In 1980, on a private trip to Israel, Ingrid Bergman visited the resting place of Golda Meir. There had been rumors in the press than Bergman, the Swedish-born actress who rose to world fame with the movie, “Casablanca,” was set to play the part of the iconic Israeli prime minister. But Bergman herself was far from decided.
Golda’s grave is on a windswept hill in the military cemetery. There, Bergman, a quick study, placed small stones at the grave site – she had learned Jews do this to signify the loss of the beloved being like “a stone in my heart.” She stood, the wind whipping strands of ash hair across her handsome face. Her eyes filled with tears, and she whispered in her husky voice, “I don’t want to portray you, because I don’t want to harm you.”
For some time, Paramount had been on the hunt for a name actress to portray Golda. I was associate producer on the project, and I knew Bergman had already in fact officially turned down the role. But I also knew I would soon see Bergman in London, and I was obliged to try again. Ingrid was being honored for her good works by the Variety Club. It was May 1981 – a glittering charity ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel.
I sat next to her at the head table, and we spoke all night. At first it was an exchange of questions and answers about Golda. But this led to a gradual unfolding of parallel lives. I could sense Bergman’s frisson with each revelation of what the two women had in common, the most compelling being their medical histories. Golda had lymphoma for 12 years and Bergman, who was then 66, had been battling breast cancer for six. They both felt guilt about leaving their children to pursue careers. Both were hounded by the press, which dogged their every move. And both had an extraordinary idiosyncrasy of rubbing a teakettle until it shone like a mirror. As the evening progressed, Bergman, at first aloof and mildly interested, gradually became vulnerable, her protests less convincing.
I left her that night by saying that nothing would honor the memory of Golda Meir more than if Ingrid Bergman portrayed her. She called me the next day.
“I’d like to have a screen test,” she said. And so, the journey began.
It was a Friday, late August – hot and humid, redolent with jasmine and orange blossoms – when Ingrid Bergman touched down on El Al’s last flight before Shabbat. The cavernous terminal echoed with the week’s last stragglers. A handful of people waited, leaning over the barrier onto the passageway. Some were carrying flowers – irises and carnations, and tulips, wrapped in clear, rigid plastic. Bergman strode into the airport in a navy and white polka-dot dress. Even through the puffiness of her face, she was game to greet admirers. I shook my head. How was this tawny-haired Swede with those aristocratic angles ever going to portray the short, ample Mother of Israel? Margaret, Bergman’s assistant, stayed close to her, carrying a mysterious device sheathed in khaki.
Bergman wasted no time on her strategy for that Sunday. She wanted to see archives, films, cassettes – anything that documented Golda. Even though most of it was in Hebrew, Bergman had to see it. She was particularly anxious to hear Golda’s laugh. And so we went to Jerusalem, to Israeli TV to see documentaries, to the Rad archives on Mount Scopus, to Herzliya Studios to replay “This Is Your Life,” a three-hour documentary that featured everyone who had ever touched Golda’s life. Ingrid watched Golda’s gestures, her hands, her walk, her endless smoking – the latter came easily to Bergman.
Yom Kippur approached, two days when, at least back then, the country all but closed down. The cast and crew frantically bought food and liquor for what they saw as “the siege.”
On the Day of Atonement, Bergman turned to me.
“Would you take me to synagogue?” she asked.
I met her in the lobby of the hotel. She had on her flat shoes and a scarf around her head. She looked at me sharply.
“Where’s your head covering?” she asked. “I’ll wait, so go up and get a scarf!”
She had already re-invented herself as an observant Jewish woman.
An earnest chazzan was well into the liturgy when we arrived at shul. Finding two seats, I handed Bergman a prayer book with an English transliteration. She read the list of sins carefully, then ruffled through different prayers.
Suddenly I felt a sharp nudge. Bergman pointed to a line from the daily morning service: Thank you, God, for not letting me be born a woman.
“What,” she whispered, “is that all about?”
I think at that point we lost a convert.
In 1974, Bergman had a mastectomy. Since then the cancer had returned, it was slowly devastating her body. She knew this film would be her last hurrah.
The lymph nodes, compromised by the surgery, resulted in a swollen right arm and hand, totally out of proportion with her body. The device her assistant Margaret kept close by, I eventually learned, was an IV stand that was used as an elevated sling. Bergman trussed up her arm to it every night, and by day during break periods in her trailer. Therapeutically, it prevented the fluids of the lymph system from being retained in her arm and hand. Bergman was determined not to use a double for close-ups of Golda’s hands, especially when we recreated the historic scene of Golda covering her face and head with her hands, when, in the Knesset, she is elected leader of the Labor Party and prime minister of Israel.
Despite her evident suffering, Bergman rarely complained – except about the press.