2005 marks the centenary of the great Swedish actress Greta Garbo, whose legendary status among Hollywood icons is indisputable around the world. Ask almost anyone “Who is Sweden’s greatest contribution to Hollywood?” and the answer will likely be the beautiful and elusive Garbo. But although Garbo may have been the first Swede in Hollywood to utterly captivate the public’s imagination, she is hardly the last.
Greta Garbo, beautiful and mysterious, in "Marie Walewska" (1937). Photo: © Pressens Bild
For eight decades, in both obvious and not so obvious ways, Swedish talent has been lurking somewhere nearby that big Hollywood sign. Sure, Hollywood movies are probably America’s most beloved cultural export. Plenty of enthusiastic Swedes flock to their neighborhood bio on opening day of the latest Star Wars or Lord of the Rings installment. However, it’s both fun and enlightening to turn the equation around and, instead of looking at Hollywood’s popularity in Sweden, to take a look at the Swedish presence in Hollywood. And what better time to do it than during the Garbo centenary? From Garbo to Lena Olin, Swedish contributions have been formidable.
The one and only “Garbo”
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born in Stockholm in 1905 to working-class parents. At the age of 15, the young Greta found herself working in a department store, a job which eventually led to her appearance in several promotional films.
A few years later, while studying acting at the Royal Dramatic Theater School in Stockholm, Garbo auditioned for Mauritz Stiller, one of the great directors of the Swedish silent film era. He promptly cast her in his classic The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924), based on Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf’s novel of the same name.
The association with Stiller would change Garbo’s life — and legal name — forever. When he obtained a contract from MGM, Stiller insisted on a contract for Garbo as well. And so, mentor and rising star went off to Hollywood, and the rest is history.
By the time of her death in 1990, Garbo had made only 27 films, but they were enough to assure her mythical status in Hollywood history. There was the Garbo beauty, the Garbo mystery, the penetrating eyes, the low, throaty voice. She was notorious for her secrecy, but the more she avoided the press, the more her mystique seemed to grow in the public imagination. For the essential Hollywood Garbo, check out Anna Christie (1930), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935) and Camille (1936) and see if you can penetrate the mystery. For Garbo in an uncharacteristic comic mode, the classic Ninotchka (1939) is a must.
Ingrid Bergman: less mysterious but no less enthralling
In the 1940s, another Swedish actress gained prominence in Hollywood. Perhaps less mysterious than Garbo, but no less beautiful, equally talented (some would argue more), Ingrid Bergman came to Hollywood in her early 20s after making several Swedish films, including the 1936 Intermezzo. In fact, it was the 1939 Hollywood remake of that film that first brought Bergman to American shores, and she became an instant star.
Ingrid Bergman with Humphrey Bogart in the classic film "Casablanca" (1943). Photo: © AP file/Pressens bild
Over the course of more than 50 films spanning five decades, Bergman’s elegance, talent and screen presence were never in question — though she did go through a rocky period in the late 1940s and early 50s because of her affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, which at the time was considered scandalous in the eyes of the American public.
Everyone has their favorite Bergman film, but who could deny her magical chemistry with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942) or with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). It’s quite touching, in a way, that for her final film, she returned to her native Sweden in 1978, already ill with cancer, to make Autumn Sonata with the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. It was one of her most memorable performances.
Modern Swedes in modern Hollywood
In the mid-1960s, another towering Swedish figure rose to prominence in Hollywood – the actor Max von Sydow. After having gained international renown in the film and theater work of Ingmar Bergman (who could forget von Sydow’s Knight playing chess with Death in Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal?), the actor started to make a name for himself in Hollywood with such films as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) — playing Jesus — and The Exorcist (1973). Von Sydow’s filmography lists an astounding 123 titles – Swedish films, American films, international productions. Wherever he pops up, you can be sure von Sydow’s penetrating eyes and expressive voice will leave an lasting impression.
The younger generation is best represented by the devilishly intense Peter Stormare, who also first refined his craft in the work of Ingmar Bergman. Lately, Stormare has been perfecting his own brand of brilliant psychopaths — and his scenes in the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) practically steal the show.
Peter Stormare often plays the bad guy. Here with Steve Buscemi in Fargo (1996). Photo: © SF/Pressens bild
Pernilla August, one of Sweden’s most beloved actresses – again, best showcased in the work of Ingmar Bergman – played Bergman’s mother in the autobiographical film, The Best Intentions (1992). More recently, she portrayed another famous mother — Anakin Skywalker’s mom Shmi Skywalker — in the last two Star Wars films.
And her colleague Lena Olin graces the American silver screen quite regularly, sometimes in the films of her director husband, Lasse Hallström. You may remember Hallström – twenty years ago, he charmed international audiences with his beautiful Swedish film, My Life as a Dog. More recently, he directed Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Julia Roberts in Something to Talk About (1995), and Kevin Spacey in The Shipping News (2001). The seductive pull of Hollywood just won’t quit.
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Stan Schwartz is a freelance film and theater journalist with a particular interest in Swedish film and theater. Based in New York City, he writes for such publications as The New York Times, Film Comment Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Photo 1: © Pressens bild
Photo 2: © AP file/Pressens bild
Photo 3: © SF/Pressens bild
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