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Lena Nyman: Best-Known Film Was Banned as Pornography

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Lena NymanSwedish actress Lena Nyman, who starred in the controversial, sexually charged Swedish drama I Am Curious (Yellow), died today following “a long illness.” She was 66.

Curiously, Nyman’s death took place one day after that of another star of another controversial, sexually charged release of that era, Last Tango in ParisMaria Schneider.

Shot in documentary style – the director plays himself, Nyman plays a character named “Lena,” and so on – and featuring simulated sex and male/female nudity, Vilgot Sjöman’s Jag är nyfiken – gul / I Am Curious (Yellow) was released in Sweden in 1967, thus preceding Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris by five years.

When the film arrived in the United States, it was seized by customs as pornographic material, which, if allowed into the country would lead to more race riots and political assassinations, not to mention another Vietnam War elsewhere in Asia or perhaps Africa.

Following an anti-censorship battle in US courts, I Am Curious (Yellow) was finally allowed to be shown on American screens in 1969. Thanks to all the free publicity provided by various branches of the US government, it became the biggest foreign-language box office hit ever in the United States, grossing $20.23 million (or about $113.3 million today). If inflation is taken into account, I Am Curious (Yellow) remains the record holder among non-English-language releases in the US.

More importantly, I Am Curious (Yellow) set a legal precedent that changed the meaning of the word “obscene,” thus allowing other sexually provocative motion pictures to enter the United States, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron (1971) and Tales of Canterbury (1973), and the aforementioned Last Tango in Paris.

Nyman, a Stockholm native (May 23, 1944) who began her film career as a child actress in the 1950s, also starred in the I Am Curious (Yellow) sequel, I Am Curious (Blue) (1968). The colors in Sjöman’s films – a mix of sex, politics, and psychological analysis – refer to the colors of the Swedish flag. (Sjöman predated Krzysztof Kieslowski and his Three Colors French-flag trilogy by nearly three decades.)

Now, some have said that the I Am Curious films were thematically groundbreaking in that they led to hardcore pornography. That, however, isn’t true. Sexually explicit movies featuring people doing both the imaginable and the unimaginable (in case there is such a thing) in all sorts of positions and situations have been around for as long as movie cameras have been around.

Unlike Maria Schneider, who became an internationally known performer because of Last Tango in Paris, Lena Nyman – perhaps because she didn’t have simulated sex with a Hollywood superstar – never became an international celebrity. She did, however, win Sweden’s equivalent to the Oscars: a “joint” Best Actress Guldbagge award for her performances in both Yellow and Blue.

Nyman kept away from the cameras in the early 1970s, returning in 1975 for Stig Björkman’s Den vita väggen / The White Wall, opposite Ingmar Bergman star Harriet Andersson; and actor-director Tage Danielsson’s Släpp fångarne loss, det är vår! / Release the Prisoners to Spring.

Other film appearances include those in Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978), as the mentally impaired sister of Liv Ullmann and daughter of Ingrid Bergman; Tage Danielsson’s Picassos äventyr / The Adventures of Picasso (1978), starring Gösta Ekman as the Spanish painter; and Sverige åt svenskarna / Sweden for the Swedes (1980), directed by actor Per Oscarsson, who died last New Year’s Eve in a house fire.

Nyman’s last film appearance was a supporting role in Anette Winblad’s romantic comedy Att göra en pudel / White Trash (2006). Nyman was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Guldbagge for this effort.

Besides her film work, Nyman also acted on the Swedish stage and television. “Her unique style and characteristic expression has really served to broaden how a woman can act and be presented on stage,” Women in Swedish Performing Arts’ Johanna Skobe told the Swedish-focused online publication The Local.

According to Agence France Presse, “tributes to the actress poured in in Sweden” following her death.

As an aside: Eerily, I Am Curious (Yellow) features two political figures that would be assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr and Olof Palme.

Check out this lengthy essay on I Am Curious (Yellow) and I Am Curious (Blue).

A recent image of Lena Nyman can be found at The Local.

Photos: The Criterion Collection

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