Norwegian actress and film director Liv Ullmann was twice nominated for Academy Awards and didn’t win, but now she can bring home perhaps an even more special Oscar statuette. Ullmann herself claims she’s “very proud” to have been presented with an “Honorary Award” from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences during the weekend.
She joins the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney and Orson Welles who were honoured with lifetime achievement awards by the Academy in years past. Now the Academy presents “Governors Awards,” three of which are Honorary Awards that this year were presented to Ullmann, Samuel L Jackson and Elaine May, while another “humanitarian award” went to Danny Glover.
Ullmann’s prize is among those presented “to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences or for outstanding service to the Academy.” In Ullmann’s case, the Academy cited her “bravery and emotional transparency” that “has gifted audiences with deeply affecting screen portrayals.”
It amounts to recognition that’s been a long time coming for the Norwegian actress who began on stage, won international attention for her performances in films made with the late Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, remained committed to the theater and made her film directorial debut in 1992. Ullmann, now age 83, also becomes the first Norwegian actor or actress to win an Oscar and only the second in all the Nordic countries, after Greta Garbo. Very few such awards go to those who have English as a second language, and only a small percentage of past winners have been women.
“I was sitting at home one day, feeling a bit low, when the phone rang,” Ullmann told news bureau NTB last week, before arriving in Hollywood for several days of celebrations. “It was David Rubin, president of the Academy. I’ve forgotten what he said, but it was fantastic. I went from feeling low to being extremely happy.”
Mode Steinkjer, a cultural commentator in the Oslo-based newspaper Dagsavisen, notes that it’s high time Ullmann received such an honour, and that “no one has deserved it more than her.” He wrote over the weekend how Ullmann has always received much more acclaim abroad than at home, where “Janteloven in Norway” (the unwritten law based on envy that no one should ever think too much of themselves) has been harshly enforced against Ullmann.
“She was characterized at times as ‘the crying Liv,'” Steinkjer wrote, “and it wasn’t because she was misunderstood, but because of attitudes, envy and uniquely Norwegian antipathy towards recognizing achievement, even cultural.” Sports stars are often excused, but not most others.
Ullmann was also dismissed as only becoming famous because of her personal relationship to Bergman and breakthroughs in his films. “We have not always managed to value her (Ullmann) as the giant she was and still is,” Steinkjer wrote. No other Norwegian actor can point to a career like the one she’s had, he added, pointing to how she has ranked among the likes of Faye Dunaway and Maggie Smith.
Bigger abroad than at home in Norway
There’s no question Ullmann has often won more fame and admiration abroad than she has at home. Reviews were mixed for her film version of Kristin Lavransdatter in the 1990s and Steinkjer claims that the Norwegian film industry’s refusal to fund her project to make an international film based on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is “one of the biggest shames in recent Norwegian film history.”
Late last week, however, Ullmann could finally enjoy some official Norwegian recognition in addition to that provided by the Academy. Culture Minister Anette Trettebergstuen spoke at a reception in Ullmann’s honour arranged by the Norwegian Film Institute, and most Norwegian newspapers reported on her honorary Oscar. Ullmann smiled throughout and repeated how she “was proud, very proud” before heading into the Academy’s special awards ceremony on Friday that had been scaled down and postponed from an original date in January. News bureau NTB had to report, however, that the ceremony held two days before the Academy Awards show was closed to the Norwegian press and NTB wasn’t allowed in to cover it. No reason was given.
It was later reported, however, that when her award was presented, there was a reference to how critics have claimed Ullmann must thank Bergman for being viewed as one of the greatest actresses of all time. Instead, it was claimed, “Bergman probably never would have been acclaimed as one of our greatest filmmakers without Liv Ullmann.”