Liv Ullmann’s two years of living dangerously (in Hollywood)

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livEuropean film stars tend to stay in their home countries these days because it’s tough to find appropriate parts in Hollywood — for every Penelope Cruz there have been many, many Marthe Kellers.

I was reminded of one of the most disastrous — and unfortunate — crossover attempts when I watched a rather charming little 1974 Warner Brothers release, “Zandy’s Bride” (above), the other night.

The picture was the third of three movies the great Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann made in Hollywood in 1972 and 1973 after the studio bosses there assumed the magic of her performances in Ingmar Bergman pictures like “Persona” and “Shame” could add luster to their productions.

The Hollywood folk must have had visions of another Ingrid Bergman arriving in their midst, but all three pictures Ullmann made for the American market bombed at the box office.

“Zandy’s Bride” — which has just been released on DVD by Warner Archive — was easily the best of the trio, but it followed two mega-bombs, an expensive musical version of “Lost Horizon” (below) and a hideous film adaptation of a hit Broadway comedy, “40 Carats.”

Ullmann was such damaged goods by the time “Zandy’s Bride” came out that the star’s Hollywood heat disappeared, and she high-tailed it back to Scandinavia (where her global reputation would soar once again with the release of Ingmar Bergman’s “Face to Face” in 1976).

It’s impossible now to assign blame for this trans-Atlantic fiasco — we don’t know what Ullmann was offered or how she came to zero in on the three duds — but perhaps language issues were liv2involved. How could the star of “Cries and Whispers” say ‘yes’ to a big-budget musical when she could neither sing nor dance?

In the case of “Lost Horizon” Ullmann was subjected to the notorious “glamourizing” of producer of Ross Hunter, a process well described by Ken Anderson on his “Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For…” blog two years ago:

“If there’s such a thing as the opposite of ‘The Midas Touch’ then the late Ross Hunter certainly had it when it came to natural beauty. In ‘Airport,’ Hunter’s old-fashioned notion of glamour turned 32 year-old stunner Jean Seberg into a well-preserved matron, and in ‘Lost Horizon’ he works the same reverse alchemy on the luminous Liv Ullmann. The stiff, desexed, schoolmarm ‘Lost Horizon’ fashions her into bears no resemblance to the lovely, earthy actress in all those Ingmar Bergman films.”

“40 Carats” had been rejected by Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor before Ullmann came along and with good reason — it’s a stale May-December romance in which a 40-year-old woman fights her attraction to a 22-year-old. Ullmann was still in her mid-30s when she made the picture, so the “scandal” surrounding her affair with Edward Albert makes no sense.

A frothy concoction that worked on the stage four years earlier with Julie Harris became shrill and leaden (it would be neck and neck with “Mary, Mary” in a competition for the worst-ever film adaptation of a long-running Broadway hit). If only Ullmann had made “Zandy’s Bride” first she might have had a better time in Hollywood. Working with Gene Hackman and Swedish director Jan Troell, the actress is perfectly cast as the mail-order bride a farmer sends for in 19th century California.

Ullmann had worked with Troell on the great two-part historical epic, “The Emigrants” and “The New Land” a few years earlier, and their ease with each other is apparent in almost every scene.

The actress’ accent works in this role and we can see why the gruff Hackman eventually warms up to a woman he “ordered” primarily to take care of him and his house.

Before Ullmann’s stay in Hollywood was over the performer did become an indelible part of that industry’s history when she joined Roger Moore onstage at the 1973 Oscars and announced that the best actor Oscar was going to Marlon Brando for “The Godfather.”

Ullmann and Moore stood silently and with enigmatic looks on their faces as the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather shocked the Academy with her announcement that Brando was refusing the Oscar because of the way her people had been treated in Hollywood films.

It was a bizarre end to a great actress’ time as flavor of the month in Hollywood.

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Joe Meyers

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One Response

  1. Ken Anderson says:

    This post had me chuckling from the start. Mostly because I love Liv Ullmann, and because I’ve never been able to fathom why she fared so poorly in American films. Although it’s fun to read you give it to 40 Carats and Lost Horizon (thanks for the shout out, my friend!), I’m glad you singled out “Zandy’s Bride” as the flawed exception.
    Whenever I see Maggie Smith’s segment in “California Suite” I’m reminded of Ullmann describing her own first nightmarish Oscar night in her memoirs.
    As for Hollywood’s inability to use foreign talent well, I always mourn what little was done with the lovely Isabelle Adjani.
    I don’t need to keep saying this, but I get the most enjoyment out of your blog than any entertainment website out there.