I spoke with Isabella Rossellini about her appearance at the Miami International Book Fair tonight, where she will be discussing her book and collection of short films Green Porno. Inevitably, the conversation turned to Blue Velvet and her indelible performance as the torch singer Dorothy Vallens. I couldn't fit most of what she said into the story that ran in the paper, so I'm posting it here.
"I like to play characters that are written well and thought-out, because it makes your job easier. I doesn't matter if it's a cartoon or a surrealistic film or a profoundly humanistic film. It's when the characters are written with hesitation that they're difficult to play. Television is written with a certain amount of superficiality, just because of the sheer quantity of writing they have to do every week. Sometimes I'll be asked to play a beautiful woman who is aging, That's not a very profound definition of a person. That's not enough for me.
"David [Lynch] wrote a very beautiful script and the characters were very clear, so you can really launch into an imaginative and creative process of acting. When Blue Velvet came out, it was very controversial. People tried to find a reason for not liking it that went beyond the film. They would say "David Lynch is evil!" or "Isabella Rossellini is getting back at her mother!" or "She's doing it to spite Lancome!" But it wasn't any of that.
"Blue Velvet really played with the tension between good and evil. Every time there was something bad, there was also something attractive about it. We don't know why we read the details of murder stories in newspapers with a certain gluttony. It's a strange aspect of human nature. [Dorothy Vallens] was a victim, but she was also a sadomasochist. She was raped, but there were also aspects of her that were very seductive. Everything is always ambivalent, and that's the story of Blue Velvet. This young man [Kyle MacLachlan] is coming of age and believes everything should either be right or wrong, but they're not. That's the core of Blue Velvet, isn't it - this acknowledgement that things are not so simple."
I also asked Rossellini about the scene in which she appears naked in broad daylight on someone's front lawn, a scene that famously led Roger Ebert to condemn the film:
"David explained to me that when he was a little boy, he was coming home from school with his brother and they saw a naked woman walking down the street. Instead of getting curious or titillated or aroused, they got very frightened and burst into tears. That's what he wanted to capture in that scene.
"When he was telling me that story, I was thinking of that famous photograph of the little girl walking down the street in Vietnam after her village had been bombed. She was completely naked and incredibly helpless. I wanted to project that same helplessness, because if I had protected myself in any way, I would have conveyed that this woman still had some sense of prudishness and self-defense at that moment. But she was a woman who had just been raped; she was bruised and dazed and confused. I didn't want the controversy, and nudity is always difficult. But it was what it needed to be. You play the film; you don't play your life."