After forging an illustrious career full of critical acclaim, Liv Ullmann is being bestowed with an honorary Academy Award at the 2022 ceremony. Although Ullmann has sadly never won a competitive Oscar, an honorary award intended to recognize a long, storied career is still better than potentially winning for a performance that prompts questions of “How did she win for this and not that?”
Besides playing the right role, the right timing in a person’s career can often dictate when, or if, they win an Oscar, not to mention the competition in any single year and the political nature of awards campaigning. Since Ullmann has largely stepped away from the acting scene as of late, a non-competitive award is the best way to recognize her distinctive talents.
When Academy President David Rubin announced Ullmann as one of this year’s honorary Oscar recipients, he acknowledged her “bravery and emotional transparency has gifted audiences with deeply affecting portrayals.” One of those portrayals is her overlooked work in the 1978 film Autumn Sonata, directed by Ingmar Bergman. The movie did receive Oscar love for Bergman’s screenplay and in Best Actress for Ullman’s co-star Ingrid Bergman who gave what became her swan song film performance. Yet Ullmann remains the emotional backbone of what is essentially a coming-of-age tale.
Coming-of-age stories have traditionally followed the stories of adolescents as they transition into adulthood, but as coming of age can also be defined as a stage of reaching emotional maturity regardless, Autumn Sonata might classify as such a story as it follows Eva (Ullmann) and her journey towards breaking out of her mental state of childhood caused by emotional neglect at the hands of her pianist mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman).
When Charlotte goes to stay with Eva, Eva’s husband Viktor (Halvar Bjork), and her other daughter Helena (Lena Nyman) for a short while, she and Eva attempt to mend old wounds. That is until small quibbles over Eva’s inferior piano technique escalate into a heated night-time conversation where Eva unloads on Charlotte over the hurt that she inflicted on her. Even if Charlotte never hurt her physically, the way she made a teenage Eva feel insecure about her appearance and always went away on concert tours, putting her career before the needs of her children, still caused Eva to feel wounded and unwanted.
Through her facial and body gestures, Ullmann successfully captures how Eva is mentally stuck in her younger years. The way she skips around her house, her hunched posture, and pleading eyes show that while she may be a full-grown adult, deep down, Eva has remained the same shy child yearning for validation from her mostly absent parent. That is until the big confrontation where, in most of the scene, she has her oversized glasses – a form of disguise for her anguished eyes – taken off.
During that sequence, Ullmann goes into a deep quiver once Eva goes into the exact ways Charlotte harmed her self-esteem.