In 1975, while making her Broadway debut in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Liv Ullmann learned that Ingmar Bergman was coming to town to see her. Bergman’s muse, collaborator and former lover, Ullmann had starred in many of the Swedish auteur’s greatest films, and knowing that her new friend Woody Allen idolized Bergman, she offered to introduce them over dinner. But when she, Allen, Bergman and Bergman’s fifth wife, Ingrid, sat down to eat, the two “geniuses,” as she calls them, barely spoke. “Seriously! They did not talk,” she says. “Ingrid and I kind of talked about food or whatever, and they looked at each other, eating and smiling.” She was a little surprised, then, when afterward in the car, Allen confided to her how thrilled he was. “He almost cried,” she says with a gutsy laugh. “And then the moment I got home, the phone rang and it was Ingmar, saying, ‘Oh, Liv. Thank you. That was really great!’”
Thirty-four years after that evening, Bergman stories still pepper Ullmann’s conversation. Given the pair’s history, it’s not surprising. The two fell in love while making their first film together, the groundbreaking Persona (1966), and though their romance lasted only five years, their alliance continued until his death, in 2007. Now a feted director in her own right, Ullmann is in New York on this summer afternoon to begin work on her revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, which stars Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois and marks Ullmann’s American stage directorial debut—at 70.
Her seasoned perspective, says the native Norwegian, gives her insight into the play and the doomed, delusional Southern belle at its core. “I have the experience of age and suffering,” she says, seated in an office at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Streetcar arrives in November after its U.S. premiere at the Kennedy Center. “I have a well they can use.” Like the trapped housewife Nora in A Doll’s House and the deceived spouse Marianne in the film Scenes From a Marriage—two of her best-known roles—Tennessee Williams’s characters, she observes, struggle to be understood. “Most people feel they are looked at and not seen,” says Ullmann, who looks you straight in the eye when she speaks, lulling you into an easy intimacy. “If you are not recognized, you sometimes do strange things to be seen.”
Ullmann had planned to direct Blanchett in a film adaptation of A Doll’s House, but funding fell through. Then one day over breakfast in London, Blanchett’s husband, Andrew Upton, proposed they do Streetcar for the Sydney Theatre Company, where Blanchett and Upton serve as artistic directors. “There’s a nakedness to Liv—a very thin membrane between her and the world,” says Blanchett midway through rehearsals in Sydney, where Streetcar is due to premiere in September. “Often as actresses move through their careers, the mask can get thicker and thicker, but Liv keeps that very febrile, raw relationship to emotions and relationships and encourages that in her actors.”