When I interviewed Liv Ullmann for The New York Times in 1972, we both felt certain she was about to have the time of her life making her Hollywood debut in a song-and-dance version of James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon.” Maybe Liv did have the time of her life, but “Lost Horizon” had a lethal impact on her bid for an American film career. Happily, she went on to star in many more somber European gems and to become a first-rate writer and director. She was a joy to interview.


“It’s going to be fun, being lovely for a change,” says the lovely blonde, peeping out from behind her dark glasses. “In the past, producers have always gotten scared when they heard the name Liv Ullmann. Even Ross Hunter was scared. When it was first suggested that I play the woman who represents the dream of every man in ‘Lost Horizon,’ he said, ‘Liv Ullmann? Gee, she’s so sad.’”

Ross Hunter finally saw the light of Liv and signed her to play Peter Finch’s singing and dancing sweetheart in the Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical tour of Shangri-La. But you’d be a dummy to damn Hunter for his original dark thoughts. Like most Ingmar Bergman buffs, he naturally associated Liv with all those drably dressed, deliriously unhappy females she has brought to tortured life under the direction of the melancholy Swede.

It all began in 1967 with Bergman’s “Persona,” in which Liv, as an anguished actress who has chosen to become a mute, builds a bizarre relationship with her neurotic nurse. Then, in “Hour of the Wolf,” she was a woeful wife who, following the lead of her demented husband, drifts into insanity. In “Shame,” she was a war victim who, when last seen, is paddling her way through a sea of dead bodies. “The Passion of Anna” presented her as a destructive widow who is tormented by the memory of a grotesque highway accident in which she literally drove her husband and her son to their deaths. Recently, Bergman guided Liv through the ghostly corridors of “Cries and Whispers,” in which she is terrified by the certainty that her dead sister is trying to reach out and take hold of her.

It’s small wonder that Liv – despite all the critical accolades her misery has won her – is delighted with the prospect of living it up in sunny Hollywood. Not even the drizzle of a Sunday in New York can dampen her spirits; nor can the embarrassment of a black eye which she received from a swiftly closing taxi door while attempting to say goodbye to a friend. “What a terrible thing,” she laughs, removing her dark glasses, blushing, and quickly covering her left eye. “Can your photographer take my picture in profile?”

Shiner or not, Liv – pronounced leave – is a looker. Her eyes – even the black one – are beguilingly blue, her hair is long and brightly blonde, and her violet maxi-dress clings to a streamlined figure that is a far cry from that of the bulky-coated heroine of the Bergman movies. Her accent is slight, partly because she studied English in school and partly because the 33-year-old Norwegian actress spent a few of her formative years away from home.

Liv was born in Tokyo, where her father was working as an engineer. “When the Second World War came, my father took us to Canada for two or three years, but then he developed tumors and we had to come to New York, because the hospitals were all here. I know that we had many addresses during those years, so I think we must have been quite poor. It’s strange, but my mother never told me about that period and my memory is so very poor that I don’t remember anything except the Statue of Liberty. My father died in New York, and my mother and I were on one of the first boats to go back over the Atlantic after the war.”

They settled in the tiny Norwegian village of Trondhage, where Liv, who was sometimes bothered by a feeling of not belonging, soon decided that where she really belonged was on the stage. After high school, she hastily joined a provincial theater group, and three years later she shuffled off to Oslo, home of the government-subsidized National and Norwegian Theaters. “It’s odd – one of the reasons I went into the theater was that I truly thought I might be a very good comedienne. Yet, in all my years on the stage, I have played only serious roles-Shakespeare, Ibsen, Brecht, ‘Saint Joan.’”

Even though there was no time for comedy on stage, Liv did manage to lead a reasonably joyful life off stage with Gappe Stang, a psychiatrist whom she married shortly after her twentieth birthday. A psychiatrist whom she did not meet on the couch. “I have never been in therapy,” Liv insists. “Nor have I ever regarded acting as therapy. Acting is art, and it is also fun, one of the few things from childhood that you can take into the adult world with you. The people I know who are in analysis tend to think only of themselves. Before they are able to laugh, they must first know the meaning of the thing that is making them want to laugh.”

Had it not been for a chance encounter in Sweden several years ago, it is conceivable that Liv might still be the happily un-analyzed Mrs. Gappe Stang. “I was walking down the street in Stockholm with my friend Bibi Andersson when we happened to run into a friend of hers – Ingmar Bergman. I had already been in Swedish and Norwegian films, and he said he knew my work and would like to make a film with me one day. ‘Ha!’ I thought to myself. ‘How glib he is!’

“But some months later, he contacted me in Norway, saying he was writing a script with a part in it for me. It was ‘Persona,’ with Bibi Andersson. Since I considered him the best director in the world, I was very honored to be the first non-Swedish actor in a Bergman movie. But I was also terribly shy, so for the whole first part of the film, I couldn’t say a word. Luckily, I was playing a mute. Every time Ingmar talked to me, I blushed and panicked. But, because he is a great artist, and greatly interested in people, I slowly started to speak. And Ingmar and I had five fine years together.”

When Liv talks about those five years with Bergman, it’s not just movie talk. “We fell in love and we lived together. Ingmar divorced his wife and I left my husband. Sweden is very free, so I was not afraid of the scandal there, but Norway is a prude country. I had been a married woman and I belonged to a family where even the theater was not altogether acceptable.”

Some of the most conspicuous critics of Liv’s alliance with Bergman were also fervent churchgoers. “Norway has a Protestant government. You must be Protestant unless you file a paper saying you want to be something else. I believe in God, not churches. I go to church for weddings some times, but I always feel the religious people that talk for God on earth do not quote him right. Religion should be an act of love, an alternative to politics. But there is no love spoken in the church, at least not in the Protestant church.

“It was very difficult for me,” Liv continues, putting on her dark glasses and sitting forward in her chair. “However, my mother was always fine about it, and I have also remained good friends with Gappe throughout everything. He married again last year. And when I went with Ingmar, Gappe’s mother wrote me a letter saying, ‘When you married my son, I got a daughter. I still have that daughter.’ She is a remarkable woman – my picture still hangs on her wall, along with those of her other sons’ wives. And each Christmas she makes presents and sends them to Linn.”

Linn is Liv’s 5-year-old daughter by Bergman, born almost a year before Liv’s divorce from Stang became final. “My happiest memory is that of my child being born. I had always been afraid of having a child. I always thought I would be so terribly scared when the time came. But that night in the hospital – looking through the window and seeing the result of myself and someone I loved – was an incredible privilege. Ingmar was just as happy as I. He and his daughter are very close friends and they are always so happy when they are together. When I have other men in the house, Linn will say to me after they have gone, ‘They are not so nice as my father.’”

Liv left Bergman a couple of years ago and last year he married again – for the fifth time. But even if Liv had remained with Bergman, they would not have married. “The only reason to get married is to ask for God’s blessing. I had done that once before, and I would feel silly doing it again. I am in love with somebody else now, but we are not thinking of marriage.”

During her almost-marriage to Bergman, the legendarily gloomy director was often surprisingly un-Bergmanesque. “Nobody is Garbo or Bergman at home; even if you are famous, there has to be a human self. As a private person, Ingmar is very happy and loving and verbal. We had our bad moments, of course – Ingmar is a complex man. But he is not a demon. I still find him quite lovable, but neither of us wants to resume our former relationship. I am very happy with Ingmar’s friendship.”

Liv is determined to resume her professional relationship with Bergman after her sojourn in Shangri-La. “With Ingmar, you have a man who sees everything. It isn’t that he talks so much to his actors – he feels you can talk a movie to pieces. It’s just that he really does have an understanding of what actors are trying to express. He always waits until you’ve done something and then he may say, ‘Why not give a little more?’ or ‘Try not giving so much.’ But he never pushes. He chooses his actors for what they have to give and then he takes it from them. He makes you feel that it is important to be an actor.”

What’s unimportant is trying to untangle the psychological knots that bind the master’s movies together. “There are no hidden meanings, no symbols. Those things are usually written in by the critics later. Ingmar wants to speak to the emotions. He writes out of his own torment and knowledge of people. If you know about people, you can follow his films. Only once did I have trouble – during the shooting of ‘The Hour of the Wolf.’ The woman I played follows her husband into madness and I did not know if some of the other people in the movie were supposed to be real or in my husband’s mind. I asked Ingmar, and he said, ‘Good. You don’t understand because she doesn’t understand.’ So in that movie my confusion was not acting, it was real.”

It is just possible that Liv’s participation in a Ross Hunter pastiche will also leave her in a state of confusion. On the other hand, it is more than likely to convert her into the sort of box-office commodity that Hollywood hastens to take to its heart.

“Oh, God, no! I’m not the type to become a Hollywood star. There are too many temptations that go with that way of life, and I don’t want to lose my own life for a fake life. I only want to work with the good directors, wherever they are.”

Liv looks forward to her “Lost Horizon” chores for director Charles Jarrott, whose “Anne of the Thousand Days” she greatly admired, and another director she’d gladly zip about the globe for is Fred Zinnemann. “I was working with Fred on ‘Man’s Fate’ two years ago in London. In the middle of the third week of rehearsals, we got the word that some crazy man at Metro had decided the movie should not be made. We were all so depressed that we fell to pieces. Only Fred remained calm. ‘If they are going to be unartistic,’ he said, ‘we will be artistic.’ And for three days, we all worked quite professionally on a picture we knew would never be made, and at the end of the week Fred gave a cocktail party. I can still remember him on the set, attending to some small detail, making sure that everything was in its proper place. I only wish that smiling rattlesnake at Metro had been able to see a real artist at work.”

Perhaps Liv will make a movie with Zinnemann one day, but in the meantime she finds herself faced with “Lost Horizon,” with its awesome opportunities for fame and fortune – and fiasco. Any fears that she will repeat the Hollywood blunders of such brilliant Bergmanites as Ingrid Thulin, Max Von Sydow and Bibi Andersson?

“That might happen to me in ‘Lost Horizon,’ since I will have to sing and dance, neither of which I can do.” Liv removes her dark glasses, puts a tentative hand to her bruised cheek and smiles. It’s the smile of a girl who knows she can go home again.


Click here to read Guy's interviews with other major directors, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Martin Scorsese, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Billy Wilder, Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Frank Capra, Dorothy Arzner, Bernardo Bertolucci, Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Lars Von Trier, Vittorio De Sica, Dennis Hopper, Luchino Visconti, Joseph Losey, Clint Eastwood, Ken Russell, Clarence Brown, Fred Zinnemann and Raoul Walsh.