In New Memoirs, Liv Ullmann Tells About Choices She Has Made
Slipping into the warmth of a black limo that has been stationed on a frigid 48th Street in Manhattan, Liv Ullmann settles into the backseat and gives a shiver under her modish charcoal-striped coat. Taking a chicken salad sandwich from a brown bag handed her by the chauffeur, she eats slowly and reflects on the morning's labors—a 90-minute stint behind a desk at a Fifth Avenue bookstore, where an army of admirers came to offer their copies of Choices (Knopf, $14.95) for her autograph.
"The terror," she says, "was that no one would come." When Changing, her best-selling first volume of memoirs, was published in Norway in 1976, Ullmann made a promotional appearance at a bookstore in Trondheim, Norway's second largest city, where she spent her adolescence. She sat in the shop window for what seemed an eternity with only her mother, Janna, for company. Just one patron bought the book. This was the famous actress who 10 years earlier had borne director Ingmar Bergman's child out of wedlock (daughter Linn, 18, is now a student at NYU); the buyer didn't ask for the author's autograph.
The New York experience, however, has been a low-key triumph. The flow of fans has been steady, and their praise extravagant: "I see everything you do and I read everything you write," said a woman named Sonia. "I think Changing was the greatest autobiography that's ever been written."
Like its predecessor, Choices is no lurid celebrity tell-all; its tone is more Rod McKuen than Joan Collins. "Confessionals are boring," Liv says. "Sometimes miserable people feel better reading that someone else is miserable, but it's an empty way to spend your day. It makes your soul grayer."
A dead-earnest, introspective journal that details her perpetual struggles to "find the truth of my innermost feelings," Liv's book chronicles her life post-Changing. Increasingly disenchanted with acting, she takes on the role of a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Scenes of her wrenching encounters with refugees in Ethiopia and Somalia are juxtaposed with accounts of her domestic affairs: In New York (where she keeps an apartment on the Upper West Side), there is a fling with a pompous pedant whom she identifies as a "highly regarded scientist." Although she is a willing foil for his impromptu lectures on the brain (she refers to him as "the brain man"), Ullmann writes, "I always feel weighed down when he says ponderous things. Though I write it all down when I'm by myself."
Later, in Norway, there is a two-year romance with Yugoslav author and TV personality Dragan Babi?, 45, whose identity was revealed, to Liv's dismay, by the Norwegian press. "Abel," as she calls him, is besotted with her after an interview on a London film set. "I observe him," she writes, "wondering if we will be lovers." It was left to European journalists to disclose that when Abel moved in with her in Oslo, he was abandoning a wife pregnant with twins. Ullmann herself covers more metaphysical territory: "Abel offered me a universe with no past," she explains, "with room only for two."
Liv cannot comprehend why journalists have dogged her about the two men since the book was published here in January. She would rather talk about displaced Africans or Russian novels (she is reading a biography of Tolstoy) or about her current role in a revival of Harold Pinter's play Old Times, set to run in London through June.
"When I wrote Choices, I didn't think it was too personal, that people would say, 'Oh, this is how she talks to her lover.' I thought, the book isn't about that," she says.
The limo has delivered Liv to the sprawling apartment where her public relations man lives, and she is sitting in a wing chair, her face pale under the light of a table lamp. Wearing a skirt and a soft brown sweater shot with gold threads, she exudes an implacable Nordic wholesomeness that makes her seem less the film star than the suburban matron. There is not a whit of irony about her, and she sounds almost impossibly sincere.
"This book," she says, "made me vulnerable in a way I hadn't expected. What I wanted to show was a neurotic woman—a woman who asks about the brain when she wants to know about other things. I used it to show women as they are—we wait for telephone calls, we allow ourselves to be stood up. I was mocking myself to show this side of relationships, but some people didn't understand that."
A New York magazine review that made Ullmann sound like a ditz queen in search of her cosmic self was an irritation: "I hate it when they take your sentences out of context to make a funny point," she says. "If somebody thinks this is a book about finding yourself, they're wrong. It's not, 'Ah, at last I'm me.' I am me not by finding myself, but by being close to other people."
And, in the end, by following her creative impulses. In the last two years, she has taken on projects that included a dreadful Australian-made film version of The Wild Duck, with Jeremy Irons, and The Bay Boy, a Canadian film with Donald Sutherland's son Kiefer. Yet acting is not the passion it once was. "The older one gets in this profession," she writes, "the more people there are with whom one would never work again.
"But I'm an actress," she says. "God will punish me if I don't work." Despite her half-facetious tone, her gray-blue eyes go dark. "I said yes to Pinter's play last year, and less than a month before I was to open, I didn't know how I could go back to work. I did a radio show in Washington, and when they asked about it, I started to cry. I loved acting, and then..." The tears well up, and there is silence.
"There's less to believe in now," she says finally. "Fewer films that make you float out of the cinema. They're brutal films, Star Wars films. Sometimes I want them to touch my soul, and that rarely happens."
At this moment, the things that are most urgent to Ullmann are "love relationships" ("I am not alone, but I do not talk about it"), her relationship with Linn and her writing. "Writing," she says, "is the only thing I can stay with. I'm not writing a book now, but I want to write something about a mother and a daughter and a granddaughter."
Smiling, she reaches down to stroke the ginger-colored cat that has idled up to her armchair. "That way," she says, "I do not have to answer questions like: Who is the brain man?"
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