Defying age and convention

Times Staff Writer

Isabella ROSSELLINI hailed a taxi near her Upper West Side apartment on a busy spring day and was just settling into the back seat when the driver, like so many hacks before him, said, "You know, you look exactly like Ingrid Bergman."

Yeah, yeah. The 51-year-old model, actress, mother of two and daughter of screen legend Ingrid Bergman hears that nearly every time she goes out in public, and she has learned just which responses the truth or a denial will inspire. "I didn't want to engage in conversation, so I just said, 'Oh, really?' " Rossellini recalls. "Then he said, 'You know, Ingrid Bergman has a daughter who looks just like her.' And before I could say anything he said, 'She's some kind of an actress or model, I don't know what. She has children, but she's a lesbian.' I said, 'Really, she's a lesbian, and she has children?' And he said, 'Yes, I know her personally.' I asked him, 'Was she straight and then she became a lesbian? When did that happen?' He said, 'I don't know. She must have been a lesbian all her life.' "

She ends the story with a robust laugh, because she is not now, nor has she ever been, gay. But Rossellini has always been famous, and is accustomed to being gossip fodder. Perhaps her evident comfort with herself can be explained by the fact that she was born with what so many people dream about -- beauty and fame. Or maybe Europeans just appear more sure of themselves than insecure Yanks who come, after all, from an upstart country with far less history. Rossellini credits middle age. "Nobody talks about this great advantage of getting old," she says. "You don't care anymore what people say or think about you. Everything becomes light." Whatever the reason for her self-assurance, for the echt sophistication she projects, she is not unnerved by beauty, sex, nudity, aging, love, heartbreak, success or failure, and certainly not by fame.

Yet by not understanding why the cabby would claim erroneous knowledge of her sexual orientation, Rossellini displays atypical naivete. It's true that Diane Keaton can turn up in drag and not have her gender identity questioned, but she doesn't wear her hair razored short, side-parted and slicked down, as Rossellini does. Although she works in three languages and is very smart, she says it never occurred to her that some people would read meaning into her eccentric style of dress. Last month, she chatted on camera with Ellen DeGeneres, Charlie Rose and Diane Sawyer, wearing men's clothes for each appearance. When Rose asked Rossellini about her outfit -- a dark suit, white shirt and red silk tie -- she explained that a bad back, a residual of scoliosis diagnosed when she was 11, prevents her from wearing high heels. Many feminine styles are tight at the waist, where she experiences painful muscle spasms. Flat shoes and a loose suit, OK, but even Rose didn't buy a necktie as a choice in service of comfort.

She isn't concerned about whether he or anyone else gets her look. Maybe that's why when DeGeneres greeted her by saying, "You could be the coolest woman in the world," it didn't sound like so much synthetic talk show gush.

How times have changed. In 1949, when Bergman became pregnant with director Roberto Rossellini's son while married to her first husband, Dr. Peter Lindstrom, the very public brouhaha was so huge that paparazzi besieged the actress and continued to stalk her family throughout Isabella's childhood. Bergman was drummed out of Hollywood. She returned six years later, winning her second best actress Oscar, but her career never quite recovered and, her daughter says, "It destroyed her." For her part, Rossellini conceived a child with the man who would become her second husband before she'd officially divorced Martin Scorsese, became the single mother of an adopted, mixed-race child and fashioned a crazy quilt of a career that's still evolving, defying the expiration date invisibly stamped on the foreheads of professional beauties. Laura Dern, who has known Rossellini since they worked together on "Blue Velvet" in 1986, says, "She's my hero. She's easy, funny, free, open and the most grown-up person I know." One era's pariah is another's role model.

An avant-garde approach

Rossellini has always been unconventional, and at this stage of her life she is post-beauty, in attitude if not in fact. She began acting in 1979, and has chosen a wide range of roles, from the goddess Athena and Empress Josephine to an Italian Hasidic housewife. She can be seen as Lady Helen Port-Huntly, a beer baroness in Depression-era Winnipeg, Canada, in "The Saddest Music in the World," a satiric, surrealistic black-and-white musical that opened in Los Angeles last week. In the season finale of ABC's "Alias" airing next Sunday, she makes her third appearance as Katya Derevko, a tough-as-titanium colonel in the Russian secret service who is CIA agent Sydney Bristow's long lost aunt. Until this year, she'd never acted on stage, but Rossellini just ended a four-month run off-Broadway in a pair of Terrence McNally one-act plays, "The Stendahl Syndrome." In the first, she was a tour guide in Florence, in the second, the snooty wife of a bisexual orchestra conductor.

She could have been stuck in beautiful-women parts, but for every soignee dream girl like Gabriella in "Big Night," she's chosen a grotesque as complex Perdita in "Wild at Heart." Canadian director Guy Maddin, who conceived Lady Port-Huntly for Rossellini with co-screenwriter George Toles, describes "The Saddest Music in the World" with a wink as "an orgy of self-pity." The $2.5-million film was shot in 24 days. As she often does, Rossellini designed her character's look and did her own makeup. "She knows her face," Maddin says. "She's willing and eager to treat the role with the integrity of purpose it deserves, to make herself look bad. That's a sensitive dial to have your fingers on. Her willingness to be outrageous surpassed my hopes." His expectations were substantial, since Lady Port-Huntly is a double amputee who teeters around on glass legs filled with beer.

"You can never really lose doing experimental films," Rossellini says. "If they are successful, it is a triumph for everyone. For me too. If they're not successful, nobody sees them, and nothing happens. It's much worse to do a commercial film, where there are great expectations that you can't possibly meet every time."

When Maddin first spoke to her on the phone about being in his movie, he had been warned not to bring up her famous parents. "Within a minute we were talking about them and their place in history and how important they were to me," he says. "It's a subject that comes up continually. After we'd worked together she told me that my method of working reminded her of her father, which seems so unlikely, since he was an Italian neorealist and I'm a Canadian fantasist."

Yet Maddin and Roberto Rossellini, who died in 1977, are both defined as auteurs. "I'm very moved by filmmakers who don't get money from big film companies, who work with very small budgets but make groundbreaking films in their garage, in their backyard," Rossellini says. "There is something very charming and handmade about what Guy Maddin does, like children's collages or drawings. My dad was a very experimental director too." Time has been good to him. When he was alive, such Rossellini films as "Stromboli" and "Open City" were appreciated by the intelligentsia, but that kind of recognition didn't facilitate finding money to make more films. "I grew up seeing my father very dashed, professionally," Rossellini says. "Now that he's been dead for years, and doesn't have the problem of making the next movie anymore, he's appreciated as a great genius and is surviving so solidly in film archives."

When they were small, Isabella, her fraternal twin sister, Ingrid, and her brother, Roberto, lived on the outskirts of Paris, then in Rome. The children stayed in a separate apartment with the housekeeper, her son and a long parade of English, Swiss and German nannies, none of whom were around for long. The family led a bohemian life, scorched by scandal and inconvenienced by artistic poverty. When there was no money to pay the housekeeper, they moved into a smaller apartment together. When taxes weren't paid, their furniture was confiscated.

"I went to see a therapist once, because everyone told me you have to do therapy, it's the American way, and the therapist said, 'Talk to me. Tell me about how your parents neglected you, how terrible it felt when the furniture was taken away.' My parents didn't neglect us," Rossellini says. "We knew from the beginning we weren't going to have money, so we had furniture we didn't care about. When they took it away, they took it away, and we got some more at the flea market. We knew we were loved. My parents couldn't care less about money. They were unconventional, so I suppose that is part of my heritage."

In some ways, Rossellini admits, she was extremely traditional as a young woman. She moved to New York at 18 to live with her half-sister, television journalist Pia Lindstrom, and worked as a reporter for Italian television. "I never thought I was going to work," she says. "I understood that my mother worked, because she was kissed by the gods and she had to do it. It was a calling. I didn't have that call. I belonged to a generation where women worked to entertain themselves, to make their lives more interesting. There was no sense of having a career." At 27 she became Martin Scorsese's third wife and thought she would work at something now and then, but her real career would be matrimony.

"Sometimes I wonder, 'What was I thinking?' The mentality was you married an interesting man, because an interesting man would provide you with an interesting life," she says. "Marty, for sure, is the perfect husband for that. He's an absolute genius. Fantastic mind. Great sense of humor, great sense of adventure. You could live just as Marty's wife and have a fantastic life."

The marriage ended after four years. "I was too naive and old-fashioned for Marty as a wife," Rossellini says. "I wasn't used to the roughness of American lifestyle. I wasn't used to street life, to rock 'n' roll. I was the naive girl from Europe, so it couldn't have lasted."

Rossellini had begun modeling during their marriage, and became involved with model Jonathan Weidemann after she and Scorsese separated. She obtained an instant divorce and marriage in one quick trip to Santo Domingo, mostly to please Weidemann's family and to avoid running afoul of the morals clause in her contract with the international cosmetics company Lancome. She and Weidemann were married less than a year. She is still close to his family, and their daughter, Elettra, is 20.

"I'd grown up in Italy when divorce was forbidden," Rossellini says. "When divorce is forbidden, there are a million escapades. It isn't that people remain married in a conventional way -- they have other stories. To me, marriage didn't mean a relationship, it meant a document, like your passport or a visa. When people were scandalized that I [was pregnant but] wasn't married to Jonathan, I said, 'So what?' It was the moralistic Catholics of Italy who made me disrespect marriage, not my family."

Boredom kept at bay

Rossellini was no ordinary model. Her face appeared on the cover of American Vogue 28 times, and she was a favorite of Richard Avedon and other elite photographers. "When I started to model I made money on my own, and I understood the importance of having it, that I could buy an apartment and I could have a mortgage," she says. She kept the lucrative Lancome contract for 14 years. When she turned 40 and Lancome decided to let her go, some of her disappointment was personal -- she liked the job and valued the financial independence it had provided. And some of her anger was political -- the notion that a 40-year-old woman was too old to sell cosmetics to women her age was offensive. Rossellini fought the decision, considered suing the company, then decided doing well would be the best revenge, and launched her own cosmetic brand for a rival firm, complete with irreverent ads. Although her perfume is still sold in Europe, the makeup line wasn't successful. Rossellini blames the industry's intrinsic conservatism.

"A friend of mine who knows me well told me a man who liked me asked her, 'Why does Isabella always do things that are controversial?' And my friend told him, 'Isabella is easily bored.' That's right. I never thought about it, but I am easily bored. So something that's conventional, I already know that. I tend to do the unconventional to avoid boredom."

The men in her life have not been boring. A professional collaboration with director David Lynch that began in 1985 led to a four-year relationship that he ended, leaving Rossellini "brokenhearted," and in the mid-'90s she was engaged to actor-director Gary Oldman. "I'm attracted to intelligence," she says, "and if you're highly intelligent, you can't be conventional, because conventionality is limiting." By choice, the male in her life now is her 10-year-old son, Roberto. "I am a woman of order," she says. "I'm very punctual, very organized. I stopped falling in love, because I do fall in love with so many men of disorder that it was impossible to go on like that. Also, I think that as you grow older, you fall in love less frequently. I have children and a family. I feel less the need for a companion, a boyfriend."

Twelve years ago, when Lancome as much as told her she was over the hill, Rossellini thought it would all disappear -- the work, the admiration. Yet she complains about being too busy, and turns down work that would take her away from her family. She doesn't mourn her lost youth. "I had so much satisfaction, the cover of Vogue, the big contract, that I feel like, let me try to live my life not as this beauty. I made it as a beauty, now I'm going to make it as an ugly, old person. Let's see what happens. I'm sort of curious to see what will happen next. I don't really think about it so much, you know?"

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