Famous for Her Face (and Name), Isabella Rossellini Creates a Stir Exposing Her Body in Blue Velvet

UPDATED 10/20/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/20/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

In a rush to get to Kennedy airport for a flight to Rome, Isabella Rossellini has just left her loft in Lower Manhattan and dashed into a waiting limo. A single mother since her split (after three years) from her second husband, model Jon Wiedemann, Rossellini, 34, is not taking along daughter Elettra, 3, this time. "Leaving her friends is hard," Rossellini explains. Even with no makeup, the $2 million face of the Lancôme cosmetics still radiates serenity. A neat trick for an actress under fire.

Rossellini has been dodging flak since her new film, Blue Velvet, an unsettling erotic mystery from writer-director David (The Elephant Man) Lynch, opened four weeks ago. The uproar concerns the appearance of the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini in what one reviewer called "the sickest movie ever made." Isabella plays a tarted-up singer in a small American town warbling endless choruses of the old Bobby Vinton hit Blue Velvet for the delectation of a psycho (Dennis Hopper) who has kidnapped her husband and child. Rossellini regularly dresses in a blue velvet robe while Hopper, as part of a sadomasochistic ritual, brutally beats and rapes her.

Some critics hailed the R-rated film for exploring the dark side of Norman Rockwell America. Others could only express jaw-dropping shock. "This movie is a little bit like picking up a rock and discovering something horrible but continuing to look," said New York TV critic Pia Lindstrom, who also happens to be Isabella's half sister. Pia admitted that she would have preferred seeing her beloved sibling in a more innocent role instead of begging the film's young hero (Kyle MacLachlan) to "hit me, hit me" as a prelude to sex.

Then there were those who would have preferred Isabella to skip the movie entirely. Her modeling agent feared that she'd lose the renewal on her lucrative Lancôme contract. She did not. Her acting agent dreaded condemnation from feminist groups. "I was told the film was against women," says Isabella, who does not agree. She had a tougher time, she says, playing "a prop for the men" opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines in last year's White Nights. "There is this idea that you have to play heroines or women who succeed," she says, "but I felt a tremendous compassion for this character who is nothing like me. It was the best script I ever read."

Rossellini dismisses those who say she's besmirching the memory of her parents. "Her mother, Ingrid Bergman, must be turning in her grave," sputtered Rex Reed. Rossellini smiles broadly at hearing the remark. "I don't know what my parents would think, because they are dead [he in 1977, she in 1982]," she says. "But my mother loved The Elephant Man, and my father gave David Lynch a scholarship to study in Rome. He'd seen Lynch's talent, and that pleases me." What disturbs Isabella is that some people might see her taking the role in Blue Velvet as an act of rebellion. "My mother's ability to be a good mother has been questioned throughout her life," she says. "This is very painful. We were always so very, very close."

Isabella admits she felt nervous seeing Blue Velvet with her family. "I thought it would be too difficult for my jealous Italian brothers," she says. "I thought they'd want to lock me in the house because I was naked and a man raped me. But they were so captured by the style of the film and the intrigue. They loved it."

Isabella rejects TV reviewer Roger Ebert's suggestion that Lynch was demeaning her in those Blue Velvet nude scenes. "It is not true that David Lynch wanted to humiliate me," says Isabella, who has been linked romantically with the director. "I never felt exploited or abused," she says vehemently. In the scene where she wanders naked onto a front lawn, her body battered, it was Isabella's decision not to cover herself with her arms. "It was very important to come out with a gesture of total helplessness," she says. Raised in Italy, Isabella says she drew grim inspiration for the scene from friends who had been kidnapped and tortured during the '70s by the Red Brigade, a left-wing terrorist organization that preyed on the rich. "When they were released, they came back haunted," she recalls. "I kept seeing those eyes that had seen the unseen and experienced the inexplicable."

The voluptuous Isabella says that if her character had been photographed in a sensuous way she would never have done the nude scene. "When I came out of the bushes totally naked, I felt like a slab of beef hanging. There was nothing sexy about it," she says. "It would have felt like a sin if I was doing a nude scene to titillate the public."

Preparation for the scene in Lumberton, N.C. last year produced a strange reaction from the townspeople. The day rehearsals for the nude scene took place, a crowd—carrying lawn chairs and picnic baskets—gathered outside a local house on a tree-lined street to gawk at the filmmakers. No one knew Isabella would be nude. "These people had brought their children and grandparents," she says. She went into the crowd to warn that it was a scene they might find offensive. They wouldn't listen—many were munching away on hard-boiled eggs—but seeing was believing. "After the third take," she says, "they were all gone."

Today, Rossellini feels more amused than annoyed at people who take Blue Velvet too seriously. She's kept her blue velvet robe as a souvenir of her days as a dark lady, but she has already moved ahead to another image onscreen. "My agents made me do my next picture," says Rossellini with a throaty laugh. "It's Little Red Riding-Hood."

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