It’s 1949 and actor Ingrid Bergman is Hollywood’s sweetheart. From her breakout role 13 years prior in Intermezzo to leading roles in cinematic classics such as Casablanca, the Swedish star is hot property. But after shooting Stromboli with Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini that year, the star’s fortunes will change dramatically.
During Bergman’s early career, she and producer David O. Selznick created a perfect, good-girl image for the star. Within this, her roles varied from a nun to three separate goes at playing Joan of Arc. And her popularity grew, with the actress becoming “the ideal of American womanhood,” according to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture.
Selznick had worked to create this wholesome image for Bergman, showcasing her natural beauty and only casting her in roles to court exactly that reaction. He, according to the Ramsen Center Magazine, wanted the star to be the opposite of “exotic glamour types in the vein of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.”
Bergman’s beauty, in addition to her obvious natural talent, proved a combination that audiences simply couldn’t resist. Add to that the star’s traditional marriage to then-dentist Petter Lindström and the result was a powerful beacon of contemporary female morality. After all, honest, faithful wives and good mothers with upstanding values were the order of the day, and Bergman’s persona seemed to embody those attitudes.
By the time Bergman flew off to Italy to make Stromboli, she’d won multiple accolades for her work. The star’s career saw her eventually earn an incredible three Academy Awards and four Golden Awards, and she is second place in terms of Oscars won in Hollywood history.
But Bergman’s success belied the tragedy of her early life. Born in August 1915 in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, the little girl never really got to know her mother, Friedel Henrietta Augusta Louise. Sadly, when her daughter was just two, she’d passed away, leaving Justus Samuel Bergman, her father, to care for her.
Bergman’s father Justus, an artist and the owner of a photography shop, encouraged the future star to become an opera singer. But he also wouldn’t live to see his daughter’s success; he sadly passed away when she was 13 years old. Now an orphan, the young girl went to live with her aunt Ellen, who then also died of a heart attack only six months after Bergman moved in.
From there, Bergman went to live with her uncle Otto and his family, and it seems, felt able to settle. She attended private school and it was there that she discovered acting. Starring in school productions, she also got her first job on a movie set as an extra. The future actress then spent a year at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater School, and finally got her first speaking role in a movie in 1935’s The Count of the Old Town.
That same year Bergman dropped out of theater school to become a full-time movie actor. And the decision was clearly a good one, as she made three more films in 1935 alone. The following year, she then appeared in the movie that would change her life forever. Intermezzo told the story of a world-renowned violinist who begins an affair with the piano teacher instructing his daughter. She, however, ends their relationship after guilt persuades her that the man belongs with his family.
While Intermezzo wasn’t a commercial success, Bergman’s portrayal of the piano teacher put her on the radar of one very important Hollywood producer. David O. Selznick was so impressed with her performance that he signed her to a seven-year contract, with the first movie they made together being a U.S. version of Intermezzo. The star reprized her role in the 1939 picture, kicking off an incredible run of classic performances.
Bergman became a star overnight, with the U.S. version of Intermezzo becoming a big hit. And Selznick’s plan to introduce Bergman to the American market was itself genius. According to Ransom Center Magazine, the producer asked his colleagues “to withhold all publicity on the actress” so that audiences there could “discover her for themselves.”
Clearly, Selznick’s plan worked, because Bergman then bagged a number of roles in movies such as June Night and Rage in Heaven. In 1941 she then turned her talents to a far meatier role, after being offered the part of Dr Jekyll’s fiancée Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But following the appointment, the Swedish star then did something rather unusual for the time.
Rather than play yet another romantic role, Bergman decided that the part of barmaid Ivy Pearson suited her better. The only problem was that the role already had an actress assigned to it ‒ one Lana Turner. Bergman then somehow persuaded the studio to allow the women to switch roles. This swap, in turn, allowed both actors to play characters completely removed from their usual on-screen personas.
Ivy Pearson proved an outlier in Bergman’s career trajectory, for a while at least. In 1942 she played arguably her most iconic romantic role: Ilsa Lund in Hollywood classic Casablanca. And while the Swedish star never thought the movie was one of her best performances, audiences loved it, as did the Academy. The movie earned a massive eight nominations, winning in three categories, including Outstanding Motion Picture and Best Director.
But Bergman didn’t have to wait long for the Academy to recognize her talent as well. In 1943 she received a nomination for Best Actress after starring in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Her efforts were fully awarded 12 months later, however, when she took home the gong for her portrayal of Paula Alquist Anton in Gaslight. And the accolades didn’t end there, because her performance, which sees her being driven mad by her husband, also won her a Golden Globe.
In 1945 Bergman was again nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Bells of St. Mary’s, but she was beaten by Joan Crawford. Undeterred, the Swedish actress went on to make two movies with genius director Alfred Hitchcock. The first, 1945’s Spellbound, cast her opposite Gregory Peck. The second was Notorious with Cary Grant, released the following year, and its considered by many to be one of Bergman’s finest performances.
In 1946 Bergman then took her first Joan of Arc role. Playing the character on Broadway in the play Joan of Lorraine for a whopping 25 weeks made her a star of the stage as well. And again, the accolades continued, with the actress winning a Tony Award for playing the French saint the following year.
Bergman’s portrayal of the saint was so actually successful the Academy nominated her once again, this time for her performance in the movie version of Joan of Arc. And while audiences agreed, the flick actually made a loss, despite being one of the biggest movies of 1948.
Bergman’s screen and stage persona, then, was well and truly fixed in the minds of the public. And behind the cameras, her personal life had flourished too. The future Oscar-winner had married fellow Swede Petter Aron Lindström in 1937, with the couple welcoming their daughter, Friedel Pia Lindström, the following year.
After Bergman’s move to Hollywood, Lindström and the couple’s daughter relocated to New York in 1941, where the Swedish national studied surgery and medicine. Bergman would often visit her family between movies, staying on the east coast for up to four months at a time. Lindström had reportedly insisted that his wife’s Hollywood career not intrude on their personal life, and she seemed to agree.
Lindström’s training later took him to San Francisco, California. Now in the same state, the couple’s arrangement, however, remained the same, with Bergman visiting her daughter and husband between roles. During that time, she had a run of successful movies, but things weren’t necessarily rosy for the Oscar-winner.
During a break in filming, Bergman had entertained U.S. troops in Alaska during World War II. And after the war ended, she traveled to Europe for the same reason, seeing for herself the destruction the conflict had caused. In addition, the star’s marriage was in trouble and she became increasingly dissatisfied with the roles she was being given.
Bergman was tiring of the roles she was securing in movies, and despite her success, wanted something more. So in 1949 she made a decision that, while granting her wish, changed the course of her life. And it all began, innocently enough, with a letter.
The letter, however, wasn’t written to Bergman – rather, it was written by her. Having seen the gritty realism of films such as Rome and Paisà, the actress wrote to the director of those flicks, Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. In it, she discussed his work and, at the end, signed off with a surprising proposal. She wrote, “I am ready to come and make a film with you…”
Rossellini, for his part, then responded by writing a part specifically for Bergman in Stromboli. Filming on location in Italy, it tells the story of a Lithuanian woman’s emigration to a desolate Italian island. And while there, the Oscar-winner did something that would completely shatter her good-girl image.
Trouble began when, over the course of the shoot, Bergman and Rossellini began an affair. And to make matters worse, both were still married to their respective spouses. Once word of their relationship got out, the Swedish star then faced a backlash so strong it took years for her to recover.
Social norms were far more conservative in the 1940s than they are today. Women were expected to have strong morals, be faithful wives and good mothers. Religion, for its part, also played a larger role that it does now. And Bergman’s affair went against those societal expectations of the time, but it didn’t stop there.
As a result of the affair, Bergman gave birth to a son, Renato Roberto Ranaldo Giusto Giuseppe (“Robin”) Rossellini, who was born in February 1950. He came into the world just weeks prior to the release of Stromboli, leading a number of women’s clubs, lawmakers and religious groups to call for the film to be banned. But the attacks soon became personal and, even more dramatically, political.
The reaction to Bergman’s affair was indeed so strong a U.S. senator got involved. Colorado’s Edwin C. Johnson stood on the floor of the Senate and publicly attacked the actress, calling her “a powerful influence for evil.” And the damage didn’t end there, because as a result of the uproar, chat-show legend Ed Sullivan refused to have the Oscar-winner on his show.
Bergman and Rossellini quickly announced divorces from their respective spouses, but it didn’t help. The church apparently initially refused to recognize the dissolutions, eventually only reluctantly doing so. Even the pair’s marriage later in 1950 did little to change public perceptions of the saint-turned-sinner. The Oscar-winner’s Hollywood career then all but disappeared as a result.
Essentially blacklisted by Hollywood, Bergman moved to Italy and lived with her new husband and son. Although Stromboli was a critical and commercial bomb, the actress worked with her husband on several European releases between 1950 and 1955. Along the way, she gave birth to twin girls, Isotta and Isabella, with the latter becoming a successful actor in her own right in later years.
While in Italy, Bergman starred in five films with her husband, including neo-realism classic Europe ‘51. The scandal, it seems, had little effect on Rossellini’s career, and he made what many consider his masterpiece during this time, Journey to Italy. The movie charts a couple’s vacation to the country which almost destroys their marriage, and it influenced several famous directors, including Martin Scorsese.
Bergman and Rossellini’s controversial relationship, however, didn’t last. And after the latter had an affair with Sonali Dasgupta, the wife of a producer, the marriage was over. After the pair separated in 1956, Bergman took a role in French romantic comedy Elena and Her Men, directed by director Jean Renoir. Critics loved Bergman’s performance, and soon after the star was finally put back on the Hollywood map.
Later in 1956 Bergman starred in her first Hollywood picture for the better part of a decade. And while Anastasia was U.S. financed, the movie was actually shot in Europe. As a result of the scandal, the Swedish star wouldn’t make a movie in California for several years. Even when she won yet another Oscar for her comeback performance, friend and fellow actor Cary Grant picked it up on her behalf.
In fact, Bergman’s first public Hollywood appearance following the scandal with Rossellini was in 1959, ten years after she’d acted in Stromboli. As an Oscars presenter, she received a standing ovation from the audience. That same year, she won an Outstanding Single Performance Emmy for her work on the miniseries The Turn of the Screw.
Having gone back to the stage prior to that Emmy winning turn, Bergman met and married her third husband. She and Lars Schmidt, theatrical producer and fellow Swede, wed in 1958. It proved to be her longest lasting marriage, ending some 17 years later. Along the way, the actress debuted in London’s West End theater circuit, starring in the drama A Month in the Country in 1965.
Then just under a decade later, Bergman returned to her Oscar-winning ways, though this time in a supporting capacity. The actress again proved her undeniable talent and bagged another Academy Award, but her incredible story doesn’t end there.
In 1975 Bergman and Schmidt divorced, and that same year, the Oscar-winner received a breast cancer diagnosis. But even after the bad news, she continued to work and in 1978 starred in her final movie. Autumn Sonata, directed by the similarly named Ingmar Bergman, earned the actress yet another Oscar nomination. And, yet, even then she still wasn’t done.
In 1982 Bergman took on the role of former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, for the miniseries A Woman Called Golda. Given her diagnosis, the shoot was hard work – the actress had kept how seriously ill she was a secret and just kept working. She finally succumbed to the cancer a few months after the shoot wrapped, on her 67th birthday. But even after her death, the actor went on to win two more awards posthumously for the performance.
Bergman’s portrayal of Golda Meir led to another Emmy and a Golden Globe. It’s clear that, despite a scandal that almost ruined the star’s career for good, she never allowed it to stop her doing what she loved. Despite all the odds, the multiple Oscar-winner proved once and for all that it’s talent, and not who you’re married to, that really counts.