Even though Ingrid Bergman did not win an Oscar for her work during 1945, this year was always considered the peak of her Hollywood career. Her work in The Bells of St. Mary’s, Spellbound and Saratoga Trunk only further cemented her reputation as Hollywood’s biggest and most celebrated star. But in some ways, 1944 was the essential Ingrid-Bergman-year. After her roles as Lisa in the Best-Picture-winner Casablanca and as Maria in the movie version of Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell tolls failed to win her the golden statuette in 1943, she probably would have won for any kind of role in 1944 as Academy members must have been dying to honour her for her talent, her charming personality and her status as one of Hollywood’s most shining stars. But in 1944, Ingrid Bergman did not just offer any kind of role to the Oscar voters but probably one of the showiest in movie history as a woman who is haunted by the dark memories of her aunt’s murder and then slowly starting to lose her mind after she moved into her aunt’s old home. Very seldom must an Oscar win have been such a done deal as in this case – the combination of Ingrid Bergman’s popularity and the nature of her role made her an easy Oscar winner and it’s hard to imagine that past champions Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis and Greer Garson or the Oscar-less Barbara Stanwyck had a true chance for the win.
Gaslight is a movie that wants to be a lot – a psychological thriller, a crime story, a love story, a character study, a domestic drama, sometimes even a comedy. Such a mix of many different genres could usually leave actors rather helpless about what they are actually supposed to do with their character, especially if the movie itself doesn’t know how to handle its different genres. But thankfully Gaslight is a masterful and perfectly realized piece of work, a movie that develops like a slow nightmare, becoming more and more surreal and threatening as the story movies along. A lot of this is owed to George Cukor’s direction and the dark and gloomy atmosphere with which Number 9, Thornton Square, has been created but most of all, Gaslight is a character-driven story in which the tone and the mood of the story almost completely depend on the performances by the two central actors. And among these two central actors, it is Ingrid Bergman who really lifts Gaslight to such a high level of excellence, developing a co-dependence in which she constantly benefits from the strong material she is given while creating a feeling of desperation, helplessness and lost innocence that haunts and improves the entire movie from start to finish. In her performance, she does not only serve the tension of Gaslight but also develops something beneath the suspense, a believable character, a true and honest creation that fits into the aura of the movie but beyond that also exists as an independent foundation for a less suspenseful and more authentic and human focus. In other words, her character is not only a flat device in service of the movie’s aims but became a full circle, complete from all angles. Ingrid Bergman created Paula Alquist as a woman who is much more than a scared, fearful and obedient creature – thanks to her strong screen presence, her performance became very dominant despite the nature of the role and that way she turned the fight of Paul Alquist, her fight against her own mind, into a much more intriguing, shocking and memorable odyssey than other actresses might have. The 1940 version of Gaslight showed that the role of Paula may be extremely showy but this does not mean that a performance automatically turns into something special – Diana Wynyard’s mousy, hectic, lost and often weak performance feels too calculated, too pale and too uninterested, even for a character who is basically all these things. Ingrid Bergman on the other hand filled her performance with a vast amount of energy, even in Paula’s weakest moments, and always kept a tight grip on her and her intentions – it may be a calculated performance in some parts but Ingrid Bergman’s acting style always feels so spontaneous, so ‘in-the-moment’ and so unaffected that she is never in danger of appearing like the puppet master who is pulling Paula’s strings, leaving this role to Charles Boyer as her husband.
The role of Paula demands of Ingrid Bergman to give a performance that is both very emotional but also very technical. And she manages not only to succeed in both parts but also combine them. Her wide eyes, her fearful whisper, the panic slowly creeping into her eyes when she begins to hear footsteps above her head are all done masterfully but these technical aspects never turn her performance into a masque because she always makes Paula’s emotions perfectly clear – not only her fear, but also her doubt, her search for explanation and ultimately her growing suspicion. With small steps, Ingrid Bergman shows how Paula slowly changes from fearing the past to fearing an unknown present and finally to fearing a very well-known person. When Joseph Cotton’s character tells her that she knows very well who is making the noise above her, Ingrid Bergman doesn’t let Paula react with fierce disbelief but rather a helpless denial, a last try to hide the truth she already knows because just as much as she fears her own decline she also fears the consequences of the truth since it would smash her life into pieces and shows that everything she used to believe was only a lie. In this way, Ingrid Bergman does not forget that Gaslight is not only the story of a woman who believes that she is going insane but also the story of a false marriage, of misused trust and betrayal. In all these aspects, Ingrid Bergman has a wonderful screen partner in Charles Boyer with whom she also shares just the right chemistry – what starts as love soon becomes a child-like dependence, mistrust, suspicion, fear and even hate. Of course, Charles Boyer’s performance never makes it a secret what is going on in Number 9, Thornton Place, which was a very wise decision not only by him but also by the screenplay since it gives the story a psychologically much more interesting angle - Gaslight never asks ‘Who?’ but instead focuses on Paula’s personal battle for survival and the loss of love she is experiencing.
Right from the start, Ingrid Bergman’s performance creates the suspension of Gaslight – even though her acting style never feels calculated, she still has a lot of control over her character. And she uses this to demonstrate how Paula is constantly suffering from the memories of her aunt’s murder and how these memories slowly begin to torture her. During the first half of the movie, Ingrid Bergman beautifully demonstrates how Paul is trying to find a different life even though she is unable to forget the past, still sensing that her past is not finished with her. Later, Ingrid Bergman shows a certain change in Paula, she seems to become more relaxed as happiness and love begin to fill her life. And then, step by step, she again changes her – first, she develops a certain nervousness, a shyness that prevents her from leaving the house she both fears and loves as it offers her security but is haunting her at the same time. Paula is caught in a vicious circle in which she is constantly being told that she is losing her mind until she believes it, too. It could be very easy to dismiss Paula as a character simply because she comes from a time when a woman could be such an easy and almost willing victim for a man simply because she believes his words more than her own thoughts – but Ingrid Bergman’s performance makes it almost impossible not to be absorbed by Paula’s fate.
Ingrid Bergman also made the admirable choice not to let Paula appear like a deer caught in a trap to win the audience’s sympathy. She lets Paula’s fears and terrors always be very private since they happen so secluded in the privateness of her own home. She also never lets Paula appear weak by nature – she actually shows that there is a lot of strength in her but she is being mentally attacked exactly at her one single weakness, her fear of her house and the memories she has of it. Because of this, her final confrontation scene is easily the highpoint in her whole performance simply because it sums up everything about Paula so perfectly. The combination of Ingrid Bergman’s technical strength with her emotional clarity creates a fascinating finale to this exhausting journey.
In this performance, Ingrid Bergman did a lot more than rely of the effects of her technical brilliance. She gave a reason to Paula’s actions and fears, makes it understandable why she fears her maid and even begins to doubt herself. Nothing that Paula apparently does makes any sense and so it’s only logical to see her struggling with her illogical actions. Ingrid Bergman underlines this with a lot of acting choices that might be expected but are still thrilling to watch – her break-down at the piano party, her inability to read a book as she keeps hearing the voice of her husband in her head, her quiet walk, her half-closed eyes, her own voice that turns more and more into a whisper as she herself turns into a mere shadow of herself – it’s all done with marvellous determination that is equally shocking, entertaining, fascinating and worrying. She runs a vast scale of emotions, often in just a few seconds – she can change between begging her husband like a child not leave her only to explode with fear just a few moments later, she can laugh and dance like a little girl only to be terrorized by the thought of having taken down a picture from the wall the next moment. Ingrid Bergman took a very passive part and turned it into the motor of the story – nothing that Paula does seems to be by her own will but she is still the most deciding character in the movie thanks to Ingrid Bergman’s ability to give a fervid characterization of such an introvert woman.
Overall, Ingrid Bergman found a wonderful way to use an acting style that is both modern and ‘old Hollywood’ to give a performance that remains constantly impressive because of both the technical outside and the emotional, three-dimensional inside. She turns Gaslight into a dark and suspenseful ride, fulfilling the tasks of the story while adding her own personality and screen presence to craft a powerful and lasting presence. For this she receives