She had talent they could not have made up

Ingrid Bergman seemed as natural in her early films as she was dazzling

Ingrid Bergman in 'June Night' (1940). Ingrid Bergman in "June Night" (1940). (Kino International)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / April 17, 2011

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No two movie stars are ever the same. They’re like snowflakes that way, except that stars tend to hold up better under hot lights. Singularity is as much a part of stardom’s job description as attractiveness or staying power.

That said, Ingrid Bergman was additionally different. She was the first natural-seeming movie star — “as natural as her name,’’ Graham Greene wrote in his review of Bergman’s English-language debut, “Intermezzo’’ (1939), a remake of the 1936 Swedish original. “What star before has made her first appearance on the international screen with a highlight gleaming on her nose?’’ Greene marveled. He praised Bergman for not giving “the effect of acting at all, but of living — without makeup.’’ Anyone who has seen “Casablanca’’ (1942) or “For Whom the Bell Tolls’’ (1943) or “Gaslight’’ (1944) or “Notorious’’ (1946) knows what he meant.

Bergman did wear makeup, of course — that is definitely part of the movie-star job description — but not in the standard glamourpuss way. When David O. Selznick brought her to Hollywood, she refused to pluck her eyebrows or cap her teeth or change her name (the ultimate form of makeup?).

For all that, Bergman was extremely attractive. Hers was a new sort of attractiveness on screen. She didn’t look the way other movie stars did, not with those plump cheeks, that snub nose and wide mouth. For one thing, she stood a strapping 5 feet 9 inches. There was nothing slinky or sylphlike about Bergman. She enjoyed acting with Gary Cooper because he was the rare costar tall enough so that she could wear shoes when sharing a shot with him. “A horse,’’ Bergman liked to joke about her appearance — but what creature is nobler or more beautiful? It also helped this illusion of naturalness that in the original “Intermezzo’’ the lead actor, Gösta Ekman, wears a whole lot more makeup than Bergman does.

“Intermezzo’’ is the best-known title (and weakest film) in a three-disc set from Kino, “Ingrid Bergman in Sweden,’’ that goes on sale Tuesday. The other two movies are “A Woman’s Face’’ (1938) and “June Night’’ (1940).

Although no two movie stars are truly alike, that has never kept studio executives and entertainment journalists from trying to mix and match. Being Swedish, Bergman inevitably got compared with Greta Garbo. An accent was about all they had in common. Garbo was aloof. Withholding was the essence of her artistry. She drew the viewer in because she let so little out. Less wasn’t more for Garbo. Less was everything.

Bergman, in contrast, was all openness, a full-lipped transparency. She wore her heart on her face — or seemed to. “Look,’’ says a scandal-mongering reporter in “June Night.’’ “Her face is so natural. You can see her whole character.’’ The most withholding thing about Bergman was the frequency with which she would avert her gaze. Suggesting both shyness and intelligence, it was the personal tic as acting trademark, like Barbara Stanwyck biting her lower lip or James Stewart stammering.

Openness is very different from busyness. When her daughter Isabella Rossellini took up acting, Bergman had one bit of advice. “Keep it simple. Make a blank face, and the music and the story will fill it in.’’ Genetics will fill it in, too. The biggest shock that “Ingrid Bergman in Sweden’’ offers is how very much mother resembled daughter. It can be almost unnerving. Beyond that, the one real revelation is that there aren’t any revelations. Especially in the later two films, the Swedish actress is not all that different from her Hollywood incarnation. Not quite as lustrous or authoritative — speaking accented English lent Bergman a gravity that the singsong rhythms of Swedish undercut — but already surehanded and radiant, she is recognizably the same performer.

The biggest difference between the Swedish Bergman and the international star she became is her vehicles. These three films are very much traditional women’s pictures, full of fretting and sobbing. In “Intermezzo,’’ she’s a gifted young musician who is the piano teacher of the daughter of a world-famous violinist (Ekman). Just back from a world tour, he’s looking for a new accompanist, romantic as well as musical. This makes Bergman a twofer. It’s Ekman’s movie. Third-billed, Bergman is more plot device than anything else. She seems very much the 21-year-old she was.

The other two films present her quite differently. In “A Woman’s Face,’’ she starts out as a blackmailer and potential murderer — a very hard case. She’s so bad because a fire when she was a child killed her parents and disfigured her. For the first third of the movie, Bergman’s face is half Ingrid, half Quasimodo. She’s mean, she’s tough, she smashes mirrors. “I want to be rich,’’ she says at one point. “I want it now. I can’t enjoy life like others can. I don’t ask to, either.’’ Ida Lupino couldn’t have put it any better. You can almost feel Bergman’s pleasure in playing against what was already becoming her type. Evil has a limited shelf life in a woman’s picture, though. Soon enough, redemption comes along. Despite being the husband of one of Bergman’s blackmail victims, a severe yet kindly surgeon (Anders Hendrikson) corrects her disfigurement. This corrects Bergman’s personality, too.

She also starts out tough in “June Night.’’ “You’re leaving when the fun is over?’’ her boyfriend yells as she heads for the door. “Was it so much fun?’’ she snarls back in her best what-a-dump tone. So he shoots her. She survives (it’s only a few minutes into the movie, after all). When his murder trial makes her a figure of public scandal, she moves to Stockholm and assumes a new name. “You make men think strange and dangerous thoughts,’’ her doctor tells Bergman. Not that there’s anything strange or dangerous about her. A bad girl who isn’t really bad, Bergman’s character is a little bit like the woman she plays in “Notorious.’’ But that lies six years, one ocean, several orders of star magnitude, and one Oscar in the future.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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