R.I.P. Bibi Andersson

From David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film : Expanded and Updated , the entry on Bibi Andersson:

“She needed such a holiday to prepare for one of the most harrowing female roles the screen has presented: Nurse Alma in Persona (66, Bergman). That this masterpiece owed so much to Bibi Andersson was acknowledgement of her greater emotional experience. She was thirty now, and in that astonishing scene where Liv Ullmann and she look into the camera as if it were a mirror, and Ullmann arranges Andersson’s hair, it is as if Bergman were saying, ‘Look what time has done. Look what a creature this is.’ Alma talks throughout Persona but is never answered, so that her own insecurity and instability grow. Technically the part calls for domination of timing, speech, and movement that exposes the chasms in the soul. And it was in showing that breakdown, in reliving Alma’s experience of the orgy on the beach years before, in deliberately leaving glass on the gravel, and in realizing with awe and panic that she is only another character for the supposedly sick actress, that Andersson herself seemed one of the most tormented women in cinema.”

Indeed. I saw the movie in college when I was studying acting and felt a kind of swoon of despair/anxiety/desire: it’s like you’re shown “the bar” which others have set in the field you’ve chosen for yourself. And you may never be that good, but at least you recognize what there is to strive for. That’s what Bibi in Persona did, in particular her drunken monologue which remains, for me, one of the greatest single pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.

But there is so much more to her career than just Persona. She did 10 movies in total with Ingmar Bergman, and had a rich career elsewhere (although it is through those films with Bergman that she will be remembered: Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Persona being the most famous, but there’s also The Passion of Anna, The Magician, The Devil’s Eye, Brink of Life … God, this collaboration. (Here’s a piece I wrote about Bergman’s work last year.)

It was my great honor to write and narrate a video-essay last year for The Criterion Collection about Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann’s collaboration – both separately and together – for Bergman: Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, Sisters in the Art

She’s one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. I was so in awe of her as a teenager after Persona that I stayed far far away from that film for some time. I needed courage in my own pursuit of acting, I needed to find my own way and her example was too daunting, too intimidating. (I had a similar thing with Gena Rowlands. The fact that, so many years, later, I would pay tribute to both Rowlands and Andersson at the Criterion Collection, having completely found another path for myself, hacking it out of NOTHING all by myself … is a beautiful and strange dovetail, and I don’t quite know what to make of it.)

Bibi Andersson was flat out on another level, and I recognized it instantly. It may be a level very few actors reach … but at least you know it’s out there, at least you know the bar has been set.

This entry was posted in Actors, Movies, RIP and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to R.I.P. Bibi Andersson

  1. Thanks for this. As a result, I took another look at One Time at the Beach (because how could you not) and was struck by a couple of comments (youtube). Most of them were of course positive, but two talked about “intellectual porn” and how ineffective it is compared to the “joy” of actual porn. Are we living on different planets, or is this likely to be a male/female thing, or what? I dunno, but I flash back to a time many years ago when a bunch of us were watching some silly porn and the women started fast-forwarding through the action to get to the dialogue and the men were just gobsmacked, as in, Why do you care what they’re saying???

  2. Zoetrópio Zoroastro says:

    Dear Sheila

    Probably I should start asking you to forgive me if (no, most certainly when) I commit some horrible mistakes writing in english. I’m a Brazilian writing from Brazil, and though I’m in the habit of reading in english, and even if I’m very capable of and used to watching films and hearing songs without the aid of subtitles or printed lyrics, well, writing and talking are both in an entirely different level of mastering a language.
    This being said, I wanted to write you only to say that your reamrks about Bibi and Liv Ullman on Criterion’s site, wich I’ve seen after reading this post, are really quite remarkable. I don’t agree with you entirely, here and there, but that’s of no importance at all. You have a voice of your own, and a head to provide great content to this voice.
    I’ve been reading you from time to time since I don’t know when – but for a long time now, and since the beggining was impressed by your texts. Thought of writing many times before, but lazyness and shyness prevented me from doing so.
    Today I thought I could use Bibi’s death as an excuse, because she was, is, will allways be, an important character in my imagination too. Bergman helps me to see great part of who I am, and of course his actors are an inescapable part of this process. Love them all. With perhaps a slight preference for Harriet Andersson and Max von Sydow.
    Again Bibi. I remember a scene of a film you didn’t mention, “The Touch”, probably a minor Bergman (I don’t see it in years, it only became available in DVD recently here, and my VHS copy is old and wrinkled, poor thing), a scene in wich she and Eliot Gould (by the way, just declaring something that should be even more obvious, what a great actor he is) have sex for the first time. I remember seeing it when in my 15’s or 16’s, and I remeber finding it so unbearably touching (no pun) while almost unbearable to watch, because it seemed such an invasion of a real moment happening to real people. I don’t know if the scene would bear a comparison to my memory of it, but it stayed with me.
    Anyway, I’m not an actor (I’m an once book seller now turned into would be artisan), don’t have your training and specialized knoledge of the subject. But we share the compulsive love of books and films. And by the way, actors.
    Think that’s all. Trying to restrain. Tend to exagerate and talk with no end or pause. My wife calls me Camille (as in Paglia). Keep rocking. Greetings from a distant admirer.

    • sheila says:

      This is such a wonderful comment – thank you so much! I love that your wife calls you “Camille” – that’s so funny.

      Thank you so much for your kind words on my work. I truly appreciate it.

      // ecause it seemed such an invasion of a real moment happening to real people. //

      I know just what you mean. and Bibi and Elliott together is a dream. You’re right, he is such a good actor!

      The tributes to Bibi coming from all over the world has been intensely moving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.