Ingrid Bergman was on a roll. Casablanca, For Whom the Bell tolls, Gaslight, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Spellbound – everything she touched turned into gold and everything she did could not be praised high enough. But she not only had the talent to amaze the critics – instead, she also possessed a warm, kind and glowing personality that never made her farouche but turned her into the kind of star who was not only respected but also genuinely liked and admired (which is probably the reason why the reactions to her affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini provoked such intense reactions). During her three consecutive Best Actress nominations she was always an important factor in the race – 1943 saw her as the rape victim in the prestigious literary adaptation For Whom the Bell tolls and as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca and if Jennifer Jones had not suddenly come out of nowhere with her work in The Song of Bernadette, Ingrid Bergman would have been an easy winner. The next year she took home the gold for her performance as the tortured wife in Gaslight – a win that combined the respect for her work and the admiration for her personality and Jennifer Jones was certainly right when she told Ingrid Bergman that ‘your artistry has won our vote and your graciousness has won our hearts’. But Ingrid Bergman did not stop after her win – she had reached the top and was destined to stay there. 1945 saw her in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and the popular Saratoga Trunk – but it was the sequel to 1944’s Best Picture Winner Going my Way which made her a serious threat to become the third winner of consecutive Oscars after Luise Rainer and Spencer Tracy. Her work as a Mother Superior in The Bells of St. Mary’s not only won her awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press and the New York Film Critics but also the kind of reviews an actress might get only once in her lifetime. According to Inside Oscar, one critic even described her work as the single greatest performance ever given by an actress in motion picture history. Such praise certainly evokes the highest expectations – by 1945, viewers had already seen Maria Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc or the work of Lilian Gish, Vivien Leigh had appeared in Gone with the Wind and Luise Rainer in The Good Earth and even Ingrid Bergman herself had already achieved an artistic peak with her work in Gaslight the year before. So – was the high praise for her performance justified or was it rather influenced by Ingrid Bergman’s strong dominance and the uncompromising veneration of the critics and the public at the time? Well, let’s see…
As mentioned before, The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to 1944’s Going my Way which told the story of a charming young priest who brought music and new life to St. Dominic’s church in New York City. At the end of World War II, this heartwarming and simple tale was exactly what audiences wanted and Going my Way not only became a huge hit but also took home seven Oscars, including acting awards for Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as the old, stubborn and more conventional priest. Only Bing Crosby reprised his part in The Bells of St. Mary’s which features a rather similar plot and theme like Going my Way. The absence of Barry Fitzgerald already indicates that another character was needed to contradict Father O’Malley and ultimately benefit from his innocent and positive look at life. Enter Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict, a young Mother Superior who dreams of convincing a business man to donate his new office building to her school and also has to deal with the personal problems of her pupils and occasionally clashes with Father O’Malley over the right ways to teach and grade the children.
The part of Sister Mary Benedict seems destined from the start to follow the expected formula – a Mother Superior in a motion picture almost by definition has to be stern, strict, humorless, cold and decisive. Add the fact that Bing Crosby is the happy-go-lucky priest who serves as the audience’s guide through the movie and it must be even more expected that Ingrid Bergman has to play the domineering and rigid woman whose views on life are changed for the better thanks to Father O’Malley. Well – sometimes movies still can surprise us. Because Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Mary Benedict is the complete opposite of all this and much closer to Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley than originally expected – she is warm, loving, kind, full or humor and good spirit. Ingrid Bergman’s face is allowed to beam brighter than ever and her rich, gentle voice only adds to the immediate likability of her character. And under the nun’s habit, Ingrid Bergman only has her face, her eyes and her voice to rely on – and she uses all the advantages that her features offer her to fulfill the tasks of the screenplay and create a loveable and sensitive woman who adds to the sentimental tone and feel-good-atmosphere of The Bells of St. Mary’s.
And yet…the single greatest female performance in motion picture history? Of course, the opinion on a performance should not be influenced by what a critic wrote almost 70 years ago but even if expectations are not very high before watching Ingrid Bergman’s performance, there must be a certain sense of disappointment. Because during the first 80 percent of her performance there is hardly anything about the character of Sister Mary Benedict that presents any kind of challenge or opportunity for Ingrid Bergman. Like Bing Crosby, she rests on her charm to give a performance that, as mentioned before, perfectly suits the film and creates a very heartwarming atmosphere but there is nowhere for her to go beyond that. By focusing on the loving and kind side of Sister Mary Benedict, Ingrid Bergman avoided any complexity or depth this woman might have possessed but, of course, the screenplay does not truly offer her any chance to do anything else. Ingrid Bergman’s cheerful smile lightens up the screen every time but it is never fully satisfying to watch her create a maybe delightful but still too thin and undemanding character. But even though, she still does the most she can with what she is given – the scene in which she teaches a boy how to box so that he can defend himself against the bullies on the school yard is an absolute joy to watch and it would be a complete lie to say that Ingrid Bergman does not reach a level of charm and glee in her performance that can easily compete with that of Audrey Hepburn a couple of years later. And even better, Ingrid Bergman does not forget to create a woman behind this cheerful personality – her Mother Superior is obviously very concerned for her school and her pupils, she radiates authority and love and she is also a woman who is used to fighting for her cause, never giving up hope that God will be on her side when she needs him most. And Ingrid Bergman also works extremely well opposite Bing Crosby. Even though both actors add to the sentimental tone of the story, they still do it differently – Sister Mary Benedict does not always share Father O’Malley’s views but she shows understanding and contradicts him always with respect and admiration. A scene in which they discuss a young girl who failed her test shows this best – while Father O’Malley wants to let her pass to the next grade anyway, Sister Mary Benedict wants to keep up the purpose of the grades. In this scene, it’s very easy to side with Sister Mary Benedict – Father O’Malley might be the beatific saint but Sister Mary Benedict’s views still make much more sense, especially because Ingrid Bergman always shows how much she would like to be able to let the girl pass but still has to follow the rules of the school. But even beyond that, the chemistry between both actors just works completely right – there is no love between them (obviously) but the friendship and respect is always apparent. When Ingrid Bergman sings a song in front of the other nuns and suddenly notices that Father O’Malley is watching her, too, her transition from singing to laughter is too enchanting to ever forget it.
Yes, Ingrid Bergman is a pure delight in her role, emphasizing the loving side of Sister Mary Benedict to create the mood of The Bells of St. Mary’s and fulfilling her role opposite Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley. But still…her charm and grace lighten up the whole movie but they never result in a truly outstanding performance. Sister Mary Benedict is too limited, too one-dimensional and too reduced to a couple of little scenes without any character development to let Ingrid Bergman reach any true level of artistic excellence. Her performance, as charming as it may be, always stays on the surface of the story and this way perfectly resembles that of Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley – he, too, is charming and delightful but never challenges himself in any way and therefore remains a rather perplexing Oscar winner and nominee for his two turns as the buoyant priest. So – what was it about Ingrid Bergman’s performance that turned her into such a heavy favorite for a second Oscar in 1945? Well, the answer for this question can be found easily – in the remaining 20 percent of her performance. Suddenly, when all hope seems gone for Ingrid Bergman to not only shine personally but also artistically, the script begins to take Sister Mary Benedict through her own quiet and small tour-de-force and Ingrid Bergman takes her performance to a completely satisfying and unforgettable level. After Sister Mary Benedict has been diagnosed with tuberculosis, Father O’Malley arranges her transfer to another position without telling her the true reasons. Sister Mary Benedict assumes that she is punished for her disagreements with Father O’Malley over the grades of the little girl – she immediately accepts the decisions of her superiors but is obviously heartbroken to be forced to leave her children and her whole life behind. In the scenes that follow Ingrid Bergman becomes both completely heartbreaking and heartwarming, showing disappointment and acceptance, sorrow and joy in only a few couple of scenes and creates some of the most moving images of her career. When she receives the news about her transfer, she is able to show how Sister Mary Benedict’s heart breaks in only a few seconds and in this moment it also becomes clear how important the groundwork was that Ingrid Bergman had done in all her scenes before – Sister Mary Benedict has become such a close and familiar presence during the run of the movie that her fate touches the viewers’ hearts much stronger than it might have done otherwise. This wonderful display of subtle emotions is later topped by Ingrid Bergman when she comforts one of her pupils who decided to become a nun to run away from her all her problems. With a caring voice, Ingrid Bergman tells her that one cannot become a nun to avoid life – instead, one has to experience everything and lived a full life before such a decision can be made. It’s a beautiful and touching moment that Ingrid Bergman immediately tops again afterwards with another heartbreaking scene in which Sister Mary Benedict asks God to remove all bitterness from her heart and accept the decision of her superiors to leave the school that is so dear to her. It’s a scene that so many actresses could have used to manipulate the audience but Ingrid Bergman remains simple, straight and honest in these moments and so plays the scene as something much more fulfilling than pure sentiment. And when Father O’Malley finally decides that it would be better for Sister Mary Benedict to know the truth instead of living in constant regret, it suddenly seems to make sense that critics raved about her work so much – the bright, teary-eyed smile when Sister Mary Benedict learns that she is not transferred for any professional reasons but because of her illness is one of the highlights of Ingrid Bergman’s outstanding career and it’s not hard to believe Father O’Malley when he describes Sister Mary Benedict as perfect.
So…is is the single greatest female performance in motion picture history? Certainly not. For this title, there are too many moments that never reach above average and even with Ingrid Bergman’s charming personality never fully satisfy. But there is no denying that she created something otherworldly during those final scenes and if she had been allowed to be on this high level all the time, then her performance would definitely have been much stronger and memorable. As it is, the strength of the final scenes does not help her to overcome the limitations of the rest of her performance but it is enough to go receive