Volume 73, Number 37 | January 14 - 20, 2004


Walking with Ingrid Thulin in Greenwich Village


The films of Ingmar Bergman struck upon us like lightning out of an unknown sky — reality-based symbolism, a fierce white light of clarity in the darkness — with “The Seventh Seal,” at the Eighth Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village in 1958.

Max von Sydow as the tall, lean, super-sculpted, high-intensity Knight, a serious Don Quixote; Gunnar Bjornstrand as his terse, stoic Sancho Panza; Bengt Ekerot as Death, the cryptic master chess player; and counterbalancing these three, a cherry-ripe seductive laughing girl played by an unknown young actress named Bibi Andersson — well, they were all unknown to us until that film made them never to be unknown again.

The next year, 1959, there arrived another Bergman film, the stunning “Wild Strawberries,” in which Bibi Andersson again appeared, but now in counterbalance to an unknown actress of opposite and even more breathtaking desirability: tall, blonde, strong-boned, self-contained, rarely smiling . . . but when she did it would melt you and break your heart — or her own — simultaneously.

Her name, one learned from the credits, was Ingrid Thulin. In the film she plays the discontented, unfulfilled daughter-in-law of the ceremony-bound old scientist-professor honoree (an old-gold performance by Bergman’s cinematic mentor, director Victor Sjostrom) who in a sense is dreaming the entire movie we are watching. Max von Sydow is in it in a small but crucial supporting role.

That summer, or maybe the next — by which time we would have also seen Ingrid Thulin in two more Bergman films, “Brink of Life” and “The Magician” (opposite von Sydow) — the phone rang at my desk at The Village Voice. A motion-picture press representative said: “Ingrid Thulin is here in New York. She is anxious to see Greenwich Village. Would you care to show her around the Village one night next week?”

Well, in another context in these pages I’ve written about this before, so if you want to skip to the end, that’s O.K. The end is taken from Page B8 of last Friday’s issue of The New York Times.

I guess they brought her around to The Voice — which was then still in its first premises, a hovel one flight up at 22 Greenwich Avenue — two young publicity people, a man and a woman, “and here is Miss Thulin,” who smiled that melting, heartbreaking smile, held out her hand, and said, in English: “How do you do. Thank you for doing this.”

It was only later, in some modest Village eating place — I can’t remember which or where — I suddenly noticed that Ingrid Thulin, fully as beautiful in the flesh as on film, had the largest hands (though no less beautiful) I’d ever seen on a woman.

We sat in a booth. The young publicity man and woman discreetly sat two or three booths away. A bit later, out on the street, it was an exquisite summer night. Miss Thulin and I, still talking of this and that — mostly, I imagine, my asking questions about Ingmar Bergman and she supplying straightforward, unadorned answers — wandered slowly down Greenwich Avenue toward Eighth Street, the two publicity people trailing, marking time, half a block behind.

I remember saying I had lately read in one of the New York papers that Max von Sydow had been grabbed up by Hollywood and would presently be playing Jesus Christ in a motion picture called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

“Max?” said Ingrid Thulin, who evidently had not heard that news until that moment. “Max? As Jesus Christ?” And then she giggled. I do not know that Ingrid Thulin has ever actually been heard to giggle in any film she ever made, and certainly not in the prestigious cancer-ridden “Cries and Whispers.”

We walked on past the now no-longer-existent Women’s House of Detention on Sixth Avenue, and she wanted to hear all about it: Who were the prisoners, and why, and what for? As Ingrid Thulin stared up at its windows, I told her about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers standing across the street, where we were standing, to sing Christmas carols on a snowy night to the women behind those bars.

Heading for Washington Square to take in the folk singers, we crossed the avenue and started along Eighth Street toward the now likewise long-gone Eighth Street Playhouse where that Ingmar Bergman lightning had once struck on a dormant America. Suddenly, passing a window display, she stopped dead in her tracks.

It was Ted and Eli Wilentz’s Eighth Street Bookstore, in the days when bookstores were bookstores and this was one of the best, most relevant, in this city and nation. “Can we go in?” she said. Of course we could go in.

For 20 minutes or so she prowled the store, aisle after aisle, pulling down, glancing into, restoring to its shelf, one volume after another. Finally she plucked down, buried her nose in, turned page after page of a slim, small, stormy work by Norman Mailer — hardly more than a pamphlet, really — called “The White Negro.” She said she’d like to buy it.

God only knows why — sheer stupidity comes closest — her brilliant Greenwich Village escort went out of his way to choose that moment to ask: “Why would a Swedish movie actress be interested in what Norman Mailer has to say about Negroes?”

The white-gold Swedish movie actress looked her questioner up and down and in the eyes, and said, again in English: “But women are the Negro problem of the whole world, no?”

Dorothy Day would have agreed. Well, probably.

From page B8, the New York Times, Friday, January 9, 2004:

“STOCKHOLM, Jan. 8 (Agence France-Presse) — Ingrid Thulin, a leading actress in the films of Ingmar Bergman, including the classic ‘Wild Strawberries,’ died here on Wednesday at Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm . . . She was 77 and had lived in Rome since the 1960s, but returned to Sweden for medical treatment.

“The cause was cancer, the hospital told the news agency . . . .”

Eighth Street now is a wilderness of shoe stores and shlock. But that summer night, and that moment, lives on.

As you see, the brilliant escort has not forgotten it.


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