Ingrid Bergman Remembers How Ernest Hemingway Helped Her Get the Part in For Whom the Bell Tolls

Ernest Hemingway took a dim view of Hollywood. He once said that the best way for a writer to deal with the movie business was to arrange a quick meeting at the California state line. “You throw them your book, they throw you the money,” he said.”Then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came.”

But Hemingway became a little more involved when it was time to film his 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, as this 1971 CBC interview with Ingrid Bergman reveals. Hemingway sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures in part because he wanted his good friend Gary Cooper, who had starred in A Farewell to Arms (which you can find in our collection of 500 Free Movies Online), to play the lead role of Robert Jordan, an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War who is given a dangerous mission to blow up a bridge. Cooper was under contract with Paramount.

Bergman first came to Hemingway’s attention when he saw the young Swedish actress in the 1939 Hollywood remake of Intermezzo. Despite her Nordic appearance, Hemingway thought Bergman would be perfect for the role of the young Spanish woman Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls. As Bergman explains in the interview, Hemingway sent her a copy of the book with the inscription, “You are the Maria in this book.”

The problem was that Bergman was under contract with another studio, Selznick International Pictures. But studios occasionally made arrangements with one another to share actors, and David O. Selznick became convinced that the high-profile Hemingway project would be great for his young protégé’s career. So in typical fashion, Selznick pulled out all the stops. On January 31, 1941 Selznick sent a note to Kay Brown, his talent scout who had discovered Bergman in Sweden, describing his efforts to win Bergman the part. In a passage quoted by Donald Spoto in Notorious: The Life of Ingrid Bergman, Selznick writes:

I pinned Hemingway down today and he told me clearly and frankly that he would like to see her play the part. He also said this to the press today. However, he tells me also that at Paramount he was told she was wooden, untalented, and various other things. Needless to say, I answered these various charges…. I am also personally supervising a publicity campaign to try to jockey Paramount into a position where they will almost have to use her. You will be seeing these items from time to time. Incidentally, Ingrid wasn’t in town today, or I could have brought her together with Hemingway. However, we are arranging for her to fly today to see Hemingway in San Francisco before he sails for China. If he likes her, I am asking him to go to town with Paramount on it. If she doesn’t get the part, it won’t be because there hasn’t been a systematic campaign to get it for her!

As part of Selznick’s systematic campaign, he invited Life magazine to photograph Bergman’s lunch with Hemingway and his wife, Martha Gellhorn, at Jack’s Restaurant in San Francisco. The magazine published a series of photos along with a caption quoting Hemingway as saying, “If you don’t act in the picture, Ingrid, I won’t work on it.”

Despite Selznick’s machinations, Paramount gave the part to one of its own contract actresses, the ballet dancer Vera Zorina. Bergman had to content herself with the female lead in a little black-and-white film called Casablanca. But after several weeks of shooting the Hemingway film in the Sierra Nevada, Paramount became unhappy with Zorina’s performance. Just as Bergman was wrapping up Casablanca, her wish came through and she was given the role of Maria. For Whom the Bell Tolls became the blockbuster hit of 1943, and Bergman received an Oscar nomination for her performance. Ironically, though, it was her role in the low-profile Casablanca that sealed Bergman’s fate as a film icon.

Related Content:

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