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Obituary: Bibi Andersson 1935-2019 | reviews, news & interviews

Obituary: Bibi Andersson 1935-2019

Obituary: Bibi Andersson 1935-2019

David Thompson pays tribute to one of cinema's most enduring icons

'A superbly nuanced performance': Bibi Andersson excels in one of Bergman's less successful films, 'The Touch'

"One talks, the other doesn’t" is about as crude a description as could be of the Swedish masterpiece, Persona. Profoundly experimental even today, Ingmar Bergman’s film was at base about the intense, vampiric encounter between a mute actress suffering a breakdown and the garrulous nurse assigned to care for her.

The roles respectively announced the arrival of one fine actress, Liv Ullmann, and confirmed the brilliance of another, Bibi Andersson

Andersson later recounted that Bergman told her the silent role had to go to Ullmann as the less experienced of the two, with the assurance that she would be much better speaking the text. All through her working life with Bergman, Andersson craved the more complex and darker parts that he gave to his other two muses, Harriett Andersson (no relation) and Ullmann. In the youthful, optimistic characters she played in The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, she was by her own definition the “professional innocent”. But while blessed with a sunny beauty that the camera loved, she was never less than truthful and frequently very moving indeed.

Andersson was the daughter of a businessman and a social worker, and with their encouragement she pursued an acting career and attended the school of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. But even before that, while still a teenager, she appeared as a princess in one of the charming soap commercials Bergman made in 1951. The two were reunited in 1955, when Andersson joined the Malmo Municipal Theatre where he was the director, and she was given a few lines in his film Smiles of a Summer Night. They became lovers from then until 1959, and Andersson appeared in all his films in that period. In Wild Strawberries she played the dual roles of an irrepressible tomboyish hitchhiker and an old professor’s idealised first love. She was the symbol of hope in the medieval gloom of The Seventh Seal, charmingly flirtatious in The Magician, and as an expectant mother won a joint Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for Brink of Life.

But her greatest Bergman role came with Persona in 1966. As the nurse Alma, she was acutely vulnerable and yet indelibly stylish with her short hair and dark glasses. Bergman had seen a photograph of Andersson together with her friend, the up-and-coming Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, and this image gave rise to the extraordinary moment in the film when their two faces are weirdly combined as one. One of the great erotic scenes in cinema consisted of Alma recounting a strange sexual episode from her youth, all while reclining (fully clothed) in a chair. The monologue was written by Bergman, but with his approval modified by Andersson to use the words she felt a woman would employ.

Four years later, Bergman gave Andersson another significant part in The Touch, as the married woman embarking on a troubled affair with a visiting American (Elliott Gould). It became almost a lost film; the recent restoration of the bilingual version (though shot in Sweden, most of the dialogue was in English) revealed a superbly nuanced performance from Andersson, still luminous but now more adult and aware. Her own forays into English-language cinema were rarely worthy of her talents. She had supporting roles in a fashionably violent Western, Dual at Diablo, John Huston’s cynical cold war thriller, The Kremlin Letter, and Robert Altman’s enigmatic Quintet. More compelling was her sympathetic psychiatrist in Anthony Page’s underrated I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. She acted twice on Broadway in the 1970s, in Full Circle and (as Siri von Essen alongside Max Von Sydow as Strindberg) in The Night of Tribades.

A scene from an earlier Bergman film which the director himself underrated, The Devil's Eye, his fantasia on the Don Juan legend

Most of her important work was done in Sweden, where she was a vibrant presence in Vilgot Sjoman’s scandalous My Sister, My Love (based on John Ford’s Jacobean drama ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, but shifted to a very libertine 18th century Sweden) and one of a female trio of Bergman alumni playing versions of themselves in Mai Zetterling’s wacky feminist drama, The Girls. Andersson was a regular presence on stage (what would we give for a chance to have seen her in Bergman’s productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Long Day’s Journey Into Night?), and directed plays, including Sam Shepard’s True West. In later years, she became more of a political activist, in the 90s journeying to Sarajevo for the Open Road Project, which brought the arts to war-torn Bosnia. She married three times, had a daughter, and moved with her third husband (a doctor) in 2004 to the South of France.

During a Bergman season at the Barbican in 2009, I interviewed Harriet Andersson on stage, and beforehand she told me the shocking news that her close friend Bibi had just suffered a calamitous stroke which had left her unable to speak. To have lived another decade in such a state is a tribute to her immense fortitude. When glimpsed in behind-the-scenes footage of the Bergman films, she is invariably smiling and laughing – a true "earth spirit".

Berit Elisabeth Andersson, born 11 November 1935, died 14 April 2019

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