I know I just wrote about Ingrid Bergman and the Grand Scandale that erupted when she left her Swedish husband for Italian director Roberto Rossellini and had an out-of-wedlock child with him. Who knew that a few days later I’d be sitting in a room with Bergman and Rossellini’s daughter Isabella hearing her talk about her parents’ relationship.
This is why I love living in L.A. As luck would have it, I was at a Starbucks in Westwood on Wednesday (a neighborhood I rarely visit) working on my computer when I saw the name Rossellini out of the corner of my eye on somebody else’s newspaper. It was a notice for “An Evening with Isabella Rossellini,” an event that the UCLA Film Archive was putting on as part of their retrospective of Rossellini’s work to honor the director’s 100th birthday. I looked up the event and discovered to my surprise that it was minutes away from beginning and would take place at the brand new Billy Wilder Theatre at the Hammer Museum, about five minutes from where I was. I called Kendall, ordered her to head west immediately, and we were soon sitting in the first row of the theatre gazing at beautiful Isabella.
Is my celebrity worship on this blog getting a little hard to digest? Are you losing respect for me because of my frequent fawning about certain people in the public eye? Oy, don't answer that, but please forgive me, because I feel compelled to reflect on the transcendent aura of Isabella Rossellini. It’s not just her incredible beauty, the face that evokes both the graceful features of her iconic mother as well as the fiery elements of her Italian heritage. Beauty alone does not do the trick—I’ve seen plenty of gorgeous movie stars that have left me as cold as a codfish. No, there’s something else that Isabella Rossellini projects: a self-awareness, a risky creativity, and a sincerity and kindness that literally swoops down from the stage and envelops the people within her gaze.
Enough fawning? But wait, I didn’t tell you what she was wearing. Her short dark hair was plastered down on her head and she wore a man’s suit or more accurately, what looked like a boy’s Bar Mitzvah get-up, complete with white shirt and bright red tie. Odd, perhaps, but it worked. Who else can look just as stunning in haute couture, jeans and t-shirts, or boys’ suits?
Isabella showed us the excellent and unusual short film she made to honor her father’s centennial last year. (Why wasn’t this film nominated for an Oscar?) It was directed by Canadian director Guy Maddin. One of my very first posts on this blog two years ago was a rave about Maddin and Rossellini’s first collaboration, the strange black-and-white film, “The Saddest Music in the World,” in which Isabella played a double amputee beer baroness who uttered one of my favorite lines in movie history: “If you’re sad…and you like beer….then I’m your lady.”
In Isabella’s tribute film, “My Father Is 100 Years Old,” she plays all of the roles—real-life characters interacting with her father (who is played by a giant belly since that’s how she likes to remember him). Isabella transforms herself into a range of people who knew her dad including Charlie Chaplin, Hitchcock, David O’Selznick, Fellini, and her mother. The scene of Isabella interacting with Isabella playing Ingrid Bergman is fascinating. Isabella asks Bergman about the great actress Anna Magnani, who was Rossellini’s lover and leading lady at the time he met the Swedish actress. Bergman tells her daughter how great Magnani was, and how she was called “La Lupa,” the wolf.
ISABELLA: Was Anna hurt when Father left her for you?
INGRID BERGMAN: Ja, very. (pause) Too bad.
(We hear a wolf howling and see its shadow.)
ISABELLA: Some say Father destroyed your career.
INGRID BERGMAN: No, he did not destroy my career. I destroyed his.
ISABELLA: Why did you fall in love with Dad?
INGRID BERGMAN: Because Roberto was so rare. No one was like him. Free, generous…even with money he didn’t have, and strong. He gave me courage—something I never had.
ISABELLA: Why did you divorce?
INGRID BERGMAN: Roberto was always in turmoil. He needed a hurricane. Life was a battle…films were a battle…If there weren’t battles to fight, he was bored. After a while I couldn’t take it any longer. I needed some calm.
(The wolf devours Ingrid. Screen goes black.)
A DVD of this film is included in Isabella’s new book, “In the Name of the Father, the Daughter and the Holy Spirits: Remembering Roberto Rossellini” which includes a lot of great material including the original telegrams and letters that led to the explosive relationship between Bergman and Rossellini. It all started with Ingrid Bergman’s famous out-of-the-blue telegram to the director in 1948, when she was at the height of her worldwide fame:
Dear Mr. Rossellini, I saw your films “Open City” and “Paisan,” and I enjoyed them very much. If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you.
Isabella said that the “ti amo” bit has often been misinterpreted as her mother coming on to Rossellini but she said this couldn’t be further from the truth—at the time it was simply the only Italian phrase Bergman knew because she had said it in a film. Ingrid was trying to help Rossellini get his films to a wider audience and was offering up her fame and connections. With Ingrid’s influence, Rossellini was offered a contract with Selznick Studios in Hollywood.
He refused but offered Bergman a part in his next neo-realist film, “Stromboli.” Not just any part—Anna Magnani’s part! Magnani doesn't strike me as the kind of person you'd want to cross. In her book, Isabella talks about visiting the actress with her father after her parents' divorce. She was always too afraid to look her in the face so she only remembers Anna Magnani's shoes. She recounts the famous story of the night Magnani first found out about Rossellini's interest in Ingrid Bergman. They were at a restaurant in Amalfi.
Sitting at the table, they ordered pasta. Pleasantly, she asked, “Roberto do you want more sauce? A bit more olive oil? Some parmigiano?” She tossed the spaghetti, and when it was all ready to be eaten, she poured the contents over Father’s head.
Rossellini then introduced a screening of “Stromboli” which I had never seen. I loved it. The film tells the story of Karin (Bergman), a young Lithuanian refugee in a Displaced Persons camp after the war, who marries Antonio, an Italian fisherman, as a last resort after her visa to Argentina has been rejected. But Karin finds Antonio’s barren island dominated by a volcano just as claustrophobic and maddening as the DP camp. She longs to get away, even after she finds herself pregnant. She flirts with another fisherman to the scorn of the island women, and even tries to seduce the priest if he'll help her get off the island. Eventually, during her “escape,” Karin collapses near the active volcano, calls out to God, and has a transforming experience. The film ends without us knowing what she’ll do next, but we clearly see that she has reached a new crossroad in her life. As had Bergman.
To get funding for the film, Ingrid appealed to Howard Hughes (who had a longstanding crush on the actress) and he agreed to bankroll it and release the film through his RKO Studios. He also made Rossellini sign over the rights to the final edit, something that the director would bitterly regret later. Following the tenets of Rossellini’s neo-realism, most of the characters in the film were played by actual residents of Stromboli, non-actors who had no experience in front of a camera. After starring opposite the most famous leading men in Hollywood, Ingrid Bergman’s husband in “Stromboli” was played by Mario Vitale, a fisherman that Rossellini spotted off the Amalfi coast. Isabella told us that her mother, used to memorizing her scripts and making movies the structured Hollywood way, was at first at a loss with this new style. Sometimes the non-actors could not remember lines or even repeat words that Rossellini would feed them so, knowing their voices could be dubbed later on, the director would just tell them to say “One, two, three, four.” Bergman then had to respond to this with her actual lines.
News of the actress’s affair with the Italian director leaked out during the making of “Stromboli” and headlines blared around the world decrying the star whose Swedish husband Peter Lindstrom and their 11-year-old daughter Pia were waiting for her return back home in Beverly Hills.
Howard Hughes despised Rossellini’s cut of “Stromboli” and re-edited it on his own, taking out 25 minutes, deleting several religious elements, and adding a sappy narration that gave the film a “happily ever after” ending. This butchered version, complete with a lurid ad campaign designed by Hughes to take advantage of public interest in the Bergman-Rossellini scandal, was a critical bomb in the United States. The film was banned in Memphis, and the Roman Catholic church urged people not to see it. Senator Edwin C. Johnson, the jackass who had denounced Ingrid Bergman on the floor of the U.S. Congress, railed against the film: “The degenerate Rossellini has deceived the American people with an idiotic story of a volcano and a pregnant woman. We must protect ourselves against such scourges.”
Happily, it was Rossellini’s original version that we saw Wednesday night, and it gave me a new appreciation for his brand of neo-realism. As a result of his first experience with the vagaries of Hollywood, Rossellini refused to let his family or friends fly the Hughes-owned TWA, Isabella told us, and she said he forbade her mother from taking the children to America. Isabella didn't set foot in this country until she was an adult.
Isabella talked about her plans to honor her mother’s 100th birthday in 2015. Although it’s been 25 years since Ingrid Bergman’s death, she said her mother is still very present to her. In a recent interview, she mentioned that “if the door rings, then I still think, ‘It is Mama!’ It is absurd, but it is like that. If I see old photos, I often think, ‘Is it Mama, or is it me?’ We look so much alike, but our characters are very different. She was a very passionate woman. She was a wonderful lady but it was either black or white. The word ‘compromise’ was for her a foreign word.”
Isabella Rossellini knows that people have their own fantasies of her parents, that Ingrid Bergman and Robert Rossellini have now achieved a mythical status.
What I say about them can be different from that fantasy, and people don’t like that. Of course, I can say what everyone else says, just repeat what people want to hear, which I’ve done, don’t worry…I have indeed, and gained a lot of sympathy and approval from it. and I enjoyed that. I do like to be liked. But truly, it is hard for me to understand the collective unconscious about Mom and Dad. In school I would always ask my classmates, “Is my mom as famous as Joan Crawford? How about compared to Greta Garbo? Is my dad as famous as Chaplin? How about compared to Hitchcock?” I needed a kind of barometer.
Both my parents are in just about every encyclopedia. I check, you know. When my father’s entry emphasizes his marriage to my mother, I know it’s an American edition. When the emphasis is on his revolutionary and innovative work as a filmmaker, I know it’s a European edition. In Chinese encyclopedias my mother isn’t mentioned at all and my father’s work is described as “nonbourgeois telling true stories about the proletariat.” There are many ways to love my parents. Then there is my way, which is mine only.
My parents are not famous, but hearing Isabella discuss the scandal that hit her parents “with the force of a tsunami,” I couldn’t help but think of my family’s own Big Scandal when my mother left my father in the early 1970s and moved out of our house. She hadn’t found the love of her life, but she did temporarily go off with a man from a different world and culture that perhaps provided the escape she needed at that point in her life. My mother was not condemned by Congress or forced into exile but we do have a letter from famed psychiatrist Karl Menninger declaring my mother to be unfit and she went through her own self-imposed emotional exile for a long time as a result of her choices. It was hard enough for me as a kid to deal with the occasional tongue-wagging about my mother from friends or neighbors, I can’t imagine what it must be like for the children of celebrities to encounter strong, negative opinions about their parents from the pubic at large.
In the Q&A after the film, Isabella answered every question with an honesty that was shocking in this era of controlled sound bites. When asked how her siblings liked her film, she admitted that her twin sister Ingrid has publicly denounced it. A literature professor at NYU, Ingrid sees the film as an insult to Rossellini's memory, especially the depiction of their father as a giant belly. As she told an interviewer, “It’s a ridiculous thing, this naked belly. I think Father would be very upset to be represented like that.” Ingrid said she and Isabella spent much less time with their parents when they were young than the film implies. Bergman and Rossellini were frequently away for long periods making movies. If anything, knowing that some aspects of Isabella’s film may be based on her fantasy of her dad rather than her actual experience makes the tribute even more moving to me. I, for one, have no interest in burdening my memories with the truth.