European Echoes of Hollywood Scandal: The Reception of Ingrid Bergman in 1950s Sweden

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In 1949, Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman caused a well known scandal in Hollywood by leaving her Swedish husband Petter Lindström and their daughter for Italian film director Roberto Rossellini. The effects of this scandal in America have been thoroughly described in works like Bergman’s autobiography (Bergman, 1980), Donald Spoto’s recent biography on Bergman (Spoto, 1997) and in specialized scholarly papers which analyze the scandal as a social phenomenon applied to the Bergman case (McLean, 1995).
No work at all, however, has been devoted to the effects of this scandal on Swedish sexual politics and cultural struggles.
In fact, Bergman received her roughest treatment at the hands of the conservative Swedish press, where she was even accused of having tainted the Swedish flag. Ethnocentric overtones could also be discerned in the descriptions of Rossellini as the archetypal and sexually threatening ”latin lover”. Defense of her case, however, clearly articulated on feminist grounds and on the notion of a woman’s right to love, could be found in women’s weeklies at the time.
Ingrid Bergman thus embodied partly the contemporary cultural war between the sexes, harassed by males and defended by females. Males were predominant in the quality daily press, and women in the generally despised weeklies. Thus, the Bergman case came to become part of the cultural struggle between ”high art” (modernist literature, theatre) and ”low art” (Hollywood films) in Sweden.
The affair culminated in 1955 when Ingrid Bergman returned to her native Sweden for the first time since the scandal with the Honegger-Claudel oratorium ”Joan of Arc at the Stake”, directed by Rossellini and staged at the Stockholm Konserthus in February. The quality press had a field day, with critics like Erik Lindegren, one of Sweden’s major modernist poets, spurning Bergman’s performance.
The worst attack was launched by Stig Ahlgren, the editor of the quality weekly Vecko-Journalen, whose extremely nasty article ”To be Exhibited for Money” has come to be regarded as a classic piece of Swedish prose. (Ahlgren’s claim to international fame is the fact that he was the real life model for the mean Engineer Ahlman in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, where he quarrels with his embittered wife, based on Ahlgren’s real life wife, actress Birgit Tengroth. A recent biograhy of Ahlgren (von Platen, 1997) indeed claims that Tengroth’s personal hatred of Ingrid Bergman — they had been in acting school together in the early 1930s and had become competitors — induced her husband to publish his attack on Bergman and Rossellini).
Ahlgren’s vicious attack, however, caused great concern among many Swedish women and also provoked a backlash in public debate, very much caused by Ingrid Bergman’s personal appeal at a meeting the day after the piece was published in the Vecko-Journalen. Her strong defense of herself even triggered a kind of radical feminist discourse, which evolved in late 1950s women’s weeklies with Ingrid Bergman cast as a female hero.
Mainly based on Swedish press materials from the period, my paper explores this development, taking into specific consideration how the phenomenon of Hollywood scandal itself is distributed in a small and basically ethnocentric European cultural economy like Sweden. It also takes into consideration modern Scandinavian readings of Bergman’s work in Swedish cinema before her move to Hollywood, particularly her role in Gustaf Molander’s A Woman’s Face (1936), where Bergman’s portrayal of a criminal woman in different ways has been attributed strong feminist connotations (Soila, 1991; Jerslev, 1998).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHeadline Hollywood: A Century of Film Scandal
EditorsDavid Cook, Adrienne McLean
PublisherRutgers University Press
ISBN (Print)0-8145-2886-0
Publication statusPublished - 2001

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Arts

Free keywords

  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Joan of Arc
  • Sweden
  • high and low culture
  • scandal


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