It was the casting decision that baffled Hollywood. In the film adaptation of the frothy Broadway comedy 40 Carats, 33-year-old Liv Ullmann, star of numerous Ingmar Bergman psychological dramas, was to play Ann Stanley, a 40-year-old divorced realtor who has a romance with a 22-year-old. Even the actress herself was perplexed. “It made no sense,” she commented years later. “I wasn’t from New York as the character was supposed to be. I had a heavy Norwegian accent and wasn’t known to be a comedian.”
When the movie was released in the United States in June 1973, the influential critic Vincent Canby told readers of The New York Times, “Miss Ullmann is utterly lost. This marvelous actress is, I suspect, constitutionally incapable of dealing with this sort of nonsense.” Ever since, the legend of Ullmann’s miscasting has persisted, influencing how cinephiles view the film and her performance. After fifty years, the history behind her casting deserves to be told, and her delicate and charming performance reappraised.
The stage play 40 Carats was a hit at a time when traditional social strictures were yielding to the sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movement. Adapted from a French comedy by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy, whose previous work had been the basis for Cactus Flower, the play revolves around an age-gap romance. When her car breaks down during a Greek holiday, Ann Stanley is assisted by Peter Latham, a young man passing by on a motorcycle. Irresistibly attracted, the pair have a one-night liaison after which Ann slips away leaving Peter without any means of contacting her; he doesn’t even know her real name. Back in New York, a few weeks later, Peter turns up co-incidentally at Ann’s apartment to take her seventeen-year-old daughter out on a date. Hilarity ensues.
Described by Walter Kerr of The New York Times as “a breezy, beguiling comedy,” 40 Carats had been a major success for 44-year-old Julie Harris, bringing her a third Tony Award. She was still performing the role when Columbia secured the film rights and announced that William Wyler would direct. Fresh from directing Barbra Streisand to an Oscar, the Hollywood veteran’s involvement made Ann Stanley one of the most coveted movie roles on offer. Wyler commissioned a screenplay, sent out location scouts, and began courting Elizabeth Taylor for the lead role. Only a few months later, however, ill health forced him to retire from filmmaking. Taylor signed for projects elsewhere and the film stalled until producer Mike Frankovich picked it up in early 1972.
Frankovich had enjoyed success with Cactus Flower starring Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn, and Columbia had high hopes for his latest production, the soon-to-be-released Butterflies Are Free in which Hawn starred opposite twenty-two-year-old newcomer Edward Albert. The studio wanted Audrey Hepburn for the role of Ann. Later, discussions were held with Joanne Woodward, Doris Day, Julie Christie and Cloris Leachman. Also considered were Julie Harris and the three women who had followed her in the role on Broadway: June Allyson, Joan Fontaine and Zsa Zsa Gabor. The producer, however, was unenthusiastic. “All the women who wanted the part were either invulnerable or too old,” Frankovich explained. “We couldn’t find anyone who would be believable as the love object of a twenty-two-year-old. Think what would happen if we’d gotten an established older star, like Elizabeth Taylor. Why, she’d eat the boy up alive!” The role, he said, required an actress with “dimension and vulnerability,” someone who could captivate the audience without overpowering her co-star. It was screenwriter Leonard Gershe who suggested Frankovich visit the Columbia set of the musical Lost Horizon and consider Liv Ullmann.
“I thought that when Mike approached me for the movie he wanted me for the daughter role,” Ullmann admitted to the New York Daily News. “After all, I figured I looked too young [for the mother]. But just when I was about to tell him that I was too old [to play the daughter], Mike offered me the mother’s part!” In interviews decades later, she recalled, “Everybody wanted it. When I was cast, Zsa Zsa Gabor was very upset and wrote in the papers. And Elizabeth Taylor, who I knew, was upset and didn’t know why I’d got the part – and she was probably right.”
Known primarily for her appearances in the films of Ingmar Bergman, the actress was regarded as a tragedienne and presumed to be just as serious off screen. “You expect an intense, brooding woman whose face reflects the struggle within her of all the psychic burdens of Woman, past and present,” wrote Howard Kissel, the arts editor for Women’s Wear Daily. “Instead, you find a woman who is enthusiastic to a point, whose sensuality is more delicate than it seems possible to convey on the screen, and who disarms by a remarkable sense of openness and vulnerability.”
Frankovich, too, noted Ullmann’s openness and delicate sensuality, deciding that she possessed just the qualities he was wanting for Ann Stanley. “We thought at first that she was much too young to play in 40 Carats, and she is! But she has the same kind of vulnerability that Ingrid Bergman had. She has great sex [appeal], but it’s innocent … Liv is a magnificent actress. She can play anything. She’s Ingrid Bergman all over again.”
Smitten, the producer ordered a re-write of the script to accommodate Ullmann’s accent and the coveted role was hers. “I took the part because it was too good to pass up,” Ullmann commented. “I’ve long wanted to widen my experience. Bergman actors are at a terrible disadvantage being branded as heavy, dramatic, and intellectual. Bergman himself always thought I should try comedy. And I’m delighted to get into something glamorous and different.” And while many of her peers would have baulked at the idea, Ullmann was unbothered by the prospect of appearing as a 40-year-old. “I don’t mind playing older women. At least I can keep doing that. I’m playing it safe. It’s much worse to come here and maybe get a twenty-year-old part and then I’m finished immediately.”
For 40 Carats, Frankovich reassembled the core team responsible for Butterflies Are Free, including screenwriter Leonard Gershe, director Milton Katselas, cinematographer Charles Lang, and co-star Edward Albert. Completing the main cast were nineteen-year-old model turned actress Deborah Raffin making her feature film debut as Ann’s daughter, veteran character actress Binnie Barnes as Ann’s mother, and Hollywood legend Gene Kelly as Ann’s ex-husband. “I wanted to do 40 Carats because of Liv,” enthused Kelly. “I’m a big movie fan [and] I’ve seen her in all her Ingmar Bergman films.”
After shooting the opening sequences in Greece in early October 1972, the production shifted to a Burbank soundstage in Los Angeles before concluding in December with a few days of location filming in New York. The cast were given a fortnight’s rehearsal, but the process held little appeal for Ullmann who had always been a more intuitive performer. “I would hate to work with actors where you had to sit down and talk about the background of the character,” she once explained. “Then I would feel phoney.” In her young co-star, Ullmann found a scene partner who was sympatico with her preferred way of working. “I’ve never studied acting,” Albert explained to the Chicago Tribune. “I’m totally intuitive. I don’t have any technique.”
The greatest challenge for Ullmann was performing in English. The syndicated columnist Dick Kleiner visited the set one day and told readers, “She had a line: ‘He’s somebody who can have anybody.’ On one take, she goofed, and it came out ‘someone’ instead of ‘somebody.’ ‘I get a little confused with my English grammar,’ she said. Director Milton Katselas told her it didn’t matter but she carefully got it right the next time.” In an interview for The Boston Globe some months later, Albert would recall, “It wasn’t easy for her. We were doing idiomatic comedy and Liv still has problems with English. She had a coach on the set with her all the time. But she did very well for what she had to do. As a matter of fact, it was a miracle that she did as beautifully as she did.”
Ullmann’s indeed performed in 40 Carats beautifully. There is nothing knowing about her portrayal of Ann. Playing comedy with the same honesty as she had always grappled drama, Ullmann delights with a delicate approach to the material, deftly demonstrating her aptitude for comedy and her appeal as a romantic Hollywood star. Audiences expecting sitcom zaniness, or the obviousness of a spoof will be disappointed, likely finding her style passive and low energy. Viewers open to her detailed underplaying, however, will be amused and charmed.
In the opening scene, Ann asks Peter repeatedly if he can repair her car, but he is fixated on identifying her accent. “I was born in Norway,” she replies, exasperated at being side-tracked. “I spent the first sixteen years of my life in Norway, and now I’m going to spend the next sixteen years of my life here, unless you fix my car!” When, at last, he agrees to look at the smoking engine, Ann grins, but then suddenly becomes aware that while talking she has been grasping the handlebars of his motorcycle. As he walks over to her car, she recoils slightly from his bike, giving it a look of disapproval mixed with discomfort. In an instant, Ullmann’s expression conveys the middle-aged Ann’s uptight conventionality and sexual timidity. In that instant, her expression also amuses. It’s a fleeting, unscripted moment, informative and subtly humorous. Her performance is replete with such moments. Throughout the film, she trusts that the humour will emerge from the scenario itself and from the interplay of characters, rather than from a showy performance.
This is in contrast to the rest of the cast who reach for laughs. Their line delivery is archly grand, emphasising key words and highlighting one-liners as if the director is going to overlay a laugh-track in post-production. Barnes and Kelly, in particular, seek to create comedy forcefully through a display of personality. Their performances are a great deal of fun, but they also suggest that their characters are entirely aware that they exist within a comedic universe. They are old-fashioned, sitcom performances, knowing and obvious.
In Ullmann’s hands, Ann conveys no such notion. Ullmann creates a believable character while also entertaining through impeccable timing and carefully modulated reactions. As a result, she proves adroitly amusing, as well as the film’s strength. For the comedy of 40 Carats to work, the romance of 40 Carats has to be plausible. The casting of Ullmann and the integrity of her characterization ensure Ann is relatable and her involvement with Peter convincing. As Frankovich had realised, Ullmann had the dimension and vulnerability to put the material across on screen. With her soft radiance and enchanting presence, she blends light comedy, pathos and allure in a manner few actresses could. A high-voltage star such as Elizabeth Taylor would have dominated, fatally unbalancing the movie. Ullmann’s casting may have been baffling, but it proved to be inspired.
“40 Carats works and is funny because of the performance of Liv Ullmann,” Gene Siskel told readers of the Chicago Tribune. “Miss Ullmann, who has played so many tortured souls in her distinguished film career, plays Ann as a genuine person in conflict, her problem that of a woman trying to connect to herself. Miss Ullmann is so good at communicating that, that many of the film’s gags work beautifully as comic relief, giving this 40 Carats a special counterpoint the play never had.” And in the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas similarly enthused, “Katselas and Frankovich spent considerable time on casting, and it has paid off. Miss Ullmann, so firmly established as an Ingmar Bergman favorite, seemed an unlikely choice for a romantic comedy. However, because she is as accomplished an actress as she is a beautiful woman, she makes 40 Carats’ heroine not merely sympathetic but thoroughly believable.”
Despite such warm reviews, the film was a box office disappointment. During its theatrical run, 40 Carats grossed only $2.1 million in North America, a third of the receipts accrued by Butterflies Are Free the previous year and a fraction of the almost $17 million brought in by the sex comedy A Touch of Class, which had opened in cinemas just one week earlier. What had been timely and provocative on Broadway in early 1969 seemed less ground-breaking and topical on American cinema screens in mid-1973. In the wake of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The Heartbreak Kid and Harold and Maude, the movie played as tame, almost old-fashioned, particularly for younger moviegoers. In part because of Canby’s New York Times infamous review, the film’s failure has been unfairly attributed to the casting of Ullmann.
At the time of the movie’s release, however, Canby’s critique was an outlier. Most leading critics praised Ullmann’s work and her most vocal champion was Gary Arnold of The Washington Post. “With the release of 40 Carats, Liv Ullmann should become an important new star to the American filmgoing public at large, and a major asset to Hollywood,” he raved. “Indeed, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to congratulate her now for the Academy Award she’s probably going to collect next spring.”
While Ullmann was nominated for the Golden Globe, she was overlooked by the Academy. The Oscar went instead to another acclaimed dramatic actress revealing previously untapped comedic skill: Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class. While Jackson’s performance remains in the spotlight, equally applauded and maligned by cinephiles, Ullmann’s portrayal of Ann Stanley in 40 Carats has all but vanished into obscurity. But her considered and charming work in 40 Carats merits rediscovery.
“I loved it,” said Ullmann about 40 Carats at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. “I really loved it.” And we ought to love her in it.
40 Carats was released in the U.S. on June 28, 1973 by Columbia Pictures. It is currently available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video.
Brian Lindsay’s next book, Best Actress 1973, a look at more than twenty performances in contention for the Best Actress prizes that year, will be available soon from Amazon.