Category Archives: Robert J. Avrech

When Ingrid Bergman Rebelled Against Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman as the saintly Sister Mary Benedict, “The Bells of St. Mary’s, 1945.
Ingrid Bergman as the saintly Sister Mary Benedict, The Bells of St. Mary’s, 1945.

by Robert J. Avrech

So powerful are Hollywood movies as propaganda that America has never achieved victory in war without Hollywood’s support.

When Hollywood turns against America at war, defeat is assured. Witness Vietnam, the first casualty of Hollywood’s ideological wrath. The Jane Fonda, Jon Voight vehicle “Coming Home” (1978) was a turning point in Hollywood’s leftward tilt. This film convinced large segments of the American public that Vietnam was a war whose moral foundation—the fight against Communist dictatorship—was replaced by a grotesque narrative of veterans broken in body and spirit, who were, ultimately, victims of American imperialism.

Hollywood’s propaganda machine reaches beyond the content of movies into the very lives of movie stars. Certain roles register powerfully with the public in a manner impossible to predict. These performances end up defining an actor in a manner that resonates so profoundly with audiences that any deviation from that persona can thoroughly shatter an image—and a career.

Perhaps the most fascinating example is the career of Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982).

A Swedish actress of  unnatural natural beauty, Bergman was ravishing, glamorous withoutmake-up—and a transcendent talent. Bergman starred in a series of films that secured her position as one of the most popular actresses in the history of American movies.  Many of her films are modern classics with performances marked by a down-to-earth nobility that is rare among Hollywood stars. Besides the WW II morale booster Casablanca, (1942) her films include: Intermezzo (1939), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Joan of Arc (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949).

In 1948, chafing under the rigid Hollywood system, Bergman wrote a fan letter to Roberto Rossellini, the Italian director who made something of a splash with his gritty, if tedious, neorealist movies that mixed professional with non-professional actors, concentrating on little stories of the poor and oppressed, often shooting with only a bare outline of a screenplay.

Dear Mr. Rossellini,

I saw your films Open City and Paisan, and enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only “ti amo,” I am ready to come and make a film with you.

Ingrid Bergman

Like most European artists who claim to despise Hollywood Rossellini responded immediately in a groveling telegram:

I JUST RECEIVED WITH GREAT EMOTION YOUR LETTER WHICH HAPPENS TO ARRIVE ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY BIRTHDAY AS THE MOST PRECIOUS GIFT. IT IS ABSOLUTELY TRUE THAT I DREAMED TO MAKE A FILM WITH YOU AND FROM THIS MOMENT I WILL DO EVERYTHING POSSIBLE. I WILL WRITE YOU A LONG LETTER TO SUBMIT TO YOU MY IDEAS. WITH MY ADMIRATION PLEASE ACCEPT THE EXPRESSION OF MY GRATITUDE TOGETHER WITH MY BEST REGARDS.

ROBERTO ROSSELLINI, HOTEL EXCELSIOR, ROME.

In April of 1948, after screening Open City and its sequel, Paisà, Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman wrote a fan letter to director Roberto Rossellini.
In April of 1948, after screening Open City and its sequel, Paisà, Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman wrote a fan letter to director Roberto Rossellini.

Soon, Rossellini offered Bergman, one of the most bankable Hollywood stars, the lead role in Stromboli (1949). It’s the bleak story of a young woman whose only route out of a post World War II DP camp is through marriage to a poor uneducated fisherman who lives on the desolate island of Stromboli, a soul-crushing volcanic rock that makes the DP camp look like Disneyland.

During production, Bergman and Rossellini fell in love. The problem was that Bergman had, in 1937, at the age of 21, married dentist Petter Lindström. Newscaster Pia Lindström is their daughter. Bergman and her director had a passionate affair. Bergman became pregnant with their son Renato out of wedlock in 1950. Later, after Bergman and Rossellini were married, she gave birth to twin girls Isabella and Isotta.

Word of the extra marital affair caused a scandal in the United States. Of course, American audiences knew that many of their beloved stars misbehaved. But the studios covered up a cottage industry of star abortions, mad affairs, mental illness, raging alcoholism and drug addiction. In contrast, the Bergman-Rossellini affair was brazen, out in the open. Hollywood was unable to soften or deflect the scandal.

But Ingrid Bergman’s worst sin was that the American public identified Bergman as the saintly Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s, and the authentic saint Joan of Arc, two morally unblemished virgins.

Here was the Hollywood star machine in all its relentless glory. And here was an actress openly violating her own image, a shattering of the covenant between star and her faithful, adoring public. The dissonance between the sublime shadow on the silver screen and a cold reality of flesh and blood was too vast, too painful to absorb.

America felt betrayed. How could an American family ever again watch these lovely chaste movies with any degree of trust or belief?

Denounced on the floor of the American Senate, Bergman’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was also cancelled. Unable to secure work in Hollywood, Bergman remained in Europe.

The American public is forgiving, and Bergman eventually returned to Hollywood where she triumphed in several fine roles.

When Sidney Lumet was directing my script for “A Stranger Among Us,” (1992) we talked about Bergman whom he directed in Murder in the Orient Express (1974). Sidney explained that he shot her one big scene in a long five-minute take because she was such a riveting actress that he didn’t want to cut into her performance.

Hollywood, as a vehicle for propaganda, is as vital and powerful as ever. Public morals have changed drastically since the infamous Bergman-Rossellini scandal. Now, Hollywood stars openly live together and have children without benefit of marriage. We are no longer shocked. Outrage is considered quaint if not a sign of Jacobean-like intolerance.

But consider how we have come to this point of normalizing the immoral: it is, for the most part, a product of Hollywood movies, of stars whose image and influence is so powerful that their private lives made public have shaped and continue to shape how we live.

Coming of Age: Three Must See Films Currently Streaming

Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack in Room.
Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as Jack in “Room.”

by Robert J. Avrech

One of the most durable movie genres is the coming of age narrative. With roots in the 18th century literary novel, tales about young people who mature through ordinary and extraordinary circumstances have an irresistible appeal that is universal. Here are three films that are currently streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime. Each in their own way deal with the furnace of life and love, and all are highly recommended.

Room, 2015. I resisted screening this film until last week because I cannot bear stories where children are hurt or placed in danger in the name of entertainment. But my friend Michael Medved urged me to see this movie, assuring me that it was not what I thought it would be. Michael was right. Room is a wonderful film.

The set-up is simple: a devoted mother, Brie Larson, is raising her five-year old son in a locked room, held captive by a disturbed man who, seven years ago, kidnapped Larson when she was just a teenager. The 11′ by 11′ room is the only world the child knows and the film makes the most of the young child’s restricted POV. Jack has no idea what “outside” and “world” means. Ma and Jack spend ever minute of every day with each other

Room takes several narrative twists that I did not see coming when Ma finally decides to explain to Jack the truth of their circumstances. Brie Larson deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar for her deft and understated performance. But keep an eye on young Jacob Tremblay. His performance is just magical as a child who has to cope with the abstract notion of a world outside. The fine script is by Emma Donoghue based on her own novel. Irish director Lenny Abrahamson is precise and sensitive, always placing his camera in just the right spot to catch the essential emotions.  This is an exquisitely small film that handles big emotions with understated elegance. As I’ve written on numerous occasions, all great films are, in the end, love stories, and “Room” is unique in displaying the love of mother and child. Amazon Prime.

 

Baba Joon," with Navid Negahban, left, and Asher Avrahami.
“Baba Joon,” with Asher Avrahami, left, and Navid Negahban.

Baba Joon, Israel 2015. A refreshing and finely observed Israeli film from writer-director Yuval Delshad is set in a Persian-immigrant moshav in the Negev during the early 1980s.  Baba Joon observes a community hardly ever depicted in Israeli much less American movies.

Three generations of the Morgian family struggle to make a living on a grim turkey farm in a community of Persian immigrants There’s the uncompromising patriarch grandfather (Rafael Faraj Eliasi); Yitzhak, (Navid Negahban), his son, furiously resigned to running the dusty, patchwork farm; and our main character 13-year-old Motti (Asher Avrahami, a wonderful and natural non-professional), who has a genius for resurrecting dead cars and turning them into clever working vehicles. Motti  loathes the work forced upon him in the turkey barn and resists his father’s tyranny with touching courage. The parents speak to their son in Farsi and he answers in Hebrew—a familiar immigrant pattern.  The film lovingly charts the minefield of familial love: a young man caught between family expectations and the desire to chart his own way in life. Netflix.

 

“Mustang” with Güneş Şensoy.
“Mustang” with Güneş Şensoy.

Mustang, Turkish-French co-production, 2015 We approach most movies with a certain set of expectations. Word of mouth. Critical appraisal. Star power. They all add a powerful dimension when screening a film. I clicked on Mustang because… well, I have no idea why. But from the very first image I was hooked on this tender and heartrending drama.

Mustang is a French/Turkish production that takes place in a remote Turkish village along the Black Sea where five beautiful and spirited orphan sisters live with their overbearing grandmother and tyrannical uncle, both conservative and pious Muslims. The five sisters are brimming with life, laughter, and hope for the future. One day they are seen flirting with some boys. Horrified that their modesty has been publicly compromised Grandmother and Uncle yank all five girls out of school, and lock them in the family house, a fortress against modernity and men.

The five sisters are like fairy tale princess prisoners behind walls and gates, but more than anything they are prisoners of a homicidal honor-shame culture. Mustang’s central POV is mediated through the eyes and voice-over narration of the youngest sister, Lale (Güneş Şensoy). She watches in disbelief  as her older sisters are forcefully married off to a succession of awkward and unworthy young men. Lale’s voice is touchingly innocent but increasingly bitter as she comes to understand that the sisters lives are being crushed by a religious tradition so deeply entrenched that even the village women collaborate against their own daughters “for their own good.”

Mustang was co-written (with Alice Winocour) and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven a Turkish filmmaker who lives and works in France. The film has a distinctive rhythm that feels almost casual, but its narrative power moves with great subtlety and then builds into an almost unbearably tense climax. This is one of the few films that is both beautiful and deeply frightening. Netflix.