Be truthful; be very, very truthful and forget all those courses where we are told ‘think this way so men will not intimidate you.’ Forget all of that; just be truthful and allow yourself to be a woman, allow yourself to say what you really mean and not what is politically correct, because all of us have paid a big price for being truthful.”
Her advice triggered a similar reply to a question that I asked Roger Ebert in 2011 when I asked him in an interview what he felt the core of being a great film critic to be. He said, “To be truthful and to be truthful to yourself and how did the movie really make you feel?”
At this point, Ullmann excitedly said, “Do you know that when I was in Cannes years ago, Roger Ebert was there, and he was gazing across the balcony and, Sarah, he began describing me. He said, ‘There is Liv Ullmann, someone from the times when it was ‘in’ to be truthful. It's like she's a ghost now (not that I was a ghost),’ but I am truthful.
“It shouldn't be that we are ghosts when we talk the truth and, as you’re telling me, you're quoting him now, and of course that's wonderful. Continue to speak the truth.”
What would Ullmann wish for her daughter in the future?
“To be able to do everything she wants, because I find her so tremendously talented. I would want her to be allowed to be exactly the person she is and not try to be a tough woman in a tough man's world.”
Incidentally, best-selling author Linn Ullmann credits growing up in a home with endless film viewing as “key” to her development as a writer in describing characters. How do they look or feel in certain lighting? What do the visual characteristics say about a person? How do they respond to different emotional situations? One can only imagine watching films with her father, the legendary Ingmar Bergman, or her mother, a gifted actress, the profound influence her parents bestowed upon her.
What can we learn from Liv Ullmann? Plenty. She has strong opinions on women working in film, in addition to offering solutions. She encourages women to speak the truth, face their fears—to stand up and be heard. Above all, she’s living proof of what is possible when women create—when they write scripts as well as direct. She’s not simply talking the talk; she’s leading by example. Her incredible wealth of filmmaking experience and wisdom continues to be passed down to today’s hottest actors: Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain, and Colin Farrell, among others.
A quote by Eleanor Roosevelt seems fitting when examining Liv Ullmann’s film contributions: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself: I have lived through this before. I can take the next thing that comes along. ‘You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
In the past, Bergman called the shots; today,
Ullmann controls her destiny, paving a path in the film industry as a tour
(Photo Credits: 1-Timothy Hiatt, 2-Timothy M. Schmidt, 4-Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
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