Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Corman, Bergman, and Bibi

Bibi Andersson (left) in Persona, with Liv Ullmann

As I write this, Notre Dame de Paris is burning, and I don’t quite know how to handle the loss of such an iconic place, one I first saw (and climbed) during my honeymoon. So instead I’ll focus on another, more human icon we’ve recently lost: the Swedish actress Bibi Andersson. The warm, spirited blonde was best known for her work in the films of her countryman (and sometime lover), Ingmar Bergman. She’s featured in such early Bergman classics as Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal,  along with a rare Bergman foray into English-language filmmaking, The Touch. (In that 1971 film, which I tried hard to like, Andersson’s housewife  character abandons her marriage vows for a troubled affair with a Jewish man, played by Elliott Gould, who’s haunted by the aftermath of the Holocaust. It was a box office and artistic flop.) 

It’s generally agreed that Bibi Andersson’s finest performance came in an enigmatic Bergman masterpiece, Persona, where she acted opposite another of Bergman’s powerful women, Liv Ullmann. In Persona, Andersson plays a down-to-earth nurse caring for a famous actress who has mysteriously stopped speaking. As events unfold, Andersson’s Alma reveals the secrets of her own past life, and the identities of the two women seem to  merge. In light of this story, it’s eerie to read of Andersson’s own later years. In 2009, at age 73, she suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak. She was confined to a nursing home for 10 years, until her death on April 14.

Though most of Andersson’s best films were made in Sweden, she occasionally took roles in Hollywood. One of the most unlikely was the part of the sympathetic therapist in Roger Corman’s 1977 screen adaptation of Joanne Greenberg’s semi-autobiographical tale of a young girl’s descent into schizophrenia, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. The leading role was played by Kathleen Quinlan, and Gavin Lambert earned an Oscar nom for his screenplay.

What was Roger Corman doing in such distinguished company?. Going art-house! The film was made a few years after he discovered that prestige and box-office returns could be generated by distributing the art films of European masters. I was in Roger’s employ when he made a deal with Ingmar Bergman to distribute the elegant and poignant Cries and Whispers across Middle America. We on the New World staff were thrilled to work on an unusually classy ad campaign. Our excitement doubled when Cries and Whispers was honored with five Oscar nominations, including Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Because Bergman chose not to travel from Sweden, Roger dressed in a tux and went to the Academy Award shindig to represent him. Alas for those of us who longed to see our boss on TV, the film nabbed only one statuette, for Best Cinematography. And Bergman stalwart Sven Nykvist was on hand to collect that Oscar in person.

Buoyed by his success in distributing Bergman in North America, Roger made a deal for Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, and later had the privilege of handling masterworks by François Truffaut, Werner Herzog, Akira Kurosawa and other big names in world cinema.  In 1978, he once again teamed with Ingmar Bergman (as well as Ingrid Bergman) on behalf of Autumn Sonata. It’s hard for me to picture Roger and the reclusive Swedish auteur as buddies, but Roger still prominently displays on his office wall a letter from Bergman, thanking him for introducing his work to wider American audiences than the usual art-house crowd. Bergman films in drive-ins? Only a Roger Corman would think of that.

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