The strange and beautiful films of Isabella Rossellini

James Oliver

As she celebrates her 65th birthday, James Oliver pays tribute to Isabella Rossellini: she might have had famous parents but she’s very much her own woman...

We should all spare a thought for the offspring of the famous. It can’t be easy establishing your own identity if your parents are well known, especially if you end up following the family business. And it must be harder still if that parent isn’t simply celebrated but routinely referred to as a legend.


Rossellini as a teenager. Image via Cinepatas

That’s why the career of Isabella Rossellini is so remarkable: she's the spawn of legends twice over but has never let that define her. What’s more, she's a famous beauty who's always resisted trading on her looks: she’s earned a reputation as one of the actresses of her generation through brave, and challenging, choices. And she’s nowhere near done yet.

Her father was Roberto Rossellini, a filmmaker who changed the course of cinema at least twice with films like Rome, Open City and Voyage to Italy. Her mother was Ingrid Bergman, one of cinema’s great goddesses: it was she who left Bogie in the lurch in Casablanca, she who sorted Gregory Peck out in Spellbound, she who snogged Cary Grant in Notorious.


Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini with their children. Image via sistercelluloid

Isabella Rossellini was born in 1952, one of a pair. (She has a twin sister, Ingrid, who has favoured a life of academia: she is a one-time Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia University). Her parents’ relationship—a famously controversial affair that had scandalised Middle America—dissolved soon after, and she and her siblings had a peripatetic childhood around Europe and the US.

It shouldn't be denied that her parentage helped her at the start of her career: modelling agencies are always going to have an eye for a gorgeous young woman but if that gorgeous woman happens to be the daughter of a film star, she’s going to have brands falling over themselves to be associated with her. So it proved: by the time she hit 30, she was one of the most photographed people alive.


Image via renzhou 

Modelling, though, is an unfulfilling profession for those with creative ambition. Like many models before her and since, Rossellini began to conceive of a career as a thespian. But where she differed from her co-workers was in the type of film she wanted to make.

The easy route of glamour and blockbusters was not for her. In much the same way her mother had turned her back on Hollywood flim-flam to work on more substantial fare with her father, Rossellini sought out more artistically satisfying projects.

Film success was not immediate; in movies like White Nights she was treated as just another model-turned-actress. But when she did get a role that allowed her to prove herself, she embraced it wholeheartedly.

That role came in Blue Velvet, David Lynch’s tale of dark goings on in small town America. Rossellini played the tortured Dorothy Vallens, held captive by the devil and endlessly brutalised. It was a tough part, one that required a fearless actress and her performance remains remarkable for its conviction and commitment, even if the Oscars didn’t agree: astoundingly, she wasn’t even nominated.

If there were grumbles about nepotism at the start of her career, her turn in Blue Velvet silenced them. Again, she declined the opportunity to work in more mainstream fare, turning down roles in both Bull Durham and Fatal Attraction and, choosing instead the scripts she liked best, oddities like Siesta or Zelly and Me or The Innocent.


The Innocent (1993). Image via cineplex

She wasn’t allergic to more high-profile films, though: she re-teamed with Lynch for Wild at Heart—they were in a relationship at the time—and even made periodic ventures into Hollywood, such as Death Becomes Her in which she plays a sort of demonic cosmetic saleswoman, ironic given her own associations pushing Lancôme.

Unlike most former models, Rossellini has refused to let the ageing process throw her off her stride. If anything, she seems liberated by process: how many other name actresses would have accepted a role in The Saddest Music in the World, as a millionaire amputee, who has glass legs filled with beer?

If she can’t play the ingenue then she can show what a bloody good character actress she is. For proof, look at Two Lovers, directed by James Gray. Her performance as the main character’s mother is simply beautiful, concerned, loving, real. (Not that Oscar paid attention, of course. Sigh.)

She acts a little less these days, concentrating on her (many) other interests. She co-directed an idiosyncratic (but heartfelt) tribute to her late father on the occasion of his centenary called My Dad Is A Hundred Years Old.

More recently, she’s begun exploring zoology, albeit in unconventional ways; she made a series of short films about procreation and reproduction in the animal kingdoms called—ahem—Green Porno. The science is solid (she studied Animal Behaviour at Hunter College in New York) but you don’t get David Attenborough dressing up in insect costumes to show how the little critters get it on.

She celebrates her 65th birthday this month, still beautiful but more interesting, more vital than she was allowed to be when she was defined by beauty alone. She deserves our profoundest admiration as a princess of cinema who has become very nearly a queen in her own right.

 

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