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A hymn to Saint Ingrid

Notorious: A Biography, by Donald Spoto, HarperCollins 474pp, £19.99 in UK

Notorious: A Biography, by Donald Spoto, HarperCollins 474pp, £19.99 in UK

She was as wholesome as fresh buttermilk. When filming, she wore make-up, but only because her complexion turned red under the studio lights. Describing her, the critic Bosley Crowther moved into the higher realms of gush with "Picture the sweetheart of a Viking, freshly scrubbed with Ivory soap, eating peaches and cream on the first warm day of Spring atop a sea-scarred cliff . . ." Cor. When David O. Selznick brought her to America to repeat her role in a remake of the Swedish Ivory-soap-opera, Intermezzo, he exploited her "natural" look. She could even boast a life-style that went with the image. Her husband, Petter Lindstrom, was a dentist - when he later branched out into neurosurgery, only Joan Blondell dared to be irreverent by suggesting: "Maybe his drill slipped." He became Ingrid's manager and agent; he was humourless, formal, a know-it-all and paternally frugal with both cash and praise. She asked his permission to buy an ice-cream, and, if he gave it, she then asked for the money. One does not need to be Sigmund Freud to guess that she was looking for the father who died when she was not yet 14.

Acting was her life, and the outside world mattered hardly at all. Her mother, who died a year after her father, had been German, and when the apolitical Ingrid went to visit her Aunt Mutti near Hamburg, she cheerfully responded to Nazi salutes and chanted "Heil Hitler!" Her well-scrubbed Nordic persona impressed even Swedish audiences; and a talent scout brought her to America, to be followed by Petter Lindstrom and their infant daughter Pia. With her first Hollywood film she became Saint Ingrid.

Her biographer, the incorrigible Donald Spoto, is too intent on committing syntactical atrocities ("Now this was very close to frank paranoia") to explore the wider implications of Bergman's fall from grace. It is impossible at this remove to grasp how utterly the film-going public - or, to be honest, the world at large - accepted a star's on-screen persona as no less than the real self. "Was that cannon fire or is it my heart pounding?" Bergman's Ilsa asks Bogart in Casablanca, and only a cad would emit a raspberry.

Press agents did their damnedest as well, feeding the columnists and the fan magazines a diet of chocolate-coated fictions. Meanwhile, in Bergman's case, Selznick hired her out to other studios for enormous sums, most of which he himself pocketed. She was a nun in The Bells of Saint Mary's, a victimised wife in both Rage in Heaven and Gaslight, and of course she starred in St. Joan, which should have been burned at the stake. When her virtue was questionable, as in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Hitchcock's Notorious, she was necessarily more sinned against than sinning.

Probably she had an affair with Gary Cooper, who was her co-star in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Saratoga Trunk. He was to say: "No one loved me more than Ingrid Bergman, but the day after filming concluded, I couldn't even get her on the phone." Donald Spoto rejects this out of hand - his Bergman-worship is unwavering and expressed with such an uncritical sweetness of tone that one wonders if, on his days off, he could possibly be Barbara Cartland. The public image of Bergman was that she was a non-smoker, non-drinker and non-bonker. She indulged in all three - the first with ultimately tragic results. As for the bonking, there was an early liaison with the director Victor Fleming. Later, "starved for affection" (Mr Spoto's synonym for randiness), she had simultaneous affairs with the ill-fated war photographer, Robert Capa, and the musician, Larry Adler. Passion was soon spent; understandably, neither man wanted to end up as a mere "Mr Bergman".

In due time, the affair with Victor Fleming flared up again. Petter Lindstrom was asked by the author as to why, knowing of his wife's bed-hopping, he had not sued for divorce. His reply was gob-smackingly honest. "I lived with that," he said, "because of her income."

In 1948, Bergman saw Robert Rossellini's Paisa. She was captivated and sent the director a letter: "If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only `ti amo', I am ready to come and make a film with you." Within a year, she had left her husband and her ten-year-old daughter and was living with Rossellini. It was astonishingly courageous, wicked or foolhardy, depending on where one sat.

For Bergman to walk out on her "perfect" marriage was in itself a scandal; that in so doing she virtually abandoned her only child was deemed monstrous; that she had deserted America and taken up with a philandering Italian was downright perverted; and that - as happened - she quickly became pregnant by the Eyetie was a slap in the face of American motherhood . . . More than five million US clubwomen voted to boycott Bergman's films. She was denounced from the floor of the American Senate. The Boston Pilot proclaimed: "The Devil himself is at work," and one cannot sink lower than to be disapproved of in Boston.

Ironically, the few films she made with Rossellini were all pretentious bosh and as barren as the slopes of Stromboli, where the first of them was set. It soon became clear that his much-acclaimed genius was no substitute for the possession of even a modest talent; and, as a lover and eventual husband, he was jealous, abusive and determined that she should work only for him. Seven years, a second divorce and three children later, the American public decided that while forgiveness might not be as much fun as censure, it was the only game in town. For her comeback film, Anastasia, Bergman won her second Oscar, and there was a third still to come. Her career was again off and running, but it was as if an age of innocence - or, certainly, of belief - had been swept away. There was to be no more Hollywood sainthood. Soon, in fact, there would be no more Hollywood.

For Bergman, there was to be a third marriage, to the impresario Lars Schmidt, but, as ever, her career came first and there was a divorce. She appeared in stage plays by O'Neill, Turgenev and Maugham - John Gielgud was to say, dropping yet another of his infamous bricks: "She can speak six languages, but can't act in any of them."

In 1974, she underwent a mastectomy. The cancer returned, and she fought it for eight years, still working and without complaint, until she died on her 67th birthday. "There, you see," she said cheerfully, "I've made another year!" She had not been bitter either when, in the world's eyes, she had attained a new nadir in wickedness. One might say that, in the end, she had become Saint Ingrid, unbeknownst.

Hugh Leonard is a playwright