Monday 27 May 2019

Obituary: Bibi Andersson

Swedish actress of luminous beauty who starred in her mentor Ingmar Bergman's best-known films

SCREEN STAR: Bibi Andersson. Photo: Getty Images
SCREEN STAR: Bibi Andersson. Photo: Getty Images

BIBI Andersson, who died last Sunday aged 83, starred between the 1950s and 1970s in almost a dozen films directed by her fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman, among them The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and Persona; in the last, as her character lost her identity on screen, Bibi Andersson revealed her greatness as an actress and outgrew her artistic and emotional dependence on her mentor.

She and Bergman first worked together in 1951, when she was 16 and he the director of an advertisement; she played a princess who gives a swineherd 100 kisses in return for a bar of soap. Not long after, she joined Bergman's theatre company in Malmo, and for the next two decades formed part of the professional and personal harem that he collected about himself.

Bergman's unabashedly intellectual cinema explored the dark hinterland of the psyche, notably shame and desire, and was rooted in his childhood experiences. He had been repeatedly humiliated by his father (chaplain to Sweden's royal family), for instance by being locked in a cupboard for wetting himself.

Bibi Andersson's wholesome, youthful beauty represented for him hope and fidelity, at least from the male perspective. After bit parts in Miss Julie and Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman cast her as the young mother who, with her husband and baby, are among the few saved from death in the medieval fable The Seventh Seal (1957).

That same year, Andersson played twin roles in Wild Strawberries, as the childhood sweetheart of the now elderly protagonist and as her reincarnation as a spirited young hiker he picks up. By then, she and Bergman, as so often with his muses, were in a relationship, despite his already being on the third of his five marriages.

"When I was 20, I struggled very hard for independence," she reflected later, "but I didn't know enough to be independent without having this sense of competition with other women. I was around men who were too strong." She claimed that she appreciated afterwards, however, that there were few young actresses who could project the luminosity Bergman cherished.

She began to emerge from her ingenue's cocoon - what she called being "a professional innocent" - in about 1960, when she married another director, Kjell Grede. The year after, she proved she could take on more complex roles in The Mistress, starring Max von Sydow and directed by Vilgot Sjoman. It won her Berlin's Silver Bear as Best Actress.

"Several times I had this thought: 'He doesn't think I have any more to give'," Bibi Andersson said of Bergman. "But I will show him what dramatic talent I possess!" The outcome was Persona (1966), born of Bergman seeing in a photograph the striking resemblance between Bibi Andersson and her friend Liv Ullmann, who would become his next inspiration. He described the film as "a sonata for two instruments". Bibi Andersson plays a nurse asked to care for an actress (Ullmann) who has seemingly been struck mute.

Gradually, the balance of power and their personalities are reversed, symbolised by a shot in which Bergman melded together their faces.

In revealing the instability beneath her character's professional persona, Bibi Andersson gave a master class in naturalistic performance - the finest of her career, and the foundation of what is perhaps Bergman's own masterpiece.

She was born Berit Elisabeth Andersson on November 11, 1935 on the island of Kungsholmen, in Stockholm. Her father ran a delivery company while her mother was a social worker, but her parents divorced when she was young and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown.

None the less, she encouraged her daughters' artistic ambitions; Bibi's elder sister Gerd became a ballerina at the city's Royal Opera, while she studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre's acting school. She joined its company in 1959, appearing in plays directed by Bergman and others.

Her later films with Bergman included The Passion of Anna (1969) and The Touch (1970), the latter made in English and co-starring Elliot Gould. In Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Bibi Andersson played an angry ex-wife airing her grievances. But in 1976, Bergman was arrested on stage during rehearsals by police investigating his tax affairs. Payments had been filtered to actors through a Swiss company of his: Persona.

Although Bergman would eventually be exonerated, the humiliation brought on a nervous collapse. He moved to Germany and, while he eventually returned to Sweden and to directing films such as Fanny and Alexander, he was no longer the force he had been. Bibi Andersson, who was quizzed about her own taxes too, had for some years been trying to expand her appeal to Hollywood.

Few of the films she made in America, among them the gritty Western with James Garner, Duel at Diablo (1966), Robert Altman's Quintet (1979) and the dire disaster movie Concorde... Airport '79, lingered long in the memory.

Her most notable Hollywood performance was as a psychiatrist helping a schizophrenic girl in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977).

During the 1990s, she worked as a theatre director and for charities sending relief to Yugoslavia during its civil war. She settled in the South of France, but a decade ago suffered a severe stroke which deprived her of speech.

Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1973. She was married from 1978 to 1981 to Per Ahlmark, formerly deputy prime minister of Sweden, and then from 2004 to Gabriel Mora Baeza. He survives her with the daughter of her first marriage.

Sunday Independent

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