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« "Tangled" Contest Winner | Main | Oscar Predix: Best Actor and Leonardo DiCaprio »
Sunday
Apr032011

Take Three: Isabella Rossellini

Craig here with Take Three. Today: Isabella Rossellini

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)

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Reader Comments (17)

I love Rossellini! I had a serious crush for her after watching BLUE VELVET. in FEARLESS I think she's as good as Academy Award nominee Rosie Perez. and she's lovely in her movie debut, italian picture IL PRATO directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani...I've never watched the tv movie CRIME OF THE CENTURY or the series GREEN PORNO, even If I'm rather curious about it

April 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermirko

Her guest spot on 30 Rock stands as one of my favorite guest stars on that show ever. "Damn it, Johnny, you know I love my big beef and cheddar!"

April 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

I also liked her in Big Night and was always happy when she showed up on Alias (although a little on edge, because you never know what could happen with her - what fun). I like her cheerful and exploring attitude.

April 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I love her sooo much- personal favorites include FEARLESS and COUSINS ( she was wonderful in that so the movie is worth watching despite Ted Danson).
Her biography, SOME OF ME, is I think perhaps the best celebrity autobiography I've ever read; it's certainly my favorite. She comes across is utterly charming and incredibly intelligent- I highly, highly recommend it.

April 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeehee

Is she anti-Ingrid Bergman? I'd interested in her opinions on her mother. She seems very critical of her in her short film with Guy Maddin.

April 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

her guest spot in FRIENDS is also very nice

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermirko

GREAT post on a GREAT lady! I know she's practically the antithesis of what Oscar looks for in an actress (she's like the opposite of de-glam: always pushing and pulling and distorting her beauty through strange new vectors, and often in the service of truly macabre projects) but IMO she was the only person who could touch Mo'Nique in the '09 Supporting Actress field. Her performance in Two Lovers is such an extraordinary example of "actressing on the edges": virtually any other performer would play Ruth as a Yiddish Erica Sayers with a rolodex, but Rossellini's take is so smart and sincere and unshowy you don't even notice the similarities to Hershey's character. She exudes empathy, making it impossible to villainize any members of the central family, and maps out a web of moral and emotional conflicts (and makes you actually FEEL, not just observe, them) without ever raising her voice.

And then, of course, there's that confrontation scene on the staircase with Leonard: it's one of those final-act reversals that forces you to recalibrate everything you've seen before it, not just in terms of Rossellini's character but the film as a whole; I was so stunned I had to watch it three times in a row before moving on. I haven't watched the film in two years, but I can still recall the exact inflection with which she quietly implores her son: in one word ("Leonard?") she instantly conveys fear, guilt, pride, anger, and even blind love. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I really think this is one of the most significant achievements in screen acting of the last few years.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLee

Green Porno. Just... Green Porno. If there's an actor autobiography I want to hear, it's hers.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSam Brooks

For a Q&A at TIFF, I called her Mrs. Donaghy. She looked at me as if i didn't say anything and I only got a few sporadic laughs at the back of the theatre. And yeah, she's an honorary Canadian.

She's always had a bit of her mother, but what's haunting about the blue Velvet naked scene is that I didn't see her, I saw Ingrid Bergman. Imagine someone who's almost the perfect clone of a classic Hollywood star, not just the 'Kathleen Turner looks like Betty' or 'Cate Blanchett and Michelle Williams play classic Hollywood stars in movies.' More exact that that. I don't know how to express what I felt about that scene other than that.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

In her autobiography, she talks adoringly about both her parents - more so about her father than her mother, though. I don't recall her being mean about anyone in her book; She is just too classy. There is a whole chapter of how her mother basically gave up acting for a long period in order to be with her when she was in her teens and was to be in a full body cast for a long, long time; her love for her mother clearly shows.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeehee

Hola.En Argentina,we love Isabellissima since Abel Ferrara 's "The funeral" (wonderful cast: Benicio Del Toro,Vincent Gallo,Christopher Walken & Chris Penn !),so wonderful as Clara.And since Stanley Tucci's "Big night".
Hope to see her in Cannes with franco-iranian Marjane Satrapi("Chicken with plums") and with Maddin("Keyhole").
Have you seen Edinburg Film Festival's jury ? Apitchapong Weerasethakul,Jim Jarmush,Gus Van Sant and Miss Rossellini !

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfabrizio

I think she's more italian than sweddish,more Roberto than Ingrid...

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLuc

Haha, Mirko. I was thinking the same thing-- I always remember her as the one that Ross left off of the laminated version of his 'list.'

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

My kind of actress, she's just IT for me.

Her work in Green Porno is hilarious AND educational. Totally worth a look.
Ditto the Two Lovers mention. She's HEARTBREAKING. In a very good movie with great performances, she lingers in your mind when all is said and done.

I remember first being transfixed on her in Death Becomes Her. It was love at first gaze.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

BTW, great choice for Take Three, Craig! Inspired.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Thank you Mark - I'm really glad you enjoyed it!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Mme Moitessier (Ingres) for Peter Greenaway in TULSE LUPER SUITCASES .Beautiful !

April 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterilan
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