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Isabella Rossellini Responds to Roger Ebert’s Claim David Lynch Exploited Her for ‘Blue Velvet’

In Roger Ebert’s one-star review of David Lynch‘s “Blue Velvet” in 1986, the film critic had strong words for the director he never softened through the rest of his career, even as Ebert came to appreciate some of Lynch’s later films. Ebert wrote that Isabella 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. 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.”

But Rossellini, who at the time of the controversial landmark’s release was in a relationship with director Lynch, today doesn’t necessarily agree with Ebert’s takedown of the movie. The daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini had by then gathered some modeling and film credits, but “Blue Velvet” proved to be her big breakout. In the classic, she plays nightclub lounge singer Dorothy Vallens, held psychically and physically captive by Dennis Hopper’s nitrous-huffing, psychopathic gangster Frank Booth. And as anyone who’s seen the film remembers, Dorothy stumbles naked, beaten, onto Kyle MacLachlan’s porch, saying to his family in their living room, “He put his disease in me.”

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Rossellini, who recently spoke with IndieWire about her performance in Alice Rohrwacher’s “La Chimera” (Neon, March 29), said, “I didn’t read the reviews at the time [‘Blue Velvet’] came out. I try not to read reviews. 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.”

Make no mistake that “Blue Velvet” was a sensation, cementing Lynch’s place on the cinematic map after the box office (and personal) failures of his “Dune” adaptation followed multiple Oscar nominations for “The Elephant Man.” Opening from De Laurentiis Entertainment Group in September 1986 shortly after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, Lynch’s suburban nightmare ultimately grossed more than $8.5 million — the equivalent to more than $24 million today.

Rossellini had no reservations about the character, or about a man such as Lynch directing her as a debased woman. But she worked closely with the filmmaker to ensure the right tone: “When I read the script I understood it could’ve been controversial and difficult, 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.”

A movie like “Blue Velvet” feels like a litmus test for the more contemporary conversation over whether women’s stories — particularly of those who are abused are portrayed sexually somehow — should be directed by men or women. Rossellini, in our interview, questioned the “rigidity of if you make a film about a woman, it has to be a woman [director]. First of all, ‘Blue Velvet’ is also about men, so who’s going to make the film? If you make a film about the aliens, they have to have aliens direct? It doesn’t make any sense.”

As a couple, Rossellini and Lynch broke up in the early ’90s, a devastating split she’s been open about before. She also appeared in his Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Wild at Heart” in 1990 before they separated.

“I’m glad ‘Blue Velvet’ was directed by David Lynch,” Rossellini said. “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.'”

When asked whether a mainstream movie today could acquire the culture-shocking phenomenon status a film like “Blue Velvet” did in 1986, Rossellini said, “Blue Velvet” “acquired it,” and that the shock wasn’t so immediate.

“My father’s films [also] acquired it. Fellini acquired it,” she said. “Fellini had a wonderful sense of humor. He said to me one day, ‘My mother wanted me to be a lawyer, wanted me to be a doctor. ‘Why do you want to be a filmmaker? You’re going to always be so miserable, it’s going to be so hard.’ [He said], ‘Now, I’ve become an objective Felliniesque.’ When you look at the great maestros, like Fellini or my dad, now we talk, oh my god, they are gods of cinema. But they struggled as much as Alice [Rohrwacher], as much as Julio Torres [director of Rossellini’s film ‘Problemista’], and all the young filmmakers. I said that to Alice. It’s not going to get better, that’s the way it is.”

Rossellini is hopeful for the current state of filmmaking, and for movies like “Blue Velvet” to still find their way to an audience. “We’ll always find an audience, but it will always be not millions and millions and millions of people, but they’re there,” she said. “The other day, I live in the country, and we have a little art movie theater, and I did a series of films about Chaplin, for the children. A lot of the parents had never seen silent films. I was very surprised. I came because, in the winter, there’s not much to do in the country, and they came, and he was a discovery. The children […] are getting used to watching black and white, and not to look at film as this spectacular thing, like an amusement park.”

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