Reading a celebrity memoir, one is naturally curious about how that person became famous. If the book isn’t well-written, everything comes across as cliché. If it lingers too long in the time before success, the reader gets impatient to get to “their big break.” Reading about a celebrity who isn’t well known to you, you’re either bored, or looking for clues to solve a mystery: what makes this person special? Liv Ullmann, the author of Changing, was one of director Ingmar Bergman’s leading ladies and the mother of one of his children. I’ve seen only a few of her films. Things about Changing perplexed me, but I was never bored.
First published in Norway as Forandringen, Changing was translated into English by the author “with help from Gerry Bothmer and Erik Friis.” The book follows a circuitous route from Ullmann’s childhood in Norway and early stage success to her films in Hollywood in the early seventies at the peak of her international career. Her work (and relationship) with Bergman made her a star.
Maybe because she’s a trained actress, Ullmann is finely attuned to scenes. She was young, only six, when her father died. “The void Papa’s death left in me became a kind of cavity into which later experiences were to be laid.” She remembers a man who “was tall and wore a brown leather jacket and said nothing, but with our hands, we made secret squeezing signals to each other.”
These details are important to her and appear elsewhere. Bergman, the father of their daughter, Linn, is depicted wearing a brown leather jacket, and this is how Ullmann describes the feeling of security in a relationship: “[s]he holds his hand while he reads, and she feels a tranquility because everything is ordinary…she…knows that the hand resting in hers will soon give it a quick hard squeeze to show that she exists for him.”
Life on the stage is celebrated as a communion. “[The audience’s] breathing and their laughter and their stirrings are part of our experience of them. Now and then a chord is struck, we are one. The auditorium is still and the stage alive.” Ullmann also takes the reader behind the scenes on the sets of her films to show her development as an actress. “A few years ago I could not have played [a difficult scene]. I would have tried to do too much, complicated it, been tense and nervous. Now I joke in the breaks and resume my concentration with the other when Ingmar says, ‘Action!’”
Where Changing falters is in its structuring. Divided into four parts—“Norway,” “Islanders,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and “Masks”—we get sketches of different parts of her life: early childhood; life with Bergman; motherhood; life in Hollywood. It darts back and forth between a frenzied present and a languid past. The last section is a recreation of a diary. This gives us a sense of Ullmann’s day-to-day, but it’s hardly artful in its conceit or construction.
An author’s note in the beginning informs the reader that Ullmann sometimes refers to people by name, sometimes not; “[s]ometimes people will appear with a name one time and without the next.” It’s confusing.
Ullmann often writes like she’s giving stage directions:“Nothing is changed. Even the furniture is arranged as before.” There are no long paragraphs, no ruminations. But the writing never feels trite or glib. A person of sensitivity and feeling wrote this. There were times when I found myself thinking, “This is what Bergman saw in her.” Trying to decipher what appealed to him is something Ullman does in their relationship—“My security became living the way he wished. For only then was he secure.”—and I found myself doing it, too.
Changing isn’t a celebrity “tell-all.” Ullmann is circumspect about her relationship with Bergman. She isn’t clear about the timing, but it seems she left her husband for him. Years later, at a 40th birthday party for that ex-husband, Ullmann resents having “been placed almost at the foot of the table.” But it’s not because she feels she deserves better, but that their relationship should have been better honored. “He was a human being with whom I lived for a long time, yet it was as if we never had time to get to know one another.” Poignantly she elsewhere reflects, “I can never be so young again with anyone else.” Underneath what she’s written is a palimpsest of apology and regret.
Bergman was involved with many of his actresses. One of them, Bibi Andersson, “had a premonition of what would happen” with Ullmann’s relationship with Bergman. Ullmann “looked at [Bibi] from the distant heaven where I resided in my capacity as the first woman on earth who loved and was loved.” Ullmann would live with Bergman on Fårö, an island that “lies between Russian and Sweden” with “gnarled spruce trees of strange green colors, most of them stunted and bent along the ground.” For Bergman, the isolation is paradise. Ullmann “could not remember having seen a place so barren.”
In hindsight, Ullmann recognizes that life with Bergman was a kind of trap. Even after they’ve split, she tries not to “[d]o anything so as not to give him a cause to criticize me—and thereby give him every reason.”
“Women’s lib” was a burgeoning issue at the time, and Ullmann, in response to press questions, tries “to put into words why I believe that all division of people into groups just increases our difficulties. Makes it harder for us to understand one another.” She puts in a bid for equal pay for equal work: “In discussing my salary, I have asked for the same as a male colleague. Though we have been with the theatre the same number of years, I am told that he must have more than me because he supports a family.”
Much of the book is about the demands of being a single, working mother. Changing is dedicated to Ullmann and Bergman’s daughter Linn and their scenes together are vivid. Tucking Linn in for night, Ullmann “must say the prayers. The last time [Linn] did it herself she called upon God in a high childish voice. And then with a mounting impatience: ‘Go-o-o-d!’ Disappointed, she looked at me as if it were my fault, and said, ‘He does not answer!’”
The title Changing might relate not only to Ullmann’s person, and life, but to the world at large. At one point working on set, Bergman and Ullmann reminisce about their childhoods. “The evenings were darker—another kind of dark than we have now, diffused by advertisements and shop windows.” Ullmann remarks that “[t]he pictures on the walls carried with them such strong suggestions for me that I took them with me into life as an experience…Now the world batters my daughter daily with live pictures on television.” At one point, Ullmann reminds her daughter, “when I was little we didn’t have television. She looks at me with pity and I become old right before her eyes.”
Throughout the book is the sinister feeling that technology is encroaching and changing lives for the worst. Ullmann relates something [performer] Victor Borge once said: “that he loved to be onstage because there no telephone could reach him.” Is it the progression of Ullmann’s career, the price of fame, or the changing times that causes her to feel harried and confused? “The difficulty was the struggle against everything around me: certain books, television programs, films, newspapers—the mass media shouting every day what a happy person should consist of, promising the gigantic, the triumphant.”
Many of Ullmann’s feelings are seen through the lens of a character she played many times in her career: Nora, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Ullmann reflects on the play’s message—about an underestimated woman who turns her back on her marriage to discover who she is as a person—as it relates to her own life. “[A] husband is a sort of alibi for a woman. Never mind what it looks like behind the scenes.”
“Books,” Ullmann writes, “have always been living things to me. Some of my encounters with new authors have changed my life a little. When I have been perplexed, looking for something I could not define to myself, a certain book has turned up, approached as a friend would. And between its covers carried the questions and the answers I was looking for.” Changing isn’t available at the Brooklyn Public Library, but it turned up there, with a discount sticker on its face, bought secondhand and abandoned on one of the small counters where patrons check out book themselves. I’m glad it found me.
Changing, Liv Ullmann, Knopf, First American Edition, 1977, 244 pp.