11 September 2021

You should face the fact that he has no talent

In 1952, Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini approached Rebecca West, British author and literary critic, to write the dialogue for his next film, to be based on Colette's novel Duo. West then travelled to Italy to meet with Rossellini and his wife Ingrid Bergman who was to be the female star of the film. Meeting Rossellini, West found the director "a show-off, very gabby, ignorant and pretentious" and thought that his idea for the screenplay was "not enough to make a good film". (As Rossellini had not been able to purchase the rights to Colette's novel, he had presented her with a plot line that was quite different from the book.) Also unimpressed with Rossellini's previous film Europe '51 (1952), West eventually declined the assignment and went back home.

Above and below: Rebecca West and Ingrid Bergman at the Women's National Press Club in April 1948.

Returning home from her disappointing Italian trip, West received a letter from Ingrid Bergman who apologised for the failure of their joint project. The letter shown below is not Bergman's letter, though, but West's brutally honest reply ("an extraordinary letter", as she herself called it, unlike anything she had ever written).

Incidentally, although West felt Bergman had "great talent and a great personality", she once made some derogatory remarks about the actress, saying that she was "common and mannerless" and that —after West's husband had told her that Ingrid's mother came from Hamburg, Germany— "she might well be a housemaid in a big Hamburg hotel".

10 March 1953

Dear Miss Bergman,

Thank you very much for your letter, which I am going to answer honestly. My feelings were not in the least hurt by the abandonment of what was for both of us a trial trip. But I was distressed by the whole incident, from your point of view. I had been asked to write the dialogue of a film which was being founded on an important novel, Duo, by an important writer, Colette.

Instead I was faced with a ridiculous idea, incapable of development in any way not likely to be prejudicial to your reputation.

You may love your husband very much, but you should face the fact that he has no talent. You have great talent and a great personality, and it is absurd that for the sake of your private emotions you should allow these gifts to be wasted in a film like Europe 1951, which is so inept that even your performance, which excites admiration by itself, cannot save it.

You will not believe this when you read it, and you will think me an odious woman. But when your husband has made two more films for you, you remember this letter, and think about putting yourself in the hands of a competent director.

I never wrote such an extraordinary letter as this in my life. But I have also never seen such an extraordinary situation as the wreck of your artistic life.

With all good wishes,

I am, 

Yours sincerely,

Rebecca West  

[Source: Selected Letters of Rebecca West, edited by Bonnie Kime Scott (2000)] 


The film that Rossellini eventually made without West's help was Journey to Italy (1954), starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as an estranged married couple vacationing in Italy. While both a box-office and critical flop upon release, the film is now regarded by many as Rossellini's masterpiece and according to director Martin Scorsese "one of the most honest portraits of a marriage ever put on film". Loosely based on Colette's novel Duo, the screenplay was written by Rossellini and Vitaliano Brancati.

George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman as Alex and Katherine Joyce in a scene from Journey to Italy aka Viaggio in Italia or Voyage to Italy.
Roberto Rossellini on the set of Europe '51 with Ingrid Bergman and another cast member. Rossellini and Bergman worked together six times — on Stromboli (1950), Europe '51 (1952), We, the Women (1953), Journey to Italy (1954), Fear (1954) and Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954). 

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