I know I've lived in southern California too long when the natural aging process starts to seem like an abnormality. I just watched the newly released DVD of Ingmar Bergman's Saraband. It's a sequel of sorts to his great 1973 film Scenes from a Marriage and it is so expertly acted, so true and raw, and so deliciously counter to anything available in American mainstream films that you'd be crazy not to chuck the Oscar nominees that are vying for attention right now in the theatres and curl up at home with this movie and a bowl of Swedish lingonberries. My eyes had already welled up with tears five minutes into the film as I watched Liv Ullmann's Marianne encounter ex-husband Johan for the first time in 30 years. I think that 86-year-old Bergman's supposedly final film (he's been calling every film that since 1982's Fanny and Alexander) is one of his best--but what I really want to talk about is Liv Ullmann's hauntingly beautiful face.
I'm not talking about beauty by traditional Hollywood standards. If given the chance, the Powers That Be in this town would surely opt for a Soylent Green-like scenario where all women were euthanized on their 34th birthdays and their cremains used to fertilize the feng-shuied gardens of Beverly Hills. Then for the under 30 crowd, teams of Dr. Mengele-inspired radio talk show hosts would stand at the gates of the major studios and separate the would-be starlets into two lines, with only the women exhibiting botoxed brows, proper saline implants, and bas-relief ribcages allowed entry.
I have always loved Liv Ullmann and of course I always thought she was extremely beautiful--who didn't? But seeing her in Saraband at the age of 66, I could not tear my eyes away. How sick is it that I'm so used to actresses d'un certain âge doing anything in their power to look younger than their years that seeing Liv Ullmann's lined face and aging skin nearly took my breath away? So that's what it looks like!
Oh, how grateful I am that this brilliant actress has never gone under the knife and transformed herself into one of those taut-skinned wrinkle-free cat-eyed robots with tattooed lip liner, teeth as unnaturally white as her patent leather Manolo Blahniks, and casaba melons stuffed down her Danskin. Even when Liv Ullmann was considered a Hot Babe in Hollywood, she fought with her handlers over her image. One of the first things I ever purchased with my own money when I started working in college was Ullmann's superb memoir, Changing. I can still see my proud green-inked inscription on the inside front cover: "Danny Miller, March 22, 1977." I had never read a celebrity autobiography that was so honest and soul-searching. Ullmann wrote about her early experiences in Los Angeles:
My bathroom was the size of an ordinary Oslo apartment. It was so grand that the toilet was built like a throne so that one should never feel confused about being a film star when nature called. "You must cut your hair," said one producer. "No!" "I'll make you the biggest star if you'll just dress a little differently." "I'm used to dressing this way." "Perhaps you should wear some more make-up. Send the beauty parlor bill to me." "Certainly not!"
It's no wonder Ullmann's promising Hollywood career tanked. She made duds like the shockingly bad musical Lost Horizon that was shot on recycled sets from Camelot and did so poorly at the box office it was nicknamed "Lost Investment," and the drab Forty Carats which featured the tagline, "She's engaged...to a YOUNGER MAN!" Good God, Liv Ullmann was already reduced to Frustrated Older Woman in 1973--at the ripe old age of 35! Why should we be surprised that she hightailed it out of Beverly Hills and straight back to Europe where people were allowed to get older without feeling as if they were committing a heinous crime?
Liv Ullmann appeared on this Time magazine cover during her brief reign as America's Norwegian Hottie. But I truly believe she is more beautiful now than she was during her smooth-skinned Henry Kissinger-dating days. Not that there's anything wrong with youthful beauty, but don't you agree that the lines and textures on Liv Ullmann's face today allow for greater expression as an actress and a person than the blank slate of her once-perfect complexion? Am I guilty of reverse prejudice here? I just know that if I were given a choice of spending time with an actress I'd vastly prefer Liv Ullmann to Liv Tyler. Keep your Maggie Gyllenhaal and give me Maggie Smith. Katie Holmes, please send in the ghost of Katie Hepburn on your way out. It's not that I have some kind of wrinkle fetish (well, I DO think wrinkles around the eyes and mouths of women are extremely sexy even though my wife never seems that pleased when I point hers out!), it's just that I find the combination of a lived-in face and body and a lifetime of experiences so much more appealing. Did I mention that in Saraband Liv Ullmann and 82-year-old Erland Josephson who plays Johan have a nude scene together? In American films even Liv Tyler is getting too old to appear nude.
There's another great benefit of seeing surgery-free older actors in films. Even though as a man I'm given much greater leeway by the ageist standards of our society to get older without being the subject of ridicule and disdain, I still find myself occasionally greeting my reflection in the mirror with shock and horror. Who the hell is that overweight bald guy and what has he done with the 23-year-old version of myself I still think should be there? It's only when I see people like Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson that I realize how few images we ever get in the media of people over 45. After watching this film I actually felt better about myself when I looked in the mirror. Oh, look, my body is aging...less hair, thicker all over, some skin discolorations here and there...how interesting! I believe that our country's obsession with youth is screwing all of us up, even those of us who aren't suffering from rampant Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
Having escaped from the trap of Hollywood that would have spit her out long ago, Liv Ullmann's career is only getting better and better. Apart from her role as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and Vice President of the International Rescue Committee, Ullmann has now directed four excellent films and is working on a new version of Ibsen's A Doll's House (which she played on Broadway 30 years ago) in which she will direct Kate Winslet as Nora and John Cusack as Torvald. A few weeks ago, she was decorated by King Harald of Norway who named her Commander with Star of the Royal St. Olav's Order "for her versatility and her willingness and courage to take on new tasks."
Through it all, Liv Ullmann has never been afraid to show her real self. Whether it's talking about her fears about how she raised the now 36-year-old daughter she had with Ingmar Bergman, her famous inability to make small talk, or her complete lack of interest in camouflaging her age, she is someone whose imperfections create a much richer persona than the typical Movie Star. Talking about her long career, Liv Ullmann recently remarked:
"The best thing that comes with success is the knowledge that it is nothing to long for."