Closeup/Show Business

A woman in her prime

Face to face with Liv Ullmann

Michael Posner March 21 1977
Closeup/Show Business

A woman in her prime

Face to face with Liv Ullmann

Michael Posner March 21 1977

A woman in her prime

Closeup/Show Business

Face to face with Liv Ullmann

Michael Posner

Liv Ullmann is on her knees. Her mouth is distended in silent agony. Her clear blue eyes swim wildly in their sockets. Sweat forms on her forehead. Now a gasp, a muffled scream, rises from her diaphragm, wells up in her throat and erupts. It is a cry of absolute terror.

“Very good,” murmurs the instructor. “Very good. The lion’s pose is really the only ugly pose in yoga. But it is very effective in fighting colds and sore throats. I can see you all enjoyed it, but I think the one who enjoyed it most of all was Liv.”

The cast and crew of the play Anna Christie are at their daily yoga lesson, a regular discipline intended to relieve professional tensions. En route to Broadway, the Eugene O’Neill drama—with Ullmann in the starring role—is in Toronto for a month-long run of tryouts. Because of Ullmann, a great many other people are there too. At 37, the Norwegian star is one of the world’s most celebrated actresses and something of a legend.

O’Neill’s 1921 play has been roundly condemned by critics as hopelessly antiquated. but Ullmann herself has already won rave notices for her performance as Anna Christopherson, the whore reformed by love. Her recently issued memoir, Changing, a revealing chronicle of her growth from lonely childhood to sober middle age, is a best seller in half a dozen countries, including Canada. And Hollywood’s film academy has just honored Ullmann with her second Oscar nomination in four years, for her compelling portrait of a nervous breakdown in Ingmar Bergman’s Face To Face. Her work in eight Bergman films, as well as in Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, has been marked by a striking emotional clarity, an unerring instinct for exposing the thoughts that hide behind the public masks of her characters. “She makes every moment crystaline,” film critic Stanley Kauffmann once wrote, “the quintessence of what it is about.”

All of this has made Liv Ullmann an object not merely of curiosity but of intense fascination. Some identify her strongly with the lonely, brooding characters who stalk the arid landscapes of Bergman’s films. Others puzzle over her performances in half a dozen American movies—notably Ross Hunter’s musical travesty Lost Horizon—which provided further evidence were it needed that Hollywood can subdue even the largest talents. Still others regard her as a kind of archetype of the modern woman: strong, independent, yet strangely vulnerable. Divorced from Norwegian psychiatrist Jappe Stang, she is the mother

of a child—Linn, now 10—by director Bergman, with whom she lived for five years but never married. Since their parting six years ago, she has been linked romantically with many men, including Henry Kissinger. (“There was never any touch of a finger,” says Ullmann.) Her current beau is a jet-setting Norwegian film distributor.

Fed, but hardly sated, the world covets closer kinship with Liv Ullmann. Demands for her time and attention are incessant. Playboy magazine is scheduling an in-depth interview. Time requests a photo session in preparation for the Broadway opening next month of Anna Christie. TV Guide runs an Ullmann cover. A fashionable Toronto bookstore schedules an autograph signing session for a Sunday afternoon and some 300 buyers (at $9.95 a throw) turn up to bury Ullmann in compliments and gifts. An aspiring actor, painfully inarticulate, mumbles a request for five minutes of her time to talk about the theatre; she consents. Eight people ask how her signing hand is holding up. “It's not the hand I’m worried about,” she says. “It’s the mind.” Her response is interpreted as a joke.

The actress tolerates these intrusions, urged by some inner voice. She is a woman with a mission: to convince the world that the real Liv Ullmann is not the person it reads about in magazines. Beneath the celebrity halo stands an awkward, flatchested 13-year-old, still waiting to be asked to dance. “Privately, we long for exactly this kind of recognition,” she writes in Changing, “that others should perceive what we really are. deep inside.” Her book, like a Bergman film, is a voyage of self-discovery—a stripping away of accumulated layers of costume. “Just think, here on earth we are a whole army of women with our silent screams, a whole army of men with their screams. And we hardly hear each other.”

Her face invites analysis. The high, widely set cheekbones, the full, sensuous lips, the eyes, which peer directly at her listener, hint at a knowledge of life in extremis (her name itself means “life” in Norwegian). This is a face that has sensed the pure potential of the soul and seen its dark corruption; absolute innocence and bleak despair—projected at the same moment. The origin of Ullmann’s magnetism may be found in her own life. Born in Tokyo, she spent 3Vi years in Toronto during the war and attended kindergarten there. Her father, a civil engineer training for the Norwegian air force, died from a brain tumor when she was six, the result of a freak airfield accident with an aircraft propeller. It was a blow from which she never recovered. She remembers her childhood now as being like a vacuum, “a kind of cavity.” Her dim memories of her father are poignantly evoked in Changing: “There was someone who once carried me up a flight of stairs and carefully laid me on a bed. My head rested on the hollow of his throat. That must have been Papa.” A man in a brown leather jacket who squeezed her hand on a country road. “That must have been Papa too.” Later, after the family returned to Norway, the six-year-old Liv sat in the window looking for men in brown leather jackets and approached air force officers on the street to ask if they were her father.

When the reality of his absence proved too painful, she retreated into fantasy. “I knew Liv would be an actress even when she was little,” recalls Ullmann’s cherubfaced mother, Janna. “ ‘Please, you are tiring me,’ she’d say, and she would leave the dining-room table, go to her room and pretend to be someone else.” At 17, determined to make a career in the theatre, Ullmann went to London for eight months to study acting. Later, after flunking her audition with the Norwegian state theatre, she joined a provincial repertory company at $600 a year and won kudos for her first title role in The Diary Of Anne Frank. “In the radiant innocence of that little Jewish girl,” she writes in Changing, her journal intime, “she recognized something of herself—her own dream that love was the most important thing and would outlive a world that appeared pointless.” By the time she bumped into Ingmar Bergman in

a street in Stockholm in 1964. and he invited her to make a movie with him,Ullmann—at 24—was an established star.

She was also nearing the end of her fiveyear marriage to Jappe Stang, “a cocoon of security” that was starting to unravel. Stang wanted to shield her from the world; increasingly, Ullmann needed to confront it. “Leaving him meant giving up my childhood ideals of what life was, what marriage was, what family was. But I think one should always listen to the inner voice, the urgent voice.”

Her high profile romance with Bergman at once freed and confined her. She gave up Oslo for Faro, a desolate Swedish island in the Baltic Sea with a population of only 300, where Bergman built a house for them. Later, the island became a prison, a barren, forbidding place painted shades of grey and brown. Ullmann never really put down roots. Bergman himself seemed at first infallible, an omniscient God with unfathomable depths of patience and understanding. In thesummerof their passion he told her prophetically: “You and 1 are painfully connected.”

But in time, distanced emotionally, Ullmann discovered that her lover was, after all, 20 years older than she, greying at the temples, vain, egotistical and insanely jealous—a man seeking security that she could not provide. She sensed their separation a year before it happened. “I realized it was impossible to live as if my life could only be fulfilled through another person. Pointless to seek refuge in someone else from my loneliness and insecurity.” Now. the two remain good friends and professional collaborators; she still talks to him once a week wherever she is. (“We have fantastic conversations. 1 can be in an enormous bad mood and we talk for a while and we scream with laughter.”)

After the breakup, Ullmann returned to Oslo, rejoined the Norwegian theatre and began a new life, torn by the conflicting demands of motherhood and her career. She played Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and wondered how many Noras there are in the world who would like to change their polite, meaningless lives but never dare. She flew to Hollywood on a 10-day promotional tour for The Emigrants in 1973, stayed for months, making two movies (Lost Horizon and 40 Carats). “They told me they were plum roles. I didn’t know at the time that everything [in Hollywood] is a plum role.”

Moviegoers knew better—and stayed away in record numbers. Ullmann was disappointed, but not devastated. “Failures are part of the creative process. I learned what my limits are. You can do a lot of things for fun in your youth. If I were to do Lost Horizon today, that would be unforgivable. Now I want my work to be meaningful ever) minute ... There are more yesterdays for me than tomorrows.”

Near the end of her Toronto engagement, Ullmann holds an afternoon press

party in the handsome “prime minister’s” suite at the Sutton Place Hotel. It is a ragtag affair, designed to accommodate what she hopes will be the last interviews and photographic sessions. One novel item has been added. An enterprising young palmist named Tony Carr has offered his services. He takes an ink reading of Ullmann’s hands, glibly noting that she possesses emotional flexibility, is fussy about details and is often depressed, “though she keeps this well hidden from other people”.

Later, in private, Carr reads Ullmann’s future. A U.S. newsmagazine journalist asks to hear the specifics and Ullmann’s reaction, but the actress will not cooperate. “It is too personal,” she explains. “It would be like talking about what goes on in the bathroom.” The reporter is piqued. Politely, but stubbornly, Ullmann refuses to bend and the journalist leaves. Ullmann is confused. She fears she has offended. “Was I rude?” she asks. “Was it because 1 mentioned the bathroom thing? I told her [the reporter] five times 1 did not wish to talk about it.”

Still, as she retreats from living room to bedroom, from tape recorder to camera, her demeanor is unflinchingly pleasant. With the exception of questions about her love life, she answers everything with honesty, intelligence and a nicely understated humor. She poses for pictures with the room service waiter sent to serve sandwiches and tea to the assembly. She nods amiably to the hotel manager, who comes to say farewell and then discourses at considerable length on the French-style architecture of Washington, DC—site of another pre-Broadway run of her play. But like the flower arrangements that welcomed her arrival, Ullmann’s smile is showing signs of decay. She sips sherry, then orange juice, then tea. Her behavior recalls a line from Changing: “It is astonishing howmuch anger can be contained behind such a mild facade.” Suddenly, the spacious rooms seem somehow claustrophobic.

During her final week in Toronto, Ullmann drives with her mother and daughter to the house she lived in during the w ar. She is hoping to find something here—just what, she is not sure—something that will tie her to a place in which three years of her childhood were spent, and of w hich she remembers nothing. “Maybe if I return there,” she muses, “some images may come back. Or maybe some holes you put things into . . .” Three generations of Ullmanns climb out of the long blue car and stand in the cold, staring at the pleasant, midtown house. Liv is impassive. Thirtyfive years have passed since she ran around this yard and fell from that second storey window, landing safely on a bed of bushes. Now, the attic of her memory is empty. All perspectives have changed utterly. Nothing is recognizable—save the uninvited newspaper photographer, anxious to record this exercise in nostalgia. She smiles for the camera, dp