If a legend like Liv Ullman can have imposter syndrome, what does it mean for the rest of us mere mortals? Throughout Liv Ullmann: A Road Less Travelled, it’s Ullman herself who reflects on the past and reveals that which she is willing to reveal from her illustrious career. A feeling she often returns to is that of being unworthy, too inexperienced, and not ready. While it may seem ridiculous coming from the Norwegian actress/director/activist, it’s not. Liv Ullman lives with endless doubt, as we all do. She’s just overcome it a bit better than most.
From her fast start with Ingmar Bergman (beginning with Persona in 1966) to her first autobiography Changing to her accomplished career as a director, Dheeraj Akolkar’s film is a testament to resilience and growth. Including clips from some of her best work and commentary from friends and colleagues (John Lithgow, Cate Blanchett, and Jessica Chastain, to name a few), the energy is decidedly positive. Ullman’s perspective is bittersweet in spots, but altogether grateful and compassionate. It’s an open assessment of a full life and a fascinating career in the arts.
Born in Norway, she lived in the shadow of Greta Garbo as her star began to rise. Garbo, for those who may not know, was a Swedish actress who became one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the 1920s and 1930s before retiring in the 1940s and living a hermetic life in New York City, a decision which in itself became legendary. Ullman references Garbo throughout the documentary, presenting her as an initial North Star of sorts that she learns from which to look away. Included is a wonderfully kooky story about her nearly meeting Garbo. Spoiler alert, Garbo got away. In describing Ullman’s natural ability as an actress, Chastain astutely observes: “It’s almost like she has no skin.” Many a close-up has revealed as much, thanks to Ullman’s distinct features and shocking blue eyes. To watch her is to watch emotion personified. “To me they are a challenge,” Ullman says of the close-ups.
Despite all of the success, so many memories involve compromises that men in Ullman’s same position would not have had to made. Crew members and producers on films where she’s the director have patronized her, often trying to make decisions for her. There was also the brief fallout between her and Bergman after she turned down a role in his Fanny and Alexander amidst a successful period in Hollywood. She wishes she was in the masterpiece but decidedly does not regret her decision to not be in it. She recalls confronting this kind of “terrible female guilt” in her 1977 book Changing.
There are the Oscar nominations (The Emigrants, Face to Face), the long acting relationship with Erland Josephson, the iconic Broadway performances (A Doll’s House in 1975 with Sam Waterston and Anna Christie alongside Lithgow in 1977), and––perhaps most importantly––her ambassadorship with UNICEF and membership with the International Rescue Committee. This is a great actress and filmmaker, but also a great person. As Jeremy Irons puts it: “She is a jewel.” Indeed she is.
Liv Ullmann: A Road Less Travelled screened at DOC NYC and is available on Roku.