CRITIC AT LARGE : ROSSELLINI SHINES ON HER OWN IN ‘WHITE NIGHTS’
The stars of Taylor Hackford’s thriller “White Nights,” which is opening shortly, are dancers Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov. But the attention, including a glittering flutter of magazine covers, has centered on their co-star, the actress who plays Hines’ Soviet wife.
No wonder. She is Isabella Rossellini, one of the twin daughters of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, whose romance gave Hollywood’s and the nation’s hobnailed hypocrisy one of its last great exercisings.
No wonder, because there are moments, as in a sudden smile, a light in the eyes, the cheekbones, a few words in her lightly accented English, when the daughter is so much the image of her mother that anyone who was enraptured by the young Ingrid Bergman of “Intermezzo” and “Casablanca” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” must feel a mighty catch in the throat.
The part in “White Nights” is small and reactive; the haircut severe and institutional, the clothes lumpy and drab, but you might as well try to shroud the sun; Isabella is impossible not to watch, for her beauty and our memory.
She is, at 33, not an ingenue and this is not her film debut. She appeared in Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s “The Meadow” (“Il Prato”) in 1979. But her principal career, before and after “The Meadow,” had been as a feature reporter for Italian television, working mostly in New York, and then as a model. Her contract with Lancome cosmetics makes her one of the highest-paid in the field (the contract reportedly is worth $2 million, something more than $325,000 annually).
She has been married twice, is divorced from Martin Scorsese and separated from Jon Wiedemann, a model by whom she has a 2-year-old daughter, Elletra.
After “The Meadow,” she stayed away from acting. “Maybe,” she said during a quick visit to Los Angeles a few days ago, “it was to show respect for the talent of my parents, stepping away and not getting involved.”
It was also intimidating to be Ingrid Bergman’s daughter and to aspire to act, inviting the inevitable comparisons. Her mother saw “The Meadow” and admired the work. (Isabella received good notices.) “But she wanted me to feel free to do what I wanted with my life.”
Isabella worked for four years with “The Other Sunday,” a sort of counter-culture mix of “60 Minutes” and “That Was the Week That Was” and “Saturday Night Live,” which was aimed at a young audience and became, she said, the top-rated show in the country. She met Scorsese doing an interview with him for the show about “The Last Waltz.”
Her father died of a heart attack in 1977, only a week after he had finished his work as president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. Isabella had accompanied him. “I was his chaperon, he told me. I was to protect him from actresses who wanted to court him. He said he was too old and too fat, and he wanted to be incorruptible as the head of the jury. It was a lot of fun.”
After her mother died in 1982, Isabella decided to explore acting seriously. “By then the way of being respectful by not doing it no longer seemed the only way. I’d done film as a sort of amateur, but now I had to be responsible; I couldn’t use film as a school. I wanted to see for myself if I liked acting, and if I had any ability. I was pregnant and terribly fat, but I started going to acting classes.” She found a coach, Sandra Seacat, she much admired, and started working with her.
“All of a sudden it seemed to be fun and passionate and interesting.”
She met Hackford, who initially was not sure she could handle a Russian accent. After a month, she went back to him and read Chekhov, in English. She then read with Hines and Baryshnikov and made screen tests, and got the part.
Since “White Nights,” she has finished a David Lynch film, “Blue Velvet,” with Dennis Hopper, at the De Laurentiis studio in North Carolina.
Her parents were divorced when she and her twin, Ingrid, were 5, her brother (now a stockbroker in Europe) two years older. They remained with Rossellini and a new set of half-brothers and sisters. “But we were raised,” she said, “without differentiation.”
She visits Hollywood with complicated emotions and a sharp awareness of the uproar, including a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, that was triggered by her parents’s blazing romance and the illegitimate birth of her brother Roberto Jr.
“People say it wouldn’t happen now,” Isabella Rossellini said, “but I’m not so sure. Maybe not a talk in the Senate.”
My own suspicion is that it would at most be a 24-hour news story, film at 11, between commercials. What is certain is that three decades after the notoriety, Ingrid Bergman died as one of the most loved and honored actresses in the world, identified as a profile in courage in the way she lived her life and confronted a painful and lingering last illness.
By now that passionate, romantic commitment between Isabella’s parents--measured against a present which seems to be rediscovering the pleasures of commitment over the disappointments of permissiveness--looks heroic, old-fashioned and, of all things, prophetic.
What you detect in their daughter, beyond her mother’s cheekbones and smile and lilting accent, is something of the same free spirit, romantic, enthusiastic, intelligent, touched by curiosity and hope.
It is a splendid legacy, but as she knows and insists, she is now on her own.