Liv Ullmann: A woman for all seasons

Legendary Norwegian actress talks at New York’s Scandinavia House about her life and work

Liv Ullmann

Photo: Christine Butler / American-Scandinavian Foundation
Veteran actress Liv Ullmann was the recipient of the American-Scandinavian Foundations Gold Medal for 2019.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Part I: The actress

Applause begins as soon as the evening’s guest of honor steps on the stage, with a wide warm smile on her face. She is lit from within. She is the incomparable Liv Ullmann, who, at the glorious age of 80, is about to be interviewed by renowned Norwegian film critic and former editor at the Norwegian Film Institute, Jan Erik Holst.

Ullmann was the recipient of the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Gold Medal for 2019. To celebrate, they are hosting a retrospective of Ullmann’s work, in front of and behind the camera, including two nights with Ullmann at their home, Scandinavia House.

The first evening on Nov. 13 focused on Ullmann’s work as an actress and included clips from some of her films as well as a documentary about her. This was followed by a viewing of her first film, at the tender age of 17, The Wayward Girl (1959), released in Norwegian as Ung Flukt.

From the outset, the interview took on a lighthearted tone. One could tell that there was a real affection and intimacy between Ullmann and Holst. Throughout the course of the evening, some funny stories were revealed, offering the audience a unique opportunity to experience the legendary Norwegian star’s passion and what makes her tick. Some highlights follow below.

The early years

Ullmann opened by offering a few remarks about what led to her career choice early on.

Liv Ullmann: I thought that being an actress would be good, because when I did something [out of character] in my family, they would see me. I was a shy, thin person.

Jan Erik Holst: But by being an actress you can be seen and then go back into yourself.

LU: Yes. I did go back into myself again. At home, at the dinner table, I didn’t say anything until I was 13 years old.

JEH: You were 17 when you made your acting debut. You dropped out of school, went to London, and played Anne Frank. You were so well received. You must have had talent from the beginning.

LU: I did what every Anne Frank has done. They thought, “Oh, she is good.”

Ullmann went on to explain how any female actress of that age could understand Frank and that is what the audience responds to.

JEH:  Your debut in film was in 1959 [ in The Wayward Girl]. You play a young, sexy rebel. It was directed by Edith Carlmar, a wonderful director. Tell me about her.

LU: She came to Stavanger and said, “I really want you to be in this movie. I was turning red. She said, “Listen! You are not a virgin are you?” She was a woman director and identified with me, so I got the part…. I even danced. I had never danced in my life.

Swedish interlude

The conversation turned to Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, with whom Liv worked and had a five-year romantic relationship, resulting in the birth of their daughter, Linn, in 1966.

A film clip depicted them happily working together. Although Bergman has been described as “demonic,” Ullmann stated in the clip, “I never had a director with such warmth and understanding in listening to the actresses… so, I feel that many actresses should get to work with Ingmar Bergman.”

The move to America

Then a scene from the Norwegian film An-Magritt (1969) was shown.

Liv explained, “It was made from a novel about those who have nothing and those who have a lot.”

Jan Erik added that the heroine was from the 15th century, a great lady and a revolutionary at that time. He wondered why Ullmann was not asked to make a Norwegian film for the next 25 years, even though An-Magritt was well received.

LU: That is the Norwegian way. We have something called Janteloven: never think you are above anyone… so they cut you out. But I got a wonderful career outside of Norway. This happened to a lot of Norwegian women film directors also…. But, once you get older, they [the Norwegians] are pretty nice.

A clip from an interesting pairing, Ullmann with Gene Hackman in Zandy’s Bride (1974) was a surprise and can be seen in this retrospective. Liv plays a mail-order bride, a revolutionary, who goes toe-to-toe with her husband. He wants to have control over her, but she will have none of it. This clash between them can only be described as riveting.

There was also an adorable clip of Ullmann making an appearance on the “The Tonight Show,” with legendary comedian Johnny Carson. Here she is on fire and shows the same impeccable sense of timing as her host. He asks her, “Are you flirting with me?” And without skipping a beat, she says, “Yes.” The conversation then turned to more practical matters. 

JEH: How did you manage coming from Scandinavia to the United States?

LU: I was Norwegian. I had my roots in Norway. That was my advantage. I came when I was 30 years old. By then, you know yourself. If everyone is nice to you, it is easy to be happy. You have a big beautiful house, they give you a toilet, like where kings are sitting, so you really don’t know what you are doing. And then, you go home to an outside toilet. 

The conversation turned to Ullmann’s work on stage, specifically in the Broadway musical I Remember Mama (1979), which I had the chance to see. She discussed her concern about doing a musical, since she cannot sing.

LU: I let Richard Rodgers [the musical’s composer] hear that I couldn’t sing. When we were rehearsing, my daughter Linn would say,“You really shouldn’t do it.” 

They went on to show a clip with Ullmann singing a duet, but not before long, Jan Erik remarked, “I think we should turn down the sound a little.” It was nice to see that even this well-respected celebrity could laugh at herself.

Ibsen’s influence

JEH: I know that Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, is very important to you and that you tried to make a film of it.

LU: I had Cate Blanchett ready to do it, and then she got pregnant. Then Kate Winslet was ready to do it. We had the American money but not the Norwegian money. 

Ullmann went on to clarify an important piece of information about the character Nora in the play.

LU: Ibsen never says she’s not coming back. I believe she wants her children to see her as a mother who has character. To use her as a model to see what a woman is. What a woman can do….

One of the questions from the audience was, “Do you know about the sequel to A Doll’s House?”

LU: I got the offer to be the housekeeper. I said no, but it was incredible.

The Wayward Girl

After a short break, we went on to watch Ullmann’s early film, The Wayward Girl (1959).

Directed by Carlmar, Norway’s first female film director, it is a rare treat and well worth seeing. The tone reminds me of American films from the 1950s that explored the teen zeitgeist of the time.

In the Norwegian film, Ullmann plays the irreverent 17-year-old Gerd, who comes together with the character Anders, a conscientious youth, who tries to protect her.

The two run away to a cottage in the mountains. For a time, their life in the woods is edenlike, including the naturalness of their sporadic nudity.

But they are soon interrupted by intermittent visitors. First Gerd’s mother and Anders’ father arrive with the purpose to coax them back. They bring them supplies and share a meal with them, but, in the end, don’t force them to return.

Later, the worldly, sinister, and appealing Bengt cordially, but unexpectedly, breaks into the love nest of the couple and destroys the idyllic calm.

When you see Ullmann in this film, it is hard to believe that she was a shy teen. Her emotions run from playful to seductive, to downright dangerous.

It is also intriguing to see the rapid change in family mores. Gerd’s single unmarried mother is charmed by the couple’s nudity, and her nonchalant attitude about sex shows a definite change in society.

There is another “rooster scene” with Bengt crouching and flapping his arms like wings, using the animal’s mating call, as he approaches both mother and daughter—both intriguing and disturbing.

During the earlier interview, Ullmann had shared some of her memories of the film:

LU: There was a lamb in the movie. I loved the lamb, and the lamb loved me. One day, the lamb was gone. I opened the door for food, and the lamb was hanging from a hook. I cried. At the end party there was a lamb stew. One actress said, “This is the first time in my life that I am eating a colleague.”

The other recollection was a little more risqué and a bit tricky for the young actress, but luckily, she had a sympathetic director.

LU: In one scene I am in the water and not completely dressed. This started a lot of talk. My brother asked them not to show the film. At the premiere, a priest tried to stop it from being shown. In an interview, I said that I didn’t know I was being filmed. The director said to me, “I understand, it was difficult to admit that you were being filmed.”

Ullmann, of course, was totally aware of being filmed, but embarrassed and ashamed.

But this was only the beginning of a career that has spanned six decades, filled with critical acclaim and numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic.

Liv Ullmann

Photo: Chelsea Nuesi
Ullmann interacts with her audience at Scandinavia House during her interview with Jan Erik Holst.

Part II: The director

The American-Scandinavian Foundation’s celebration of Liv Ullmann continued on Nov. 14. This second evening focused on her directorial work.

It began with her being interviewed again by Holst, followed by a screening of the film Miss Julie (2014), which was directed by Ullmann.

The following are some highlights from the interview.

JEH:  Liv, should we continue from yesterday? You started as a director in 1982 with a short Canadian film…

LU: There were four women involved, including Joni Mitchell. We each made a 20-minute film based on love. My movie was called Goodbye.  It’s about a very old man. He wakes up alone, goes through his morning rituals, and suddenly he has a beautiful smile. He gets a basket, puts a red cloth over it, and [also gets] a glass vase with water inside.  He goes out, and nobody is looking at him. He’s very old. He goes to the hospital. He has his beautiful smile and opens the door, and there she is. He sits at her bedside. He feeds her porridge he’s made with a spoon.  

He has water in a bottle for her plant. (My grandmother told me that when she was in the hospital, the nurses had no time to water the plants.)  He opens the Bible and reads about love. Then he takes the basket and returns home. Nobody sees him, but we know he is the carrier of love. 

JEH:  Who wrote this story?

LU:  I wrote it. 

JEH: Ten years passed, and you went to Copenhagen, where you were asked to write a script about a Jewish family from the middle of the 19th century. [The film was based on Henri Nathansen’s novel Mendel Philipsen and Son (1932). The film was titled Sofie and was made in 1992.

LU: How would I be a director?  I had been an actress. [Before that] I was a little ashamed of being an actress. People told my family that it was good that my father was dead, because I was an actress. 

[By directing] I saw how a human being could grow and develop. For the first time, I felt that was what it meant to be an actress. It was incredible. This is why I loved directing.

Bergman gave me some good advice. “When actresses come to you with all their strange thoughts, you have to have in your head a voice like ummm-ummm-ummm.”

Holst steered the conversation to ask what it was like to work with the cinematographer for the film Sofie, Jörgen Persson.

LU:  I was so used to working with [Swedish cinematographer Sven] Nykvist. I felt I wasn’t good enough. I was a little like Nora in A Doll’s House, dancing, offering food and coffee. Josephson [Erland Josephson, legendary Swedish actor in the film] said, “Liv, stop your dancing.” 

I wanted, for example, for one shot to repeat, showing the couple sitting outside: in the beginning [of their relationship] in the middle, and then at the end, with only one of them left. Persson said you couldn’t do the same scene so many times. So I didn’t dare to say anything. So, we did it both ways, and it took a lot of time and cost a lot of money.

These are the mistakes somebody like me makes, if they don’t have the confidence. [In the end, her vision of the scene with the repeating setting was used].

JEH:  I am very fascinated by the framing of the couple. It is close up—but not close up.

LU:  Do you think they decide?  The cinematographer does not have the say.

JEH:  I just wanted to hear you say that!

Medieval masterpiece

JEH: In Kristin Lavransdatter, you played her on the stage, and now a Scandinavian group was interested in making it into a film. It was a big thing, a great success!

LU: It’s really a film about love, a physical thing between two people—and a woman’s will to be close to God—and her parents knowing she is not a virgin. 

I think I will go to a personal story. Ing­mar and I had a child. I wanted to bring her to Norway to be christened. I could not find a priest to christen her. [Bergman and Ullmann had not been married.] 

I was christened in Canada when I was 3. My mother made me a beautiful national dress. My parents held my hands, while I was christened in the Norwegian Seamen’s Church. I could not christen Linn until she was 3—and with a Norwegian Seamen’s pastor in Oslo.

JEH:  Tell us a little more about this drama.

LU: The person who was supposed to direct it got sick, so I said, I want to do it… It had a lot of personal [meaning] to me… The only thing was that it was four hours long.

JEH: I saw the four-hour version. I thought it was magnificent. Were you happy with the international version? [The international version of the film was shortened.]

LU: You never like to cut things you love. When director Miloš Forman was told to cut 10 minutes from “Amadeus,” he added 10 minutes….

Empowering Blanche Dubois

Ullmann also went on to direct a play, A Streetcar Named Desire, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 2009.

LU: I had told Cate [Blanchett] about a friend of mine who was dying. One day, when I came he had a sheet over his head…. I told that to Cate. This is how we ended the play. The doctor comes to get her…. It’s like we have seen her all the time with a sheet over her head. Suddenly, she dares to be who she is. She sees the world. For the first time, we see a completely free and happy woman. Something came from her soul and body. Ben Bradley wrote, “It is the first time we have seen Blanche as a person.”  As a director, I am so grateful to Cate Blanchett.

I had the opportunity to see this version of Streetcar, and it was transforming. This Blanche was no lilting Southern belle: she was a force. By allowing Blanche to own her strength and sexuality, the ending is even more tragic, and Stanley is seen as the cruel coward he is.

Miss Julie

JEH:  The film you are going to see tonight is based on a Strindberg play and was made in Ireland with English-speaking actors.

LU:  It is about the lord’s daughter and a servant. I made [up] a lot of lines. I haven’t rewritten Strindberg but made them say a little more. It’s about love, but instead of love, you get hate and commands.

I was working with director, José Quintero. We were doing a work by Eugene O’Neill [Anna Christie]. He said, “To act, you have to be honest.

Ullmann dropped her microphone, got out of her chair, and walked toward the corner of the stage, crouching as she looked into the eyes of the audience. It created an immediate intimacy, as if she were looking into the eyes of each of us. I am guessing she was mimicking Quintero or demonstrating how to achieve the honesty in art he had relayed to her.

LU: This elderly man from Panama opened up. He said, “I have opened up who I am now. Tomorrow open up what you want to give to a person.” 

Without honesty, art is not worth anything. He is a director who really changed my life. 

JEH:  Bergman’s Miss Julie [a play, along with two others directed by Bergman and performed at BAM in 1991] is different from yours.

LU: Bergman’s is very good, but I like mine very much. Miss Julie couldn’t communicate to anyone but her little bird. At the end, this little bird is taken from her by the man she loves. [He cuts off its head.] 

In regard to the actors, we only had a short time to film. The first week they came knowing the whole script. They play it so differently than what you’ve seen before. 

A new Miss Julie

We then viewed the film. It is based on Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Fröken Julie (1888), which was written in the naturalistic style. In this version, it is transplanted and filmed in Ireland.

Ullmann’s Miss Julie has a stellar cast: Jessica Chastain as Julie, Colin Farrell as John, and Samantha Morton as Kathleen.

But it is a very tough subject and requires one to step back to a time when the class system is being challenged but still rules.

In turn, the balance or imbalance of power escalates into a very seductive and dangerous game between the sexes, in this case the lady Julie and the servant John.

The story unravels slowly and mostly takes place in one room: the kitchen. The most powerful character, who is never seen, but always felt, is the baron. The cinematography and attention to the time period is luscious.

The madness of Midsummer’s Eve is the backdrop. Little understood outside of Scandinavia, symbolically, it is an essential component of the play’s setting and catalyst for the unraveling of the characters. There is pagan revelry on the longest day of the year, unleashing the senses and passionate emotion.

The final scene is tragically beautiful. Julie is transformed into a sleeping Ophelia, her Pre-Raphaelite tendrils flowing around her pale skin, her sensuous gown of peacock blue floating in the stream, all surrounded by flower blossoms, soft ripples, and dappled light.

The celebration continues

For two evenings at Scandinavia House, we witnessed that Liv Ullmann’s magic, both on the stage and on the silver screen. Sven Nykvist, the famed Swedish cinematographer and film director, wrote in his biography about Ullmann: “Liv has an aura that penetrates the steel cover of the camera.” And as we learned, this aura seems to extend its power both in front of and behind the camera.

We learned that there are so many reasons to check out Ullmann’s films, and during Scandinavia House’s retrospective, which runs through Dec. 17, visitors will have the opportunity to experience the magic for themselves.

For more information, visit www.scandinaviahouse.org/event/films.

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.

This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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