Profile

Isabella Rossellini turns her attention to the birds and the bees. By Fenella Souter.

Isabella Rossellini on sex in the wild

Credit: PHOTOGRAPH: MARIO DEL CURTO

Isabella Rossellini’s touring one-woman stage show is about sex. Not the kind she had in Blue Velvet, raped by Dennis Hopper as he sucked on an oxygen mask. Not the kind she had, in the same film, with Kyle MacLachlan, his boyish tenderness rattled by her cries of “Hit me! I want you to hit me!”

Most of the sex in Green Porno is violent and, as far as one can tell, non-consensual. The difference is that it’s between the birds and the bees, which seems to make it all right. The show sees the actor and former model standing at a lectern, sometimes dressed as a hamster, expounding on some of the more peculiar mating and courtship habits found among insects and animals. She also screens short films in which she demonstrates the practices, outfitted in a series of cute, eccentric costumes, although their Bananas-in-Pyjamas innocence tends to evaporate once the giant phalluses begin to wave provocatively.

Rossellini, 61 and with a lifelong interest in animal behaviour, isn’t the first to realise sex can make people interested in subjects they wouldn’t otherwise care about; the life cycle of an anchovy, say. Sex, coupled with celebrity, can make people sit in a theatre for 75 minutes absorbing what seems a lot like a biology lesson. Sex has comic appeal, especially when performed by a saucy actress with an Italian accent and a willingness to dress in a bee suit and hump an oil beetle without blushing.

From her own history, Rossellini must also know that sexual encounters shape destiny.

Rossellini, who would become most famous as the “face” of Lancôme cosmetics, was born into the cooling lava of one of the most volcanic sex scandals of the 1950s. In 1950, her future mother, the celebrated actor Ingrid Bergman, had stunned middle America and Hollywood by falling for Italian film director Roberto Rossellini. She had also fallen pregnant. Both parties were married. Bergman, who had starred in Casablanca by then, had left her dentist husband and – unwillingly – a 10-year-old daughter, to live with Rossellini in post-Fascist Rome.

The morality police wasted no time in bludgeoning the woman who had played St Joan and a spotless nun. Ed Sullivan refused to have Bergman on his talk show. A US senator called her “a powerful influence for evil”. The Swedish-born actor was effectively barred from working in Hollywood.

Bergman and Rossellini married as soon as they could and Isabella and her twin sister, Ingrid, were born in Rome in 1952. After all the furore, however, their parents’ marriage was short-lived. Isabella was too young to be aware of the scandal but it wasn’t long before she received a direct lesson in the random sexual habits of higher-order primates. Her adored father, who would have four wives and seven children, was a man thoroughly attuned to nature’s mating calls. When Isabella was about five, he went on a work trip to India and came back with a new family. He had fallen madly in love with Sonali Dasgupta, the wife of an Indian filmmaker. She accompanied him back to Europe, like Bergman, leaving one of her children behind.

Roberto Rossellini and Bergman divorced, amicably, and he married his new love. Bergman moved to Paris and married a Swede. Where were the children in all this? Not so much replaced in their parents affections as relocated. First to Paris and then back to Rome, where they were set up in their own flat – “the children’s apartment”, as it was called – and looked after by their aunt, their grandmother, a housekeeper and a succession of nannies and babysitters. Roberto Rossellini and his new wife and children were installed in an apartment across the street.

Isabella Rossellini saw her father mainly on weekends. Ingrid Bergman would visit her children when she wasn’t working in films. Bergman’s Hollywood career had revived with her comeback film, Anastasia, and she was in demand again. As the actress herself acknowledged, acting was the most important thing in her life. Cleaning ran a close second, Isabella Rossellini notes in her 1997 memoir, Some of Me, adding: “Which is not to say she loved even that above me. I’m sure she loved me more than cleaning, but what made her happiest was combining the two. We cleaned together.” (Rossellini goes on to give some tips on the proper way to wash glasses.)

The “children’s apartment” had a dance barre, a punching bag and a ping-pong table; even curtains shortened by the practical Bergman so the children’s dogs couldn’t lift a leg on them. The only thing missing – live-in parents. A kind of pampered abandonment.

Some celebrities might have milked such a childhood for a lifetime of therapy or some public sympathy. Instead, Rossellini has chosen to shape it into a blithe, Madeline-like tale, free of any chapters on resentment or abandonment. Words like “closure” and “issues” never fall from her lips. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t have any. Asked about Rossellini in an interview a few years back, friend and director Guy Maddin said she was many things simultaneously, including a “well-travelled sophisticate” and a “wide-eyed girl with daddy issues”. She could also be, he added, “unbelievably raunchy at times”.

On the phone from her Long Island home, Rossellini claims to have been happy about the unusual parental arrangement. “It suited me very well,” she says. Her sister, however, has said she cried for days after her mother left.

It meant Isabella sought out her adored, fun-loving and Ferrari-driving father and saw much less of her long-distance mother. The longest stretch of uninterrupted time with Bergman seems to have been when 13-year-old Isabella was bedridden and recovering from a major spinal operation to treat scoliosis, an agonising process that took more than 18 months. In her memoir, Rossellini writes of her mother’s decision to give up work for that period: “I was moved by her decision and felt guilty about taking her away from what she loved so much – acting. Maybe it was then that I learned one can wish for opposite things that can never be reconciled.”

This is about as close as she gets to analysing her emotionally chaotic childhood. You might imagine the subject of mothering would interest Rossellini, as one of her animal films is called Mammas, about maternal habits in nature. Apparently not. When The Saturday Paper attempts to ask her, apropos her childhood, whether she thinks her mother’s early orphaning may have influenced her – Bergman’s – attitude to parenting, Rossellini immediately erupts.

“Can we talk about my show?!!” she says, furiously. “I mean, my great-grandparents that died? I mean, I didn’t even meet them!!! Comments about my mum’s psychology? My mum died 30 years ago! My grandparents? I haven’t even met them! Her mother died when my mother was two and my mum was 14 when her father died. I don’t know what to say about them!!!!”

She gives an angry, uncomfortable laugh, and bats away attempts to explain, or to crawl. “I never met them!” she repeats. “I was asked to do an interview to talk about my show. Now we’re talking about four generations past–ah!!! … I …”

She is interrupted by a third party coming on the line. Suddenly we seem to be in an Italian sitcom.

“Hello, this is the operator speaking,” a woman says, breezy and oblivious. “I’m just bringing Anthony Carew into the conference. Go ahead, Anthony.”

“Ah, thank you,” says a male voice. There’s a moment’s stunned silence.

“’ullo? ’ullo?” Rossellini says, imperiously. “’Ooo is this?”

“Um, my name’s Anthony.”

“Are you the second interviewer? I am finishing an interview!!! ’Ooo are you?”

“Ah, I’m from The Music,” a bewildered Anthony replies.

It’s hard to know whether to feel sorry for Anthony, annoyed or grateful for the interruption. In the end, it has the same effect of throwing a bucket of water over brawling cats. Normal transmission resumes.

“Can I finish this interview?” Rossellini asks Anthony, mildly. “Can you call back in 10 minutes? Five minutes?”

“Ah … Okay,” says Anthony.

Rossellini’s reaction, while large, is understandable. She claims to do 700 interviews a year. She is inevitably asked about her parents. Yet this is partly of her own making. Her life has swung between duelling tensions: a sense of duty and ownership as keeper of the flame – with a cinematic homage to her father, a book devoted to her mother, loving dialogues with her dead parents in her memoir – and an urge to flee their giant shadows.

It’s another reason she is proud of the Green Porno project, which has given her a chance to write, direct and share her “stupor and wonder” about animals. It started out as three short internet films on animals for Sundance TV, grew to 40 and has now spawned a book and the stage show, which is touring Australia this month, at a point when Rossellini feared she was being put out to pasture.

“Around 55, 60, I don’t work as a model anymore. I stopped working as a model at 45, not of my choice – you don’t get any jobs. And also films, if you want acting, you get secondary roles. The early interest [in animal behaviour] hadn’t gone away, so I went back to university.” She’s completing a master’s in it.

Rossellini has done most things relatively late (and some not at all – she can’t drive, for example). She didn’t consider becoming a model until she was 28, three years after her father died, for fear it was a “stupid” profession. You can see how you might fear that when your father is a neo-realist filmmaker who despises commercialism and artifice, and your twin is a professor of Italian literature. Acting? The small problem of rivalling a mother who won three Academy Awards.

“I was intimidated by my mother’s fame,” she says now, “but once I became 30 and I had a massive career as a model, that gave me confidence.” At 34, she gave her memorable performance as tortured torch-singer Dorothy Vallens in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Ingrid Bergman had died four years earlier.

Rossellini had come to New York in her early 20s to learn English. In Rome, she had been working as a television journalist, making short films with Roberto Benigni, and kept that up from New York. In time, however, “came the opportunity to become a model”.

“I did some photos with Bruce Weber, and within two months I was asked to be on the cover of Vogue. I was at Avedon’s studio every day,” she says. “I got the Lancôme contract almost immediately. So that changed completely the direction of my life. It was fun, I was working with these fantastic, talented people, and it paid an incomparable amount of money compared to Italian television.”

To younger generations, of course, it is Isabella Rossellini who is the big name. In the 1980s and ’90s her flawless, elegant image beamed out from magazine covers, billboards, advertisements. She was famous as the glamorous face of a cosmetics brand, even though privately she rarely wore make-up and favoured – still favours – flats and the ease of men’s clothing. With those after-hours eyes, pouting lips and that grand, cantilevered jaw, Rossellini was a beautiful collision of Italian sensuality and Swedish engineering.

In her film work and personal life, she was drawn to arthouse and auteurs. Her acting career has been patchy – she blames starting late and having an accent – but she has worked with John Schlesinger (The Innocent), Peter Weir (Fearless) and Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, where she played an amputee with two glass legs filled with beer). In the late ’70s to early ’80s, she was married to Martin Scorsese. One of the entertaining stories in her repertoire is of watching Scorsese faint at the sight of a drop of his own blood in a doctor’s surgery. The marriage officially ended when she had an affair with model Jonathan Wiedemann and fell pregnant. He became her second husband and their daughter, Elettra, is now 30 and a model. Rossellini also has a son, Roberto. Other partners have included Mikhail Baryshnikov, David Lynch and Gary Oldman.

The tumultuous childhood, the agonising surgery, the broken relationships, all seem to have been managed with the help of Rossellini’s practical, when-in-doubt-dust nature. Oddly enough, the pain that still seems to gnaw away at her goes back to being dropped by Lancôme in 1992. After 14 years, and six days after her 40th birthday, the company “let her go”. Too old. (Lancôme has said it tried to reach an alternative agreement with Rossellini but couldn’t.)

She has always made it plain they made a commercial mistake. Even now, she would still like to be modelling. She talks at one point about the idea that “supposedly at 60 you cannot be judged anymore a great beauty”. Ageing is perhaps even more poignant for a woman famous for her loveliness. Has her beauty been a help or a handicap? “I don’t know. I wouldn’t have been a model without it. I wouldn’t have made the money I made. I would say generally it helps,” she concludes, laughing. “Better to be beautiful than ugly.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 15, 2014 as "Force of nature". Subscribe here.

Fenella Souter
is a Sydney-based feature writer.