Take One: Blue Velvet (1986)
“She... Wore... Bluuuuuue Vel-vet.” Indeed she did: bluer than velvet was the night. Ladies and gentlemen, Rossellini was the Blue Lady, Miss Dorothy Vallens, in David Lynch’s mid-eighties masterpiece Blue Velvet. Vallens was a tortured torch singer, a gas-guzzling freakopath Frank Booth’s (Dennis Hopper) late-night inviter and pervy amateur detective Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) sexual initiation vixen. And yet, behind it all, lay a fretful wife and mother. Rossellini’s introductory scene in the film showed her as a midnight siren, a depressed blue dahlia who, once done with her sad, strange rendition of Bobby Vinton’s titular song, seems to dematerialise into a pair of Lynch’s signature red curtains.
After she finds snooping Jeffrey in her closet she’s both defender of her home and explorer of her own dark thoughts. She’s furious, but as excited by the imminent enveloping mystery as he is; you can just make out the glimmer of utter thrill creep across Rossellini’s face as she jabs his cheek with a breadknife. Here's to Rossellini for nearly making Dorothy as kinky as her male lead. She doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as demolish it, with an infuriated stare and exclamation to camera (“Grand Central Station!”) when more than one guest visits her gloomy apartment at once.
More of the sublime Saddest Music within Blue Velvet, plus the ageless silliness of Death Becomes Her after the jump.
Though Dorothy Vallens was one of ‘80s cinema’s most memorably damaged women, Rossellini’s evocative performance prevented her from becoming a typical victim. There's even a happy ending (of sorts) for her once the robins come. But that last shot of her face, as she hugs her kid, leaves us with a sense of discomfort. She still can see blue velvet through her tears.
Take Two: Death Becomes Her (1992)
As mysterious ageless Lisle von Rhoman, Rossellini sauced up Robert Zemeckis’ macabre, effects-driven comedy Death Becomes Her with otherworldly glamour. Plus she looked great for a 71-year-old! In little more than a chainmail necklace the size of Texas (that barely, but ostentatiously, covered her modesty) and a mere hand towel for a dress, she obviously relished playing this priestess of youthfulness. Perched on the edge of an antique armchair she lustfully barked lines at her trio of heavy-weight co-stars. With her floating pink phial – the Elixir of Eternal Youth or some such bottled daftness – she coerces age-obsessed GlamBitches Madeline (Meryl Streep) and Helen (Goldie Hawn) into falling for her deathly spell.
If the mere thought of living forever in Rossellini’s care wasn’t tantalising enough, she makes lines like
Drink that potion and you’ll never grow even one day older.
...sound like the most ridiculously exotic idea ever dreamt up by man, woman or beast. In one scene, as Madeleine drinks the dodgy potion, Lisle’s eyes drink in the thought of securing another hapless hag for her collection of youth-fixated suckers. She comes and goes in the film at whim – whisked in and away by several muscular bystanders - and doesn’t even hang around for the Meryl-Goldie face-off (quite literally) at the end. Yet she’s an extraordinarily elegant part of the fun for the film's duration. In this same year, she sported a moustache and cavorted with Madonna for her "Sex" book and "Erotica" video. Something wonderfully strange was hitting Rossellini’s water supply in 1992.
Take Three: The Saddest Music in the World (2003)
If you’re sad. And like beer. She’s your lady.
The denizens of Great Depression-era Winnipeg obviously needed a watering hole of salvation and a socialite who could warm their hearts with a pint or two. Step forward – carefully, mind - Lady Helen Port-Huntley, baroness of beer. Tish tosh to wartime worries, Lady Helen wants to hear more than Canada’s wartime woes, with her competition to find The Saddest Music in the World.
Rossellini has taken a joyous late-career jaunt into creative absurdity with her Green Porno series on animal attraction, but it could be that Guy Maddin, that Canadian auteur of the antiquated, helped her to board the that bus by casting her in this film. She has worked with Maddin since, on several features and short films (most memorably My Dad Is 100 Years Old), but her turn in Saddest Music was a one-off slice of beautifully-judged slapstick – slapstick decked in an array of opulent furs and sparkly tiaras.
She lorded over her alcohol establishment with many a comical squint or a breathy, hearty laugh. She gave a thumbs up or thumbs down at the musically-inclined riff-raff if their soulful songs do or do not produce the requisite tears – or make her “bubble”. She’s certainly one of the Aught's most original movie characters. How often do you see a double amputee bar-owning baroness with a pair of false legs fashioned out of glass and filled with beer? The moment when Rossellini does a sashay down the bar – enjoying a jazz-age, beer-fizzing shimmy - deserves its own special toast. Rossellini’s unique visage – wonderfully accented with a wink and a Jean Harlow wig – has never looked so radiant, or as delighted to be funny on screen. So remember:
Get up. Get your boots on. Hurry up! Hurry up! Time’s a wastin’ if you’re not tastin’... Lady Port-Huntley’s beer!
Three more films for the taking: Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987), Fearless (1993), Two Lovers (2008)