April 7, 2015

Ingrid Bergman, For Whom the Bell Tolls

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The Role: as a 19 year old orphan who has experienced savage cruelties during the Spanish Civil War and falls deeply in love with Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman makes her Oscar debut here. Say what you will about For Whom the Bell Tolls and Bergman's performance, but it's always interesting to me watching the very first nominations of the greatest actresses. You catch a glimpse of what they're showcasing to the world, and you can sense that hunger they have in proving themselves. What Bergman does with María in this film is no different from what Kate Hepburn does in Morning Glory or what Bette Davis does in Of Human Bondage--it marks the arrival of a woman who would go on to become one of the great Hollywood icons.

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What I Didn't Like: I'll start off by saying that it's kind of funny that María is considered a leading role when Katina Paxinou's role has just as much (if not a tiny bit more?) screentime. For Best Actress enthusiasts such as myself who seek empowering female performances, I'll say now that I really don't like the character of María. In fact, near the end of the film I found her to be really one-note and immensely annoying. She is still a girl, written by Hemingway to be a faithful female to For Whom the Bell Tolls' male hero, and it's kind of sick how hopelessly subservient she is to Robert Jordan. She loves Robert to the point where it's infuriating, and she clings onto him and cries so damn much you want to scream.

 photo Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 1.59.48 AM.jpgWhat I Liked: ...But I'll be damned if I said that I didn't like Bergman's performance. She is absolutely glowing in this small yet maddening yet vital part. Cooper may be doing his best to deaden the tone of an already boring-ass film, but Bergman literally brings life to the film whenever she's on screen, whenever she speaks. It's an amazing ability that I can't quite put my finger on, but she radiates a warmth and irresistibility in her presence that simply pulls you in towards her and forces your attention, even when you're so exhausted by how plain stupid both film and leading man are. She might have been in her late twenties, and she's totally not believable whatsoever as a nineteen year old as her tone of voice evokes too much womanly maturity for that to be feasible, but Bergman brings such a sweet innocence to the role, such that you buy that she's this naive and gentle individual, and I think that's what makes her all the more interesting here; she's as soft and genuine a presence you can ask for amongst a cast that consists of a bored leading man and a bunch of non-Spanish actors trying their best to come off as Spanish (an interesting feat considering she's nordic as all hell and she's also playing Spanish here). The scenes in which she speaks about the violence she has faced are done so wonderfully; I connected with her and cared about what I was watching, and I think it helps that her acting in general comes off as much more natural than those around her. Whenever she was off-screen I couldn't have given a fuck about what I was watching, and when she was on she had my undivided attention. It's still a very simple role, not quite one of the greatest I've ever seen, but I think she elevates the shoddy (and slightly misogynistic) material to the absolute best of her ability.


  1. I thought she was good as well (definitely not as bad as people say), but the whole thing was kinda forgettable because her film was so meh.
    What did you think of Katina Paxinou?

    1. Definitely agree that the film is meh. No amount of Bergman being good could prompt me to sit through this clunker again.

      And I thought Paxinou....was okay. Not awful, but not stellar either.

  2. I'm convinced. Now I must see it. Thanks.

    1. Watch it for Bergman, nothing else!

  3. I'm not surprised, but I like her much less.

  4. This is not one of Ingrid's best, in my opinion, for two reasons. First, the role is so sketchily written that it's hard to see what the fuss is about. It's most definitely a supporting part but even then I wouldn't consider it award worthy. Maria is mostly there to show the viewer how wonderful Robert Jordon (Cooper) is and while the scene where she's speaks of her abuse at the hands of her captors is beautifully done, she's also saddled with such lines as "where do the noses go" when she's about to kiss Jordon. Yikes!

    My second issue is that I see Bergman straining for a youthfulness she no longer possesses for the character of Maria and I also see her ACTING, which is a rare criticism I ever have for her. Her emotional moments actually start to grate on me as the film progresses, which undermines their effectiveness. I much prefer her in "Casablanca" where she is beautiful, warm, gentle and genuine. It's a beautifully understated performance.

    I'm one of the few (maybe the only one) who actually likes this film as a whole more than the sum of its parts. Cooper's flat, Paxinou is over the top, Tamiroff is over the tip top and much of the casting is misguided, yet I still find the story intriguing and the film watchable, in spite of everything that's wrong with it. It's all in the eye of the beholder, I guess.