“I looked like a bad girl. But I wasn’t a bad girl, really. I was a very nice little girl, until I found out what life was.”– Harriet Andersson

It’s her birthday today.

Ingmar Bergman wrote in Images: My Life in Film, “Harriet Andersson is one of cinema’s geniuses. You meet only a few of these rare, shimmering individuals.”

It’s difficult to talk about Harriet Andersson without hyperbole.

She herself said, “I’m not an intellectual artist. I go by feelings.” She never seems out of place. She can play broad farce. She can play naturalism. She can be adorable or tragic. She believed in her instincts and followed them without question. She is highly responsive to what Stanislavsky called “the given circumstances.”

She got her start as a teenager in theatre and revue. She made a bunch of films, catching the eye of Bergman who created Summer with Monika for her. It’s one of the best film debuts of all time. It made her a star.

The performance is full of details that linger: screaming at her siblings as she reaches for a cigarette, or casually splashing water between her legs when washing in the river, her vulnerability when her lover first sees her naked, or the way she chomps on the hunk of stolen meat. Her sexuality is unembarrassed (the title for the US release of the film Story of a Bad Girl is jarringly unfair — and eloquent about America’s prudery and misogyny). There’s a famous moment at the end of the film, when Monika, out with a new man, leans back and stares right into the camera, holding our gaze.

Bergman wrote: “Her relationship to the camera is straight and sensual.”

She is so assured in the role of Monika you might wonder if that’s all she could do. But in Sawdust and Tinsel, a period piece released the same year, she plays a sexually knowing married woman, and in A Lesson in Love released the following year, she plays a contemporary adolescent girl who wants to be a boy. The range could not be more dramatic. In her standout scene in A Lesson in Love, she sits in the grass with her father, played by frequent Bergman collaborator Gunnar Björnstrand, and they talk. It’s a long take, no cuts, and you forget you’re watching a movie.

Andersson tosses herself into the diverse contexts of all her different characters. In Dreams she plays fashion model Doris, an idealized object of desire. She is a clothes horse, drawn to mirrors. There are multiple scenes between Doris and Susanne, the magazine editor played by Eva Dahlbeck. The relationship is mercurial, fluctuating. Along with death, Bergman was obsessed with women. Watching Dahlbeck and Andersson together you can see why.

Smiles of a Summer Night brought everyone international fame. Andersson plays the maid, wiggling around as the embodiment of sexual possibility. She doesn’t vamp her sexuality. She doesn’t need to. Shame is not part of her makeup. Unlike some of Bergman’s other actresses, Andersson seems wholly “of this earth,” dirt under her fingernails, straw in her hair. She finds the fragility of men’s egos very funny. Bergman’s female characters are tough, even when broken. They are rarely sentimental. When Andersson romps with her lover in a haystack, she has a momentary flash of sadness at her apparent immunity to love. She’s a survivor, though.

It would be 6 years before Andersson worked with Bergman again, this time in Through a Glass Darkly, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

The characters she had played for Bergman up to this point were open to life, earthily sexual, responsive. He treasured these aspects in her, but for their next collaboration, he guided her – or, more likely, followed her – into an entirely different/new realm. She gives a truly great performance.

In Through a Glass Darkly, we first see her stalking along the shore, a hearty girl, casually referencing the series of shock treatments she recently endured. Her mental illness creeps up on her, chipping away at her stability. There are times when she is a truly unnerving presence, gyrating on the floor of the attic, or listening for the voices through the wallpaper. Over the course of the film, she rapidly deteriorates. Lost in her delusions, when she – famously – finally sees what God really is, her breakdown is so frightening I put my hands over my eyes the first time I saw it. Harriet Andersson goes where angels fear to tread.

She was part of the ensemble in Bergman’s high farce (if you can picture that) All These Women, parodying Bergman’s own life situation showing the shenanigans of a harem of women clustered around a Genius Man. Andersson plays a maid again, and out of all the women, her love for him is the purest. Lost in admiration of him, her hand gives away what’s really on her mind, as it moves up and down the spout of a watering can.

Through the mid-60s and 70s, Andersson worked continuously in films by other directors as well as onstage- primarily at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. 10 years after All These Women, she returned to the Bergman fold for the mighty Cries and Whispers, which won 3 Oscars, for Best Picture, Sven Nykvist for cinematography and Bergman for Best Director. Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann brought their considerable powers to bear in the film, but Harriet Andersson, as the dying Agnes, is the emotional center, the one whose illness – so palpable in her performance you can almost smell it – is the catalyst for all that follows. One of the most famous moments is when Agnes, exhausted from a coughing fit, lies in the lap of the bare-breasted Anna, family maid and possibly Agnes’ lover. This devastating Pieta is one of the few peaceful moments in the film.

10 years after Cries and Whispers, Bergman turned to Andersson again to play the small but important role of Justina, the scary humorless maid in Fanny and Alexander (it would be Bergman’s final feature). Surrounded by judgmental Lutherans, Justina crouches in the background, gloomy and watchful. She deliberately terrifies the children by telling them the tragic story of the people who lived in the house before. Sitting at the table, Andersson whispers the horrible details in a purposefully frightening manner. Bergman films it in one take which makes it even funnier.

Theirs was a fruitful collaboration, and they were lifelong friends. Bergman valued her highly, writing in The Magic Lantern: “She is an unusually strong but vulnerable person with a streak of brilliance in her gifts.” Andersson does not overthink acting or plan much beforehand. For her, the key is to “play in the Now.”

In every single role, in every single moment, she is in the Now. Very few actors can do that.

There’s a scene in Through a Glass Darkly where, lost in her delusions, she moves to the center of the attic and faces the camera. What then follows is a series of gestures and movements which cannot really be described.

Andersson doesn’t appear to be controlling any of it, and Bergman – who loved to be surprised by his actors – didn’t tell her what to do. The moment itself is in control, not the actress. She responds to her psyche’s deepest impulses, impulses even she isn’t aware of. That’s playing in the Now.

No wonder Bergman was in awe.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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2 Responses to “I looked like a bad girl. But I wasn’t a bad girl, really. I was a very nice little girl, until I found out what life was.”– Harriet Andersson

  1. regina bartkoff says:


    Great tribute to Harriet Andersson!
    In Fanny and Alexander Andersson picks at a wound on her hand that is in a bandage. The way she goes at it held me. I haven’t seen that movie in a long time but it’s what I remember most! It fascinated me and horrified me. It said everything about that crazy character. Summer with Monika. Her first movie and the first time I saw her. Heartbreaking! She can do anything.

    • sheila says:

      Regina – isn’t it incredible, how something so simple can just STICK in the brain? I love that.

      I agree – she can do anything. she can be this broad farcical humorous sexpot – and then …. she can do Through a Glass Darkly. and BOTH seem totally organic. she’s just so FREE.

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