On 25 March – two nights before the Academy Awards – Liv Ullmann will receive an honorary Oscar for her “bravery and emotional transparency that has gifted audiences with deeply affecting screen portrayals”.
Forget the wins for Parasite and Nomadland – if ever there was a proof of the Academy improving its taste, Ullmann sharing the stage with Elaine May, Samuel L Jackson and Danny Glover at this year’s Governors awards is surely it.
The following month sees the start of a major season celebrating Ullmann’s work at the BFI Southbank in London – with an accompanying programme on the BFI Player, as well as a 50th anniversary nationwide release for Cries and Whispers on 1 April and a Blu-ray release for Faithless 10 days later.
Now 83, Ullmann is a bona fide cinema legend; an actor of supreme daring, intelligence and empathy – and a formidable director too. She is best known for her work with the Swedish dramatist Ingmar Bergman. Together, they made 10 films, including Persona (1966), The Passion of Anna (1969), Cries and Whispers (1972), Face to Face (1976) and Autumn Sonata (1978). They also had a daughter, Linn.
Ullmann was born in Tokyo and had a traumatic early life: her grandfather died at Dachau after being sent there for helping Jews escape from his Norwegian town; her parents moved to Toronto and then New York for her father’s work as an aircraft engineer, but he died after being struck by a propeller – a loss that greatly affected the young Ullmann.
Her mother moved back to Norway with her two daughters and worked as a bookseller; Ullmann began her career on stage, with a landmark Nora in A Doll’s House in mid 1950s Norway. She repeated the role in 1975 on Broadway, where she later starred in reportedly extraordinary productions of Ghosts and Anna Christie.
She has not made a movie for eight years, since she directed a highly effective and intense adaptation of Miss Julie in 2014, starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell. It was her third film behind the camera, following Sofie (1992) and Faithless (2000), the latter a big Cannes hit, with a script by Bergman, loosely based on his own infidelities.
Hers is a career of extreme taste and also of sparing choices. The list of roles Ullmann has turned down is almost as long as those she’s won awards for: a character written especially for her by Soderbergh in Ocean’s 12, a character in Sex and the City, Angie Dickinson’s role in Dressed to Kill, and Emelie Ekdahl in Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s final feature.
Another ghost on the CV is her passion project of filming A Doll’s House, with Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett both linked to star in her adaptation. It never happened, though Ullmann did direct the latter on stage in A Streetcar Named Desire in Sydney.
I met Ullmann eight years ago and was bowled over by how accessible and clear-sighted she was. She was also present and emotional in a way few drop-dead famous icons of cinema manage. Somehow, Ullmann’s humanity has remained completely intact.
We’d like your questions for her, please. Post them in the comments below; these will close at noon on 11 March. Her responses will be published on 25 March.