Isabella Rossellini on the revelations behind Blue Velvet
by Elio Iannacci
TORONTO – It’s 29 minutes and 23 seconds into the most talked about movie of the decade. The year is 1986. Isabella Rossellini is wearing a revealing, lace-lined evening gown, crooning into a vintage microphone. Her lips are red. The curtains are red. Her eye shadow is a shade that’s close to sapphire. The film is cult classic Blue Velvet, and Rossellini is playing Dorothy Vallens – a reclusive torch singer. Out of Dorothy’s mouth, there are shadows, many of them. In the film, Dorothy’s livelihood depends on her ability to sing to them and about them. So, she does: Shadows fall so blue. As lonely as a blue, blue star.
More than two decades later, I’m 46 minutes deep into a conversation with Rossellini. The actress is wrapped head to ankle in a charcoal, Egyptian cotton blanket designed by a friend (Giorgio Armani). She is bare-faced yet just as striking as when she appeared in her Blue Velvet at the age of 34. When we begin to chat about what many consider to be Rossellini’s breakout role, she shudders.
“You would think that after Blue Velvet came out, it was all roses and candies for me,” she says. “It wasn’t at all. I’m still traumatized by what happened.” What happened was controversy, and Blue Velvet delivered it in heaps, and then some. With a plotline that had Rossellini playing Vallens, a masochistic nightclub chanteuse forced to perform onstage by way of a mentally unstable thug named Frank (played by Dennis Hopper), Rossellini found herself in off-stage scenes where her character is demeaned, sexually abused and physically assaulted.
Rossellini beat out Helen Mirren, who auditioned for the role, yet Rossellini felt she had an upper hand. “People who came to audition played Dorothy as a whore-ish, provocative, overly-sexual person. What they forgot was that it wasn’t her choice to be any of those things. She was broken by having to be all of those things. I understood that the audience had to be attracted to her and afraid of her and I was able to capture that.”
For Americans living through the pallid years of the Reagan administration—a time when Jimmy Swaggart’s evangelical sermons reaped high TV ratings—the film was seen as sacrilege. Shortly after its release, mainstay media shrieked at its audacity, decrying its “feverish perversity” (New York Times) and “cold-blooded realism” (Chicago Sun-Times), and deeming it “one of the sickest films ever made” (New York Post).
“The kind of backlash I experienced has never happened to anyone I know since Blue Velvet,” she says. “The papers, the critics, the letters, the religious right, all of it came down on me and it didn’t seem to end,” Rossellini says. “I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”
Yet the question remains: Why exactly were so many people enraged with Rossellini specifically? After all, she was merely an actor playing a part in a film. Her portrayal of Vallens was exceptionally real, believable, nightmare-ish and, at times, glorious. Yet she didn’t write or direct the movie—that was the work of her then partner, director David Lynch.
Rossellini did, however, do her job. In a book about the movie, also called Blue Velvet, written by film historian Charles Drazin, Rossellini revealed that she needed to mine her own dark past to deliver the performance she ultimately was revered and reviled for. “I summoned up my memory of the trauma of date rape I had experienced as a young girl,” she is quoted as saying. “This was when I was brutally beaten,” she reveals. “I went deep inside me, into the confusion, fear and helplessness I felt in eliciting sexual desire and attraction when I had been a beautiful young girl.”
Despite putting her own life on screen, Rossellini faced outrage from a conservative public that crucified her for even agreeing to be in the film. For this, she is quick to share her own theories on why her involvement was so hard to digest. “I was part of the establishment, so those who got offended by me felt betrayed,” she says. “I was Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini’s daughter. I was a Lancôme model. I had been on the cover of Vogue so many times. For a right-winger, someone like David Lynch was this dark, evil filmmaker—that’s how they saw him. But that is not how they saw me. Dennis Hopper just came out of rehab so many small-minded people already wrote him off as evil, too. But me? I was supposed to be an angel and they felt betrayed by who they thought I was.”
Even the late, great Katherine Hepburn sneered at Rossellini when the golden age star was forced to take an awkward elevator ride with the ingenue. “Are you Ingrid’s daughter?” Hepburn asked, “The one that made that movie?” Before Rossellini could answer, the elevator doors opened, and Hepburn walked out to her floor. “Ten years later, when I heard people say that the film is a classic, it stopped becoming this bad memory,” she says. “It has started to transform into a badge of honour, one that made me start thinking of my own life and my own craft.”
One lesson learned is that Rossellini had signed herself into the mood-making business, one that attracts and repels at whim. “Film is a visual art, so that means every detail must be visual, and images demand reaction,” she says. “Everything that is clever should not only be verbal, it should be physical, too. So I began to recognize that my career comes with hazards because my job isn’t to simply pretend. My job is to elicit.”
As Blue Velvet inches towards its 35th anniversary, the film is continuing to shed its neo-scandalous skin and enter a new epoch of iconhood. Scenes from the movie are now studied and surveyed in film schools around the world — as is Rossellini’s approach to conveying emotion on screen. In this way, Blue Velvet is more than just an artifact of provocation, it has become a symbol of Rossellini’s own private retribution.