Liv Ullmann Between Stage and Screen

This piece is a throwback. It was published it previously, but owing to the fact that the observations of the engagement are always relevant and fit into Thankful for World Cinema theme. Although the event was one night only the information and resources are still valid.

On December 7th, 2009 the Brooklyn Academy of Music had a very special speaking engagement at their Harvey Theater location. Liv Ullmann, star of many of Ingmar Bergman‘s most enduring and legendary works was the guest of honor of this very special speaking engagement. The event was held on the very stage where Ullmann directed a sold-out and for the most part critically acclaimed revival of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett.

A majority of the evening was focused on this new adaptation there were some very valuable general insights to be gleaned on art, film, theatre and acting that were not show-specific.

She was introduced by a representative of the Royal Norwegian Consulate General who said, to paraphrase, that she has “striking emotional range and Norwegian identity with an international appeal that transcends borders.” This was quite an astute and concise encapsulation of her brilliance and of her appeal.

Autumn Sonata

Ullmann’s brilliance and appeal made themselves ever more apparent both as a person and as an artist when she graced the stage. She did have a great deal to say about acting and directing in the 90 minutes total in which she was on stage.

The first fascinating comment she made was how she wanted, in her US theatrical debut as a director, to put a new spin on Blanche DuBois because in Elia Kazan’s classic film the incarnation of Blanche played by Vivien Leigh is a shattered woman at the end of the film and how there is a deeper psychology to the character and a more profound and ambiguous ending to be explored.

Liv discussed Cate Blanchett and on a few occasions expressed admiration of her skill and then talked a little bit about her directing approach specifically and said two things that were quite interesting one was “I would never tell Cate what her face should look like that’s her creation” and similarly she’d never say “That keep that, that’s perfect!” whether it be an inflection on a line or a look. It’s gone and the only way to have it possibly come back it to just not mention it and let it go as she puts it “It will come back when great actors open up and trust each other.”

Persona (1966)

Moderator James Lopate made a great connection between some of the scenes that Stella and Blanche share and Bergman in which the two woman scene was often the most powerful. Liv talked about the connection that women could share and how she and Bibi Andersson were best friends before Persona and that connection could certainly help their scene-work.

When it came to working with Bergman she told a well-documented but funny story about working with Ingmar Bergman and Ingrid Bergman on the set of Autumn Sonata. It was one of the climactic arguments in the film and the camera had been facing Liv all day and her character had been spilling her guts blaming her mother for her problems, on which Liv humorously commented saying “Get over it, you know?” but then the camera was going to turn around and face Ingrid and she didn’t want to say what was scripted, which is not how Ingmar worked. It lead to quite a ruckus, Ingmar and Ingrid took the argument outside the soundstage and came back and Ingrid read the scripted line but her eyes still showed the fury she felt. Having seen this film a few times you can see the anger in her eyes and it probably helped the line reading.

She commented that there is often tension or anger between actors and directors but she doesn’t necessarily look at it as a bad thing. In fact, Bergman himself gave Liv advice on dealing with a bad director which she relayed so it’s obvious she didn’t see him as bad just as a perfectionist, which most knew.

Cries and Whispers (1972)

Ms. Ullmann then got back to being asked about the show and had some other great insights into directing due to her perspective being an actress. Contrary to a lot of theatre works where there is a premium on movement and using the stage she at times of great significance to the story prefers to, if not keep her actors still, confine their movement. “Let them create. Keep them in one place,” she continues “Keep her in one place so everyone can see what’s happening right there in her face.” This is perfectly consistent with her previous comment of not directing facial expression.

Similarly, she told Blanchett and the aspiring actors at the event that when on stage and a line prompts one player to turn upstage in response she advises her actors to not turn too quickly but instead “Give your close-up to the audience for two to three seconds then turn.” The close-up is hereby turned into a theatrical term where an actor is facing the audience instead of their scene partner and it is a brilliant parallel which I hadn’t heard before and it most certainly holds true it is the closest thing the theatre offers because the actor is revealing their character in a way only the audience is witness to.

She is a natural performer who on the stage of the show she is directing on more than one occasion walked around and demonstrated things of which she spoke. The last great tidbit about directing she gave was about storytelling and not in the narrative sense. She told of how certain bits of blocking the show, or prop decisions were made almost unconsciously after a story was told or a conversation was had. She mentioned that José Quintero, one of her favorite directors to work with, was very fond of telling stories as a rule and inevitably that is how he affected the work and it sort of inspired how she goes about giving backstory to actors, especially when it is meant as a note. She never fills in the blanks but merely says, as she did to Blanchett, “Something happened yesterday.” This allows them to have a thought process, to create something of their own but will also inform their action with the correct emotion because at the point this note is given the scene is already understood.

Shame (1968)

Miss Ullmann’s wisdom seems endless. Available at BAM was a book of her interviews. She has however authored her own books on acting and life called Choices and Changing respectively and two more suitable titles can hardly be thought of for such a craft for they are the essence of it.

When discussing the character of Blanche DuBois Ms. Ullmann made the point that “Loneliness doesn’t function for Blanche,” meaning she can’t deal with it. “For me loneliness functions.” I think that is likely true of most artists for to create, and to make a true creation a certain degree of loneliness needs to exist. As her new vision of A Streetcar Named Desire closed on December 20th (2009) one can only hope and wonder what she turns her creative energies to next whether back to stage or screen, in front of camera or behind it, either way it should prove to be very exciting.