Ronald Bergan (1937-2020)

Above: portrait of Sigmund Freud in 1926.

Clive Hirschhorn wrote the obituary of Ronald Bergan for The Guardian of 28 Jul 2020:

“…The film scholar Ronald Bergan, who has died aged 82 after suffering from urosepsis, wrote a number of biographies that revealed a considerable understanding of the cinema both in front of and behind the camera. Key to their success was the passion they conveyed and a prose style that kept the reader simultaneously entertained and informed. He was also a university lecturer and a prolific journalist, notably with obituaries for this newspaper from Jim Backus, the voice of Mr Magoo, in 1989 onwards.

He addressed big themes: in his book The Coen Brothers (2000) he took the view that even if Ethan Coen saw a style as just an agglomeration of decisions made along the way, a film such as the brothers’ first, Blood Simple (1984), is postmodernist in the way that it “alludes to 1940s film noir through a number of inverted commas. The film noir was a product of the psychology of postwar America which expressed the nihilism and depression brought about by the second world war and intensified by the cold war, resulting in a distrust of human nature and institutions.”

In Dustin Hoffman (1991), there is a chapter on the film Tootsie (1982), which he puns as “Hoffman/Hoffwoman”. The actor’s portrayal of the central character, Dorothy, was based on Hoffman’s mother, who died a year before the movie was completed.

“Dustin threw himself more than ever into the part which, as his brother Ronald suggested, was a way of keeping his mother alive by playing her. Freud got in before Dustin’s brother,” Bergan observes, “by claiming that transvestism was a way men had of reclaiming the lost feminine part of themselves.” Though we cannot know the effect that wearing dresses had on the actor, “he certainly admitted that the character of Dorothy had affected him emotionally the way no other character ever had before”.

In 1993 he was a consultant for a pair of TV movies about the director Jean Renoir, which were followed by his book Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise (1995). Other biographical subjects included Anthony Perkins (1996), Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict (1997) and Katharine Hepburn: An Independent Woman (2013).

Bergan was an astute critic as well. In his studio history The United Artists Story (1986) he noted that Tony Curtis as the cringing, loathsome press agent Sidney Falco in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) “gave a compelling performance proving he wasn’t just a pretty face with a pretty awful accent”; Dirk Bogarde in Judy Garland’s last film, I Could Go on Singing (1963, directed by Ronald Neame) “offered a range of two expressions, approving and disapproving”; and he captured the very essence of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) “with its meticulously structured plot and dialogue, a perfect blend of sweet and sour, tender and heartless and masterful comic timing”…”

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