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Isabella Rossellini Refutes Roger Ebert’s Claim That David Lynch ‘Exploited Me’ in ‘Blue Velvet’: ‘I Was an Adult. I Chose to Play the Character’

One of the most infamous reviews for David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” to publish when the film opened in 1986 came courtesy of Roger Ebert, who gave the movie one star. Then the most prominent critic in the United States, Ebert criticized how Lynch’s casting of Isabella Rossellini in a role where she gets “humiliated.”

“[Rossellini] is asked to do things in this film that require real nerve … She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera,” Ebert wrote. “And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film.”

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Rossellini stars in “Blue Velvet” as the tormented nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens, who is held emotionally and physically captive by the sociopath gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). At one point in the film, Dorothy shows up naked on the front porch of Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) home completely disoriented and saying, “He put his disease in me.”

“I didn’t read the reviews at the time [‘Blue Velvet’] came out. I try not to read reviews,” Rossellini recently told IndieWire when asked about Ebert’s infamous pan. “They’re always depressing. There’s always something that, even if [the review is] good, there is always one sentence that is negative and stays inside you forever. But I remember I was told that Roger Ebert said that [Lynch] exploited me, and I was surprised, because I was an adult. I was 31 or 32. I chose to play the character.”

“When I read the script I understood it could’ve been controversial and difficult,” the actor later added, noting that she never had any reservations about taking on the role. “I did say to David, ‘You don’t have to say the lines, but I would like to rehearse with you all the scenes and paraphrase the lines.’ I wanted to make sure that what you’re seeing is a person who has maybe a kind of Stockholm syndrome, and we rehearsed for a full day. I felt reassured that what I saw in the character, the way I wanted to play, he had agreed.”

Rossellini and Lynch were romantic partners when “Blue Velvet” opened in 1986. The film polarized viewers but many film critics called it a masterpiece. It went on to earn Lynch an Oscar nomination for best director. The National Society of Film Critics awarded “Blue Velvet” its prizes for best film and best director.

“I’m glad ‘Blue Velvet’ was directed by David Lynch,” Rossellini told IndieWire. “It’s one of his best films. He’s such a great author. I think my character was the first time we did an abused woman, a portrait of an abused woman, but also she camouflaged herself behind what she was asked to be, which was sexy and beautiful and singing, and she obeys the order, and is also victimized it. That’s the complexity of ‘Blue Velvet’ but also the great talent of David Lynch. I thought he did a fantastic film. I love ‘Blue Velvet.’”

Rossellini is currently making the press rounds thanks to her supporting role in Alice Rohrwacher’s “La Chimera,” opening in theaters March 29 from Neon.

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