Obituary: Mai Zetterling
Saturday 26 March 1994
She loved Mozart and gardening; Van Gogh, Bunuel, privacy, and the sea. Some of her cats' names revealed her allegiances: Felina 81 2 , Olga Knipper (for the actress who married Chekhov), and Pushkin. Most of her finest stage roles were by Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov and Anouilh. Sartre called her 'an important tragedienne of the century' when she played his Electra in The Flies at the National Theatre of Stockholm, and critics extolled her talent for comedy when she appeared in Only Two Can Play (1962) with Peter Sellers. Loathing Hollywood when she made Knock on Wood with Danny Kaye (whose offscreen jokes seemed witless to her), she horrified her agent by rejecting the next script offered there in order to perform A Doll's House in London.
An adventurer who relished risks and challenges, she had no respect for boundaries: if she was told that a certain task was impossible, she was almost sure to achieve it. When choosing her parts she had an affinity for rebels. I first knew her in the 1950s, when she was living in Kensington Court, in London, and acting mainly in French plays: Marcel Ayme's Clerambard and Anouilh's Restless Heart. In those days her genuine joie de vivre was flavoured with a subtle pessimism: she used to repeat that happiness was not a goal, that a quest for happiness could derail one's existence. Meanwhile she enjoyed mysteries of all sorts. I once asked why the shop assistant she played in Frenzy (written by Ingmar Bergman) died near the end of the movie - was she murdered? Mai said gleefully, 'We were never told.'
After she lost her enthusiasm for acting and became a director, I visited her while she was making Loving Couples in Stockholm; the film was co-written with the novelist David Hughes, her second husband. Many of Bergman's actors performed in it, and directing her peers was a formidable prospect. But it delighted her to live in a vast 19th- century wooden mansion with carved staircases and gleaming views of the Baltic, which the studio had furnished from the sets of Bergman's movies. As usual Mai built a warm and playful community around her. Now I think of my brave and generous friend in that magical house, immersed in her work, tasting green olives and smoked fish, with five feature films ahead of her and lots of short ones, prizes at the Venice Film Festival, four books to be written, and many rewarding years until she asked to hear Schubert's late quartet in G Major on the last day of her life.
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