Actress Maj-Britt Nilsson, 82; Played Ingenue

Maj-Britt Nilsson's starred in three Ingmar Bergman films, including
Maj-Britt Nilsson's starred in three Ingmar Bergman films, including "Illicit Interlude." (Agence France-presse)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2007

Maj-Britt Nilsson, 82, a Swedish actress who starred in several of Ingmar Bergman's early films, most memorably as a world-weary prima ballerina who recalls her youthful ecstasy in "Illicit Interlude," died Dec. 19 at a hospital in Cannes, France. No cause of death was reported.

With her raven hair, fetching pout and expressive dark eyes, Ms. Nilsson became an established ingenue onscreen while studying at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre. By the late 1940s, she was considered one of the country's most promising young actresses, capable of convincing light comedy in Gustaf Molander's movie "Affairs of a Model" and in such stage parts as Solange, one of the two mentally disturbed domestic workers in Jean Genet's "The Maids."

Bergman, who once noted Ms. Nilsson's "brilliant mixture of playfulness and seriousness," cast her in three demanding movie roles in the early 1950s. They were "To Joy," a domestic drama about classical musicians; "Secrets of Women," as one of four sisters-in-law who reveal personal stories; and "Illicit Interlude," also known as "Summer Interlude," as a 28-year-old dancer who remembers a crucial summer 13 years earlier, when she aroused passions that changed her life.

Writing in the New York Times, movie critic Bosley Crowther said Ms. Nilsson "ranges well from youthful joyousness to adult anxiety and despair. Many subtle suggestions of feminine nature are in the performance she gives."

Film critic Pauline Kael wrote that "Illicit Interlude" was the most distinguished of Bergman's early films and accented the melancholy themes apparent in his later masterpieces -- "artists who have lost their identities, the faces that have become masks, the mirrors that reflect death at work."

Bergman echoed that thought, once describing the film as the first "in which I felt I was functioning independently, with a style of my own, making a film all my own, with a particular appearance of its own that no one could copy."

Although he never again worked with Ms. Nilsson, Bergman regarded her with fondness. "She could do anything. She did it instantly and delivered her lines with absolute naturalness," he said.

Maj-Britt Nilsson was born in Stockholm on Dec. 11, 1924, and joined the Royal Dramatic Theatre drama school in 1944. The next year, she married popular singer and composer Anders Börje, whom she later divorced.

In 1951, she married director Per Gerhard and left the Royal Dramatic Theatre to work with him during the next three decades at Stockholm's Vasa theater. In the mid-1950s, she played Maggie the Cat in a Swedish-language version of Tennessee Williams's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

In later years, she was known for her passionate defense of comedy, saying that Neil Simon was as hard to play as Henrik Ibsen.

Ms. Nilsson attracted international attention for her Bergman work but worked only sporadically onscreen and mostly in Swedish productions. In the 1950s, she was a high school girl in love in Arne Mattsson's "For the Sake of My Intemperate Youth," which was nominated for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. She also acted in Hasse Ekman's comedy "We Three Debutantes" and the musical "Jazz Boy," as a dancer, with Ekman as her leading man.

Her last film was 1977's "Bluff Stop," which refers to a card game. She settled with Gerhard, who survives her, on the French Riviera in the mid-1980s.

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