18 June 2022

Isabella Rossellini - actress and model

Daughter of ‘cinema royalty’ who became star in her own right

Isabella Rossellini won critical acclaim for her performance as a nightclub singer in Blue Velvet
Isabella Rossellini won critical acclaim for her
performance as a nightclub singer in Blue Velvet
The actress and model Isabella Rossellini, famed for her roles in the David Lynch-directed mystery Blue Velvet and the Oscar-winning black comedy Death Becomes Her and for 14 years the face of luxury perfume brand Lancôme, was born on this day in 1952 in Rome.

Her parents were the Swedish triple Academy Award-winning actress Ingrid Bergman and the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, one of the pioneers of the neorealism movement that spawned some of Italy’s finest films. She is the eldest by 34 minutes of twin girls.

Resident in the United States since 1979, when she married the American director Martin Scorsese, she has a home on Long Island, New York, where she keeps a number of animals. 

An active campaigner for various wildlife conservation causes, Rossellini has a MA in Animal Behaviour & Conservation after studying the subject at Hunter College, New York. Although her acting career continues, she moved in a less conventional direction by writing, directing and appearing in a series of short documentary films about sexual and reproductive behaviour in animals entitled Green Porno.

Rossellini was the face of French cosmetics brand Lancôme
Rossellini was the face of French
cosmetics brand Lancôme
Although she is now seen as the offspring of ‘screen royalty’ in that Bergman and Roberto Rossellini were two of the most famous names in cinema in the postwar years, her parents’ relationship initially caused controversy.  

Bergman had begun an affair with the Italian after writing to ask if he would like to direct her and fell pregnant with Isabella and Isotta’s elder brother, Robin, while still married to a Swedish dentist.  This was seen as scandalous in the conservative fifties and Bergman did not work again in the US for several years, while given a similarly harsh reception in her own country.

After her parents divorced when she was five, Rossellini had an unconventional upbringing, her time divided between different homes, although she insisted in interviews in later life that she had happy memories of her childhood.  Yet she also suffered from scoliosis, a condition affecting the spine that required two years of sometimes painful treatment.

After attending arts college in New York, she had her first brief film role as a nun in the 1976 musical fantasy A Matter of Time, which starred her mother and Liza Minnelli.  Her first proper role came in the 1979 Italian film Il prato (The Meadow), of which one critic wrote: ‘She looks like her mother, but she certainly hasn’t inherited her talent.’

Rossellini pictured at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival with her then partner, David Lynch
Rossellini pictured at the 1990 Cannes Film
Festival with her then partner, David Lynch
The pressure of feeling she had to live up to such expectations persuaded her to focus more on her modelling career, in which she had already worked with many renowned magazine photographers, but after the death of her mother in 1982 her own screen career acquired some momentum.

Her appearance in the 1985 film White Nights, directed by Taylor Hackford, introduced her to international audiences. Her role as a troubled nightclub singer in Lynch’s Blue Velvet followed in 1986 and the next 10 years brought a series of well-received performances, including Death Becomes Her in 1992, when she was cast alongside Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis.

Her television work gained her accolades too, including a Golden Globe nomination in 1997 for her performance in the made-for-TV drama Crime of the Century and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television series Chicago Hope.

In the meantime, Rossellini had become the principal model and spokesperson for Lancôme in 1982, a role she fulfilled until 1996 when, controversially, she was deemed “too old” at 43 and effectively sacked. Her daughter, Elettra Rossellini Wiedemann, became the new face of Lancôme in 2009, five years before the brand, by then with a female CEO at the helm, re-engaged her mother as a global ambassador.

While continuing to take regular film roles, Rossellini’s fascination with animal behaviour, which began with a book she was given as a 14-year-old, led her to enrol at Hunter College, a public college attached to the City University of New York, to study the subject.

It was around this time that she began a collaboration with the Sundance Channel, an independent film network founded by the actor Robert Redford, which commissioned My Dad Is 100 Years Old, a film tribute to Rossellini’s father which she created herself.

Rossellini with her sister, Isotta, on a  Sardinian beach in 1960
Rossellini with her sister, Isotta, on a 
Sardinian beach in 1960
The idea for Green Porno emerged from this collaboration. The concept, which began with a series of short, humorous films in which Rossellini dresses up as various animals and, with the aid of cardboard cut-outs and foam-runner models, enacts the mating rituals of insects and animals.  The first series was so successful that further series and spin-offs followed, including a live show on stage at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 2014.

In her personal life, Rossellini has been married twice - to Scorsese from 1979 to 1982 and production designer Jon Wiedemann from 1983 to 1986, with whom she has a daughter, Elettra, and an adopted son, Roberto. 

She had a five-year relationship with David Lynch after working for him on Blue Velvet and a two-year engagement to the English actor Gary Oldman, but remains single. 

Rossellini has a close relationship with her twin sister, Isotta, a professor of Italian literature who has taught at Columbia, New York, Harvard and Princeton universities.

Santa Marinella, north of Rome, is blessed with wide, sandy beaches
Santa Marinella, north of Rome, is blessed
with wide, sandy beaches
Travel tip:

One of Rossellini’s childhood homes was at Santa Marinella, a seaside town of about 19,000 residents approximately 65km (40 miles) northwest of Rome on the Lazio coast, near Civitavecchia. Once a favoured retreat of wealthy Romans, it is divided into a port area overlooked by the medieval Castello Odescalchi, now a hotel, and a resort with long, sandy beaches and streets lined with boutiques, cafes, bakeries, and seafood restaurants.

Stromboli remains an active 
volcano in the Aeolian Sea
Travel tip:

Rossellini’s mother, Ingrid Bergman, first worked for her father on his 1950 film Stromboli, set on the volcanic island of Stromboli in the Aeolian Sea, around 70km (43 miles) off the northern coast of Sicily. A still-active volcano towering out of the sea, the island is attractive for day trippers, while there are a small number of hotels in the village of Stromboli on the northeast of the island and in Ginostra at the other extremity. Rossellini’s film was responsible for a surge in tourist attention, which led to the development of clusters of holiday homes around a few stretches of volcanic sand.

Also on this day:

1511: The birth of sculptor and architect Bartolomeo Ammannati

1943: The birth of actress, singer and TV presenter Raffaella Carrà

1946: The birth of football coach Fabio Capello


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