Icons / June 2017

Isabella Rossellini: Wild At Heart

Once the highest paid model in the world, Isabella Rossellini is an era-resistant feminist icon that, at age 65, remains an ambassador for maturity, eloquence and acumen on screen and…
Isabella Rossellini for Dolce & Gabbana, photographed by Michael Comte, 1994.

Isabella Rossellini, who recently turned 65, is cinema’s most enlightened aristocrat, the surrealist daughter of a neorealist pioneer. Her parents, the Italian director Roberto Rossellini and the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, fell in love on the set of Stromboli (1950), even though Bergman was married at the time to neurosurgeon Petter Lindstrom. When the Casablanca star became pregnant with Isabella, the public outcry was so ferocious that one US senator denounced her as “a horrible example of womanhood and a powerful influence for evil”. The sexist hypocrisies that accompanied her own birth are the kind Isabella would come to deconstruct with wit, style and stoicism over the years.

Her childhood was surprisingly disrupted. When her parents separated, she was shuttled between hotels in New York, Paris and Rome with six siblings, including her twin Isotta – not ideal for a sufferer of scoliosis (curvature of the spine) who had to wear a cast for two years. Determined not to follow her parents into film, she moved to New York at 19 to work with future Oscar darling Robert Benigni as a “foreign correspondent” on a TV show that satirised Italian life.

"The sexist hypocrisies that accompanied her own birth are the kind Isabella would come to deconstruct with wit, style and stoicism over the years."

At 25, Rossellini was sent to interview Martin Scorsese about his new film New York, New York; within months they were married. In 1984, her Bergman cheekbones and pixie cut chimed so precisely with the post-modern sexual fluidity of the times that she became the face of Lancôme and the highest paid model in the world. She posed for Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber, appeared on the front cover of Vogue and dressed up as a drag king for Madonna’s Sex book. One 1988 exhibition at Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne dedicated an entire exhibition to photographs just of her.

And then there was David Lynch. Though he originally wanted to cast Helen Mirren, Rossellini persuaded him to let her play the part of Dorothy in his 1986 film Blue Velvet. Her performance still quivers in the memory: brittle, woozy, frightened, a tortured fantasy of psychosexual confusion, a hostage to Dennis Hopper’s hellish Frank. Four years later, she starred in Lynch’s Wild At Heart, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but marked the end of their romance.

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Ed Cripps

Ed is a screenwriter and journalist. His TV CV includes Episodes, Fresh Meat and Made in Chelsea (his first series of which won a BAFTA). In 2016, his piece on The South Bank Show came second in The Observer's Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. In addition to The Rake, he has written for the TLS, MR PORTER and Little White Lies.