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Liv Ullmann, Face to Face

It is a sunny day in Stockholm, two years ago in May. Ingmar Bergman is in residence at Film House, shooting “Face to Face.” Silence reigns, as it always does when Bergman works: “No other director in the world has such quiet sets,” Liv Ullmann writes in her notebook. She sits in her tiny dressing room, wearing an old white muslin shirt and a full cotton skirt. Her feet are tucked beneath her.

She has ordered sandwiches and radishes for lunch, and she pours tea for the visiting interviewer. "We must close the door and not talk very loudly," she says, smiling, "because Ingmar has been edgy this morning. He doesn't want me talking to some writer during the lunch hour. I should be meditating on this afternoon's scene." Then she talks about the brilliance of this director who starred her in "Persona" and some of the other most important films of the last 10 years, who was her lover for five years, who gave her a daughter, Linn.

That afternoon in Stockholm returned to me with a real force as I was reading Liv Ullmann's brilliant and disturbing new autobiography, Changing (Knopf, $8.95). Because that afternoon, or one just like it, went in the book -- the battered notebook she tossed aside onto the couch when the sandwiches arrived. I remember her so open and honest (when she speaks she is the most radiant woman I've met), speaking of Ingmar's new calm, of the gentleness and hope he was beginning to find in the midst of his images of suffering. I remembered, and then I read:

"Day Nine. Ingmar and I clashed today. His face looks like a cloudburst when he sees me going to lunch with a reporter. He calls me back and hisses, 'I am so tired, so tired of you and your damned reporters.' I hiss back, 'And I am so happy because you have no say over me. That I don't have to see your face around the clock -- now that I really know who you are!' We part in anger. He goes to his office and his sour cream, and I to my interview, where I explain for the thousandth time why working with Ingmar Bergman is so fantastic."

Now the obvious question might be: Why did Liv Ullmann choose to present an image of Bergman that was so much different from the fact of their feelings at that moment? That would be the obvious question, and the wrong one, because one of the fascinations of this book is the calmly honest way in which Ullmann analyses her relationship with this so complicated man.

In the interview, she was being objective about a professional relationship between an actor and a director. But in the book, we meet a different Bergman and a different Ullmann, both complex, both frightened. And people so much alike that "what he had not known about himself he began to see in me -- as if in a mirror…He saw his own vulnerability and his own anger in me."

And so after five years, and five bitter winters that she found bleak and depressing on the barren Baltic island of Faro, where he writes his new scripts, she took Linn and left. It is typical, somehow, of their relationship, that she'd moved to the island with her dog, Pet, which Bergman instantly disliked, but that by the time she left the dog stayed because it had become Bergman's.

There are stories here of their anger toward each other, but often there's a resilient humanity to soften the hurts; there's a moment in which Bergman, the austere master filmmaker, attacks Liv as she's barricaded in the bathroom, kicks the door down, and sees his slipper fly off and into the bowl -- which defuses the moment. "No one could be as angry as Ingmar," she writes. "Possibly I."

But Changing isn't just the story of a relationship, even though people familiar with Bergman's work will find many illuminations here (it appears, for example, that much of his “Scenes From a Marriage” is based on revelations about Ullmann's own first marriage, confessed to Bergman in the middle of a Faro night). It is also the story of Ullmann's own emergence as one of the most talented actresses of our time.

When Bergman first met her, he cast her opposite Bibi Andersson in “Persona.” She played an actress who one day simply stopped speaking (the kind of artistic impotence that turns up so often in his films), and Bibi Andersson was the nurse who accompanied her on a summer in the country. They shot the film on Faro, so much more pleasant in the summer than it would be later. And Andersson, who'd worked with Bergman before, immediately read the signs that he would fall in love with Ullmann.

The two women, good friends for several years, spent long days in the sun, picked wild strawberries, felt a calm and peace that was totally different from the ways their film characters felt (although one of those moments was left in the film, the moment the two women go mushroom-hunting). And then in the evenings Bergman and Ullmann would talk, until the night when he declared his love in this quintessentially Bergman way:

"He took my hand in his and said. 'I had a dream last night. That you and I are painfully connected.' On the spot where we were sitting he built his house."

She writes about Bergman and herself with such compassion and insight that this is not in any sense a "movie star book." It's a mature meditation by an intelligent woman. But it's not always all that serious and profound. She's especially funny in her account of her short but much-publicized career as Henry Kissinger's date in 1972 and 1973. Kissinger, methodical in all things, had "inquired" as to who might be the proper actress to accompany him to an important Hollywood banquet. Ullmann was recommended, and after several calls from the White House to make preliminary arrangements, Kissinger himself finally called ("the first blind date of my life!").

When he came to her house, he was much shorter than she ("I picked the wrong shoes") and a friend who was doubling as maid poured the wine directly onto his pants. No matter. The relationship survived the crisis and soon she was Kissinger’s date at a White House summit banquet for the Russians. She is a careful observer: “Gromyko is pale and sits hunched at a corner of the table, with a mouth that is tight-pressed and sad. He reminds me of a melancholy uncle who came to my wedding. But I see humor in his eye, too. Every time his name is mentioned in a speech he blushes.”

And Richard Nixon: "Seated, Nixon looks so tiny. His torso is almost smaller than his head. The make-up has melted slightly and I am glad for his sake that the picture-taking is over. I feel a sort of compassion for this face. Where the black around the eyes has smeared a bit. He would have made a fantastic tragic figure in a Bergman film, if only he were a better actor."

She sees herself in a light just as clear: "I laugh an exaggerated laugh at myself when people look at me as if they understood why I am on the list of the world's worst-dressed women. If they think the outside is awful, they should just see what I'm like inside." And then occasionally she allows herself the spontaneous humor, the irreverence that is the quality I most easily associate with her (although Changing makes it clear she doesn't often associate it with herself). Invited to a party at Hugh Hefner's mansion, she finds herself viewing a film of a woman having sex: with a dog. Her reaction is just right: "I think of Pet and hope she will not discover….”

She even tells the secret she would not reveal when Bergman went off to his little cell at Film House, ostensibly to meditate on the profundities of the afternoon's scenes: "The truth about Ingmar's solitary lunches is a heap of tabloids he doesn't want to be caught reading."

I don’t think I've ever before read a book quite like this. It reveals Liv Ullmann as a woman who knows a great deal about herself -- more than most of us probably do about ourselves -- and who has been able to regard with an almost frightening objectivity, one of the more interesting lives of our time, her own. Because of her talent, she's moved among the famous and the powerful, she's worked with the greatest director of our time during the decade of his most important films, and she has returned to her notebook, tucked her feet beneath her, and reported (on the summit meeting with the Russians):

"Surely our future is not going to be decided over the dessert? Everyone seems to be taking part in a parlor game…To me it looks like a first-night party at the Norwegian Theater…Could it be that the whole world is taking part in the same performance? A small number of people in the leading roles; in lesser but very important ones, the reporters. Then there are all the rest of us, who are the audience. And the victims."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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