In the 1970s, the celebrated Scandinavian star of such seminal movies as Persona, Cries and Whispers and The Emigrants was appearing on Broadway in a production of Anna Christie when she had a close encounter with the most famous actress ever to play the role: Greta Garbo. The reclusive Swedish actress-turned-Hollywood legend had been out of the public eye since her retirement in the ’40s, but Ullmann recognized her immediately when she spotted a then-76-year-old Garbo on the streets of Manhattan by Central Park.
Ullmann has plenty of her own famous fans, including Oscar winners Cate Blanchett and Jessica Chastain, who are among the actors interviewed in A Road Less Travelled. The three-part series captures different facets of Ullmann’s storied career, including her work in front of and behind the camera, her long personal and professional relationship with Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman and her role as a humanitarian for refugee-related causes.
Reflecting on her journey now, Ullmann says that she was “lucky” to begin her career at a time when actresses weren’t pressured to put their artistic dreams on hold for the tangible commercial rewards that come with appearing in a Marvel movie or a Star Wars streaming series. “I couldn’t have survived today, because I like quietness,” she admits. “It’s so much more difficult for actresses now.”
As Ullmann acknowledges in the series, her history with Bergman is what tends to dominate discussion of her life. She and the filmmaker made ten movies together between 1966 and 2003, and also had a five year romance during which time she gave birth to their daughter, Linn Ullmann. Because Bergman — who died in 2007 — tended to be reclusive, Ullmann often became the conduit through which the director’s admirers tried to reach him or, failing that, understand him.
Case in point: Woody Allen. The Annie Hall writer/director has never hid his admiration for Bergman, having made several films — from comedies like Love and Death to dramas like Interiors — that specifically channel his idol’s works. While performing A Doll’s House on Broadway in 1975, Ullmann remembers Allen regularly extending dinner invitations to her, and one night she finally accepted.
Eager to continue the conversation about Bergman, Allen followed that dinner up with an invitation to an early screening of his latest film.
Allen also got to meet his idol thanks to Ullmann, who reveals that she facilitated their one and only meeting. “Ingmar was coming to New York to see A Doll’s House, and Woody said, ‘Can I meet him?’ Bergman was staying with his wife [Ingrid von Rosen] at the Pierre Hotel and after the matinee, Woody met me at the theater and we drove over to the hotel. We knocked on their door, the door opened and the two geniuses saw each other. And they were completely quiet!”
According to Ullmann, that silence continued at dinner as neither Allen nor Bergman seemed eager to discuss their work, lest they somehow disappoint each other. “Ingmar’s wife and I didn’t have a lot to say to each other, so we talked about cooking and other things,” she says, laughing. “But the two of them only sat there — it was two masters trying not to give away that maybe they weren’t such big masters.”
Despite the silent treatment, both Allen and Bergman profusely thanked Ullmann for bringing them together — making possible the kind of fan encounter that she wasn’t able to enjoy with Greta Garbo.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of what’s arguably Ullmann and Bergman’s most impactful work, Scenes From a Marriage, a searing portrait of one couple’s conscious uncoupling. Originally made as a six episode series for Swedish television, the story was condensed into a feature film version that became a sensation in American movie theaters — inspiring such future works as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and an HBO remake starring Oscar Isaac and Chastain.
While it’s tempting for viewers to watch Scenes From a Marriage through the prism of how things ended between Ullmann and Bergman, she’s quick to say that there’s no overlap between that relationship and the one she has on-screen with co-star, Erland Josephson. “Maybe it was in ways that I don’t understand,” she says.