7 Down, 3 to Go: Liv Ullmann in The Emigrants

(the 421st of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)

LIV ULLMANN IN THE EMIGRANTS (1972)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Liza Minnelli in Cabaret

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues

Maggie Smith in Travels with My Aunt

Cicely Tyson in Sounder

The story of The Emigrants should be quite well-known: enchanted by promises of plenty, a family leaves behind their impoverished life in the Old World and weathers tremendous hardship on the journey to America.  The story is central to the American mythos, so much so that I would swear I’d seen it filmed a dozen times.  However, while movies such as The Grapes of Wrath tell a similar tale of migration within the American interior, and for as common as immigrant narratives are, especially centered around Ellis Island (The Godfather: Part II, Gangs of New York), I doubt I’ve ever seen the story of the journey to America told with the powerful care of The Emigrants.  The first hour of Jan Troell’s epic takes place in the Swedish region of Smaland, the second on the ship across the Atlantic, and only the final half hour on North American soil.  Residing offscreen, manifesting only in the hopes and tall tales shared by the Swedish voyagers, America truly exists in The Emigrants as an idea, a state of mind that takes deep root in those who brave the journey.  The film reveals a mighty side of the American myth, a fortuitous and excellent supplement to that year’s Best Picture winner The Godfather.

The Emigrants is grand and substantial enough that, unlike many of the ones I’ve watched lately, it boils down to more than just a referendum on its leading lady’s performance.  However, if Liv is only character among many, the film still gives her the most excruciating arc, making her the enduring vessel for the agony and ecstasy of the journey.  In Smaland, she bears the desperation of family’s strife as pregnancy after pregnancy adds to the strain of their struggle to survive.  Later, confined to the inky lower depths below the ship’s deck, she takes on in physical form all the suffering of the hard voyage, withstanding a pregnancy, lice, and a nearly devastating illness (in the throes of which she still preserves a measure of saintly forgiveness).  When the family finally reaches land, there is a scene in which Liv lies down on the grass and lets the New World seep in through every pore in a joyous healing of the wounds inflicted on the journey.  Liv’s preternatural beauty adds to the sublime quality of her ordeal, giving her a fitting Oscar debut after building her stardom in bravura performances for Ingmar Bergman in the 1960s.  For 1972, I still can’t deny the force of nature that is Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, but I am glad that such a legendary actress has such a worthy nominated performance.

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