Ullmann won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama in 1972 for the film The Emigrants (1971), and has been nominated for another four. In 2000, she was nominated for the Palme d'Or for her second directorial feature film, Faithless. She has also received two BAFTA Award nominations for her performances in Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Face to Face (1976), and two Academy Award nominations for The Emigrants and Face to Face.
Ullmann was born in Tokyo, Japan, the daughter of Erik Viggo Ullmann (1907–1945), a Norwegian aircraft engineer who was working in Tokyo at the time, and Janna Erbe (née Lund; 1910–1996), also Norwegian. Her grandfather was sent to the Dachau concentration camp during the Second World War for helping Jewish people escape from the town where he lived in Norway; he died in the camp. When she was two years old, the family relocated to Toronto, Ontario, where her father worked at the Norwegian air force base on Toronto Island (in Lake Ontario) during World War II. The family moved to New York, where four years later, her father died of a brain tumor, an event that affected her greatly. Her mother worked as a bookseller while raising two daughters. They eventually returned to Norway, settling in Trondheim.
Ullmann began her acting career as a stage actress in Norway during the mid-1950s. She continued to act in theatre for most of her career, and became noted for her portrayal of Nora in Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House, but became better known once she started to work with Swedish movie director Ingmar Bergman. She later acted, with acclaim, in 10 of his movies, including Persona (1966), The Passion of Anna (1969), Cries and Whispers (1972) and Autumn Sonata (1978), in which her co-actress, Ingrid Bergman, resumed her Swedish cinema career. She co-acted often with Swedish actor and fellow Bergman collaborator, Erland Josephson, with whom she made the Swedish television drama, Scenes from a Marriage (1973), which was also edited to feature-movie length and distributed theatrically. Ullmann acted with Laurence Olivier in A Bridge Too Far (1977), directed by Richard Attenborough.
Nominated more than 40 times for awards, including various lifetime achievement awards, she won the best actress prize three times from the National Society of Film Critics, three times from the National Board of Review, received three awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and a Golden Globe. During 1971, Ullmann was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for the movie The Emigrants, and again during 1976 for the movie Face to Face.
Ullmann made her New York City stage debut in 1975 also in A Doll's House. Appearances in "Anna Christie and Ghosts followed, as well as the less than successful musical version of I Remember Mama. This show, composed by Richard Rodgers, experienced numerous revisions during a long preview period, then closed after 108 performances. She also featured in the widely deprecated musical movie remake of Lost Horizon during 1973.
In 1980 Brian De Palma, who directed Carrie, wanted Liv Ullmann to play the role of Kate Miller in the erotic crime thriller Dressed to Kill and offered it to her, but she declined because of the violence. The role subsequently went to Angie Dickinson. In 1982 Ingmar Bergman wanted Ullmann to play the main character Emelie Ekdahl in his last feature film, Fanny and Alexander and wrote the role with this in mind. But Ullmann felt the role was too sad and declined. Liv Ullmann later stated in interviews that turning it down was one of the few things she really regrets.
During 1984 she was chairperson of the jury at the 34th Berlin International Film Festival, and during 2002 chaired the jury of Cannes Film Festival. She introduced her daughter, Linn Ullmann, to the audience with the words: "Here comes the woman whom Ingmar Bergman loves the most". Her daughter was there to receive the Prize of Honour on behalf of her father; she would return to serve the jury herself during 2011.
In 2003 Ullmann reprised her role for Scenes from a Marriage in Saraband (2003), Bergman's final telemovie. This was her comeback as an actress since her last role on the screen, in the Swedish movie Zorn (1994).
In 2004 Ullmann revealed that she had received an offer in November 2003 to play in 3 episodes of the popular American series, Sex and the City. Ullmann was amused by the offer and said that it was one of the few programs she regularly watched, but she turned it down. Later that year Steven Soderbergh wrote a role in the movie Ocean's 12 especially for Ullmann but it was also turned down by her.
Ullmann narrated the Canada–Norway co-produced animated short movie The Danish Poet (2006), which won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film at the 79th Academy Awards during 2007.
In 2008 she was the head of the jury at the 30th Moscow International Film Festival.
She published two autobiographies, Changing (1977) and Choices (1984).
During 2012, she attended the International Indian Film Academy Awards in Singapore, where she was honored for her Outstanding Contributions to International Cinema and she also showed her movie on her relationship with Ingmar Bergman.
Ullmann's first film as a director was Sofie (1992), in which she directed her friend and former co-actor, Erland Josephson. She later directed the Bergman-composed movie Faithless (2000). Faithless garnered nominations for both the Palme d'Or and Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival.
During 2006 Ullmann announced that she had been forced to end her longtime wish of making a film based on A Doll's House. According to her statement, the Norwegian Film Fund was preventing her and writer Kjetil Bjørnstad from pursuing the project. Australian actress Cate Blanchett and British actress Kate Winslet had been cast intended in the main roles of the movie. She later directed Blanchett in the play A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, at the Sydney Theatre Company in Sydney, Australia, which was performed September through October 2009, and then continued from 29 October to 21 November 2009 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where it won a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Non-resident Production as well as actress and supporting performer for 2009. The play was also performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, New York.
In 2013 it was announced that Ullmann would direct a film adaptation of Miss Julie. The film, released in 2014, stars Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton. It was widely praised by the Norwegian press after its premiere in September 2014.
In addition to Norwegian, Ullmann speaks Swedish, English and other European languages.
In 1985, she married Boston real estate developer Donald Saunders, with whom she continues to share her life.
She is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and has traveled widely for the organization. She is also co-founder and honorary chair of the International Rescue Committee's Women's Refugee Commission.
In 2005, King Harald V of Norway made Ullmann a Commander with Star of the Order of St. Olav.
In 2006, she received an honorary degree, dr. philos. honoris causa, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.2006: Ibsen Centennial Commemoration Award
2012: International Indian Film Academy Awards for Outstanding Contribution to International Cinema
The Danish Poet won its director Torill Kove the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 79th Academy Awards.