Just watched Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata again (with Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann) for the first time in decades. There are things in it that drive me crazy. The characters explain stuff endlessly in the past tense, and that’s usually enough to send me over the edge. But Bergman and Ullman are extraordinary, particularly in reaction shots, and there is one brilliant scene. Ullmann (playing Bergman’s daughter) sits at the piano and plays a bit of Chopin. Her mother, a world-famous concert pianist, gives her a nice compliment, and then sits down to analyze the piece and then plays it herself with the mastery of a mature artist, not realizing she is devastating her daughter. And right there you see how a great artist can be a woeful human being.
Reminds me a bit of The Sea Gull. Arkadina is probably a great actor but she is a dreadful mother to Treplev. Treplev has a pure soul, but he never breaks through self-indulgence to be a decent artist. Nina has another pure soul, but reports we trust of her attempts at acting suggest that she isn’t there yet, and when we see her in the last act she looks as if she’s cracking up. Trigorin is a selfish schmuck, but he’s a good enough writer to have stimulated something in Nina’s young heart. Just a reminder (like we need one) that people kissed with great talent are not necessarily talented at being human beings.
Watching the film reminded me that I spent a day with Liv Ullmann once. In 1979, a friend of mine was trying to start a regional company called the Main Street Theater in White Plains. His then-wife was assisting Ullmann when she was in New York acting in Anna Christie on Broadway with John Lithgow. Ullmann offered to perform in a benefit in support of the new company. She wanted to attempt Shakespeare in English and she wanted to play with Lithgow. My friend asked me if I would propose Shakespeare cuttings for them. The evening was called On Such a Night as This, and there was a champagne reception after the show. I don’t remember all that I suggested, but I do remember I thought they should start easy with the proposal scene from Henry V, so Liv could start with broken English. Did they do the courtship scene from Shrew? Maybe. Just to give myself a challenge, I also put together a fifteen-minute piece of the history of a relationship made up of lines pulled from all over Shakespeare. Liv apparently liked the piece but thought it was too big an undertaking for a benefit. I think Lithgow suggested Jill Eikenberry do that chunk with him, and I remember they did it well. (Jill later did my play Porch off-Broadway and the radio version of With and Without for LA Theaterworks. For awhile, we tried to put up a production of her in my play Stay Till Morning with Marshall Mason directing, but nothing came of it.) Except for thinking that Liv was very pleasant to everyone, I have no other memories of the day. I believe the benefit sold well and the theater opened to do one production, a revival of The Subject Was Roses. And then it closed.
Later I discovered that Lithgow and Ullmann were having a big affair that ended his marriage. (He apparently writes about it in his memoir, which I still have to read.) I was clueless. I didn’t see it. Every now and then, I run into Lithgow on the street and he smiles at me with recognition, but I can tell he can’t remember from what or where, and I think it easier not to remind him.