All that Jazz's steamy "Airotica" number, and Valeria in the original one and only Conan the Barbarian (1982). She's done other work since but these are the roles that endure, that make her the graceful warrior woman in cinema's gallery of archetypes.
Of course by now you've guessed it: after seeing Conan at the local multiplex in 1982, I fell madly in love with Sandahl Bergman. The minute she stepped on creen I stopped worrying that this film was going to suck (I was a huge fan of Conan author Robert E. Howard) and I swooned. Here was accessible beauty (that long Germanic nose is so hot!), physical grace and amazing swordsmanship-- everything a 15 year old comic book collecting boy trapped in the sterile hell of suburban central New Jersey needed in a dream girl. As Valeria, her fighting prowess and selfless devotion to big brutish Schwarzenegger were larger than life, truly mythic, yet believable, tender, and human. Their onscreen chemistry easily transcended the muscle-headed boundaries of sword and sorcery cinema. In a 1982 Sneak Previews episode, both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave Conan a thumbs up, based almost entirely on the romantic element. A dancer and a weight lifter as opposed to two pro "actors"-- this was the first love scene either had ever done, and their relative inexperience fits perfectly with their characters' own sense of wounded bird-style discovery. This is their characters' first love scene too and we feel their wonderment and terror it might all go away in a flash of a scimitar. Chuckle in disbelief if you will but Bergman and Schwarzenegger in Conan have the same fragile first-love sweetness that James Dean and Natalie Wood had in Rebel Without a Cause or any of the best Nicholas Ray or Frank Borzage couples, or even Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in Cronenberg's Fly remake.
Sexy as she is while gyrating and grinding and having her clothes torn off in All that Jazz, there's still no topping the amount of hotness that is Bergman charging into battle in her black full body war paint in Conan. And it's always totally her in the fights, no cutting away to a stunt double, which makes her battles markedly different--and worlds better--than most, and you want reckless realism? She almost lost a finger! Such healthy Nordic recklessness gained her the loyal devotion of millions of socially maladjusted young cinema goers like myself. I was so loyal that it took awhile for me to warm up to her scene in All that Jazz, actually, because I felt she was being exploited! I didn't want these dancers all pawing at her. Whoa! Easy there, killer! I had the poster of her with her sword up on my wall for years (it's the one below left0; I fell in love with her quizzical look while holding her scimitar, as if she wasn't sure whether to kiss you or kill you. Her muscular, super sexy thigh exposed--just enough to be hot but not enough to be sleazy--made my own German-Scandinavian blood rise up like a vengeful, anguished tide.
Alas, Bergman became caught up in a different tide, the post-Conan gold rush, wherein every two bit Italian outfit that could scrounge up a few old peplum props was pumping our drive-ins full of drivel like the Beastmaster, Sword and Sorcery, Hearts and Armour, Krull, Dragonslayer and Red Sonja. Looking for a change of pace, Bergman opted to play the evil queen instead of the lead in Red Sonja, but regardless of this twist, the film is a major endurance test-- more Supergirl than Conan, with endlessly dragged out scenes of bad special effects and way too many cheap robes. Bergman went back to the stage, TV, etc., and there you have it, another great screen presence spat through the star maker machinery and dumped in the wastelands of late-night cable. Nothing to be ashamed of in that. Nothing for her to be ashamed of anyway. The rest of us should all be ashamed, for not creating a universe wherein a whole series of cool Valeria films utilizing her natural grace and charm might have thrived. John Milius, why did Valeria have to die?!?!?!
But that's show biz, big boy, and even if she really only appears in two enduring classics (and a slew of forget-me-soon possible future cult items like Hell Comes to Frog Town and Xanadu), Bergman's effortlessly sexy screen presence, catlike grace and natural warmth are enough to ensure she'll never be just a mere cinematic footnote... especially not as long as guys who were awkward teenagers in 1982 continue to age into blog-writing pedagogues. So, Sandahl, happy birthday from one of the many boys you helped along the demon and serpent-bestrewn road to manhood. May you stay forever hot, forever sweet, forever warm, forever young... and forever lithe!