ONE of my first movie interviews ever was with Isabella Rossellini on the Berlin set of the 1993 film, The Innocent, John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel. Somehow the actress, who at the time was the spit of her mother, Ingrid Bergman, misconstrued my question and believed I thought Bergman was still alive. She became ruffled.
All too conscious of living in her parents’ shadows — her father was Italian director Roberto Rossellini — she wasn’t used to giving interviews and rarely granted them.
Having starred in the adventurous movies Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart directed by her one-time beau David Lynch, the New York-based performer and writer wanted to forge her own path. She went on to appear in movies by avant-garde filmmakers including Peter Greenaway (The Tulse Luper Suitcases) and Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World).
Most recently she has been writing and performing in short films about the mating rituals of insects titled Green Porno, which she has turned into a stage show and performed internationally.
“I’m not attached to acting as much as my mum,” Rossellini, 64, admits. “She always said, ‘I didn’t choose acting; acting chose me’. I like to be a filmmaker in general and to do theatre.”
IN HER OWN SKIN
Feeling comfortable in her own skin and looking less like her Swedish mother (who died at 67 though we remember her from her youth), Rossellini now is ready to share and preserve the legacy of Bergman, one of the most beautiful, talented and courageous of actresses to ever grace Hollywood.
“It’s been a gift that I look like my mother and I worked as a model for many years,” Rossellini concedes. “I’ve been asked to play her and I’ve always said, ‘Oh what a bad idea!’ But I did portray her in a short film I made for my father’s centennial in 2006.”
While we all want to preserve our family heritage as we get older, devising family trees or whatever, Rossellini had the advantage of a treasure trove of material as her mother loved to photograph and film her life, on set and off. She also wrote a lot of letters and kept many she received.
“Mamma was the daughter of a photographer and there was lot of her private material that had never been seen. When she died in 1982 there were not many film archives on actresses and some on directors.
“She knew she had cancer and it was fatal and I remember how she was putting all the photos and letters in order.
“I asked, ‘Why did you keep all this after moving from Sweden to America to Italy to France and England?’ And she answered to my surprise, ‘I always knew my life was going to be important’. It was such an arrogant answer when Mamma was so humble. In fact after she died we were so lucky because I was married to Marty Scorsese, one of the biggest promoters of film restoration and he navigated with us to conserve all the material.”
Rossellini became a strong collaborator when Swedish director Stig Bjorkman directed the documentary feature, Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words, which has Rossellini and her siblings talking on camera. The film premiered in Cannes last year and opens in Ireland later this week.
“I talked about bringing the film to Cannes and Mamma ended up on the poster! They used a facial close-up of her in Italy in 1952 when she actually was carrying me and my sister in a basket.”
This time Rossellini was not holding back, making her family archive available for Bjorkman to integrate into the movie.
Initially Bergman had been America’s sweetheart and with her pure-as-the-driven-snow features had played a nun in 1945’s The Bells Of St Mary’s and the saintly title role in 1948’s Joan Of Arc. Hollywood turned against her when still married, she fell pregnant with her son Renato Roberto, to the then married Rossellini, her director on Stromboli. The House Un-American Activities Committee denounced her so that she was forced to flee America and married Rossellini in 1950 and settled in Italy. Isabella and her twin sister Ingrid came later.
“My mum was very hurt by the scandal,” Isabella notes.
“When she talked about it, it was clearly very painful to her. She had actually showed great taste as an artist and had wanted to expand her films and that’s why she wrote the letter to my father. The letter has been romanticised by the press as a love declaration, but it was an actor saying, ‘I love your films and I would like to work with you’.”
The film looks back on Bergman’s relationships, including her first very respectable marriage to Swedish surgeon Petter Lindstrom, with whom she had a daughter, Pia, when she was young and very busy and not always available to her family. By the time she had Isabella she had less work and just as well because her daughter needed a lot of tender loving care.
“I was born with a spinal deformity and I always had to have complicated spinal operations,” Rossellini explains. “The latest one was five years ago and I missed my mother terribly because she was the perfect nurse. I had my first operation when I was 13 years old and I was sick for two years so my mother took complete care of me.
“Two years ago when I was talking to my sisters Pia and Ingrid I realised I might have missed my mother less because being sick I had so much of her presence when she was alive.”
Rossellini says Bergman was a woman before her time. “Mamma was one of the first women who worked when not too many women did that.”
Bergman was not backward in coming forward.
“Mamma wrote a letter to Ingmar Bergman later on when she was president of the Cannes Jury in 1973 and she dropped it in his pocket. She wrote, ‘We’re two known Swedish filmmakers. Let’s find a film to do together’.”
She stood her ground right from the beginning.
“When she first arrived in Hollywood David O Selznick said, ‘Let’s change the name Bergman.’ It was too German and at the time there was the war against Germany. She said, ‘Absolutely not. I have a career in Sweden, my name is Ingrid Bergman this is the way I look.’ And David O Selznick said, ‘That’s a good idea. You’re going to be the first natural actress.’ So then he allowed her to be that way and I think that was her biggest contribution. She was an incredible validation to women that you can still be beautiful and attractive and talented without the artifice. She also spoke five languages: Swedish, English, French, German — her mother was German — and Italian. So she worked in all five languages which was quite unusual.”
Which is her favourite film of her mother’s? “It’s easier for me to look at her films when she was young and harder when she was older because this is the mother I remember. Of all her Hitchcock films I love Notorious and I love Casablanca for the humour. It’s recognised as a romantic film but there is a lightness and comical tone that is extraordinary.”