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Defying age and convention

Famous daughter, former model and an actress much in demand, Isabella Rossellini has shown she is more than willing to be outrageous.

May 16, 2004|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

Isabella ROSSELLINI hailed a taxi near her Upper West Side apartment on a busy spring day and was just settling into the back seat when the driver, like so many hacks before him, said, "You know, you look exactly like Ingrid Bergman."

Yeah, yeah. The 51-year-old model, actress, mother of two and daughter of screen legend Ingrid Bergman hears that nearly every time she goes out in public, and she has learned just which responses the truth or a denial will inspire. "I didn't want to engage in conversation, so I just said, 'Oh, really?' " Rossellini recalls. "Then he said, 'You know, Ingrid Bergman has a daughter who looks just like her.' And before I could say anything he said, 'She's some kind of an actress or model, I don't know what. She has children, but she's a lesbian.' I said, 'Really, she's a lesbian, and she has children?' And he said, 'Yes, I know her personally.' I asked him, 'Was she straight and then she became a lesbian? When did that happen?' He said, 'I don't know. She must have been a lesbian all her life.' "

She ends the story with a robust laugh, because she is not now, nor has she ever been, gay. But Rossellini has always been famous, and is accustomed to being gossip fodder. Perhaps her evident comfort with herself can be explained by the fact that she was born with what so many people dream about -- beauty and fame. Or maybe Europeans just appear more sure of themselves than insecure Yanks who come, after all, from an upstart country with far less history. Rossellini credits middle age. "Nobody talks about this great advantage of getting old," she says. "You don't care anymore what people say or think about you. Everything becomes light." Whatever the reason for her self-assurance, for the echt sophistication she projects, she is not unnerved by beauty, sex, nudity, aging, love, heartbreak, success or failure, and certainly not by fame.

Yet by not understanding why the cabby would claim erroneous knowledge of her sexual orientation, Rossellini displays atypical naivete. It's true that Diane Keaton can turn up in drag and not have her gender identity questioned, but she doesn't wear her hair razored short, side-parted and slicked down, as Rossellini does. Although she works in three languages and is very smart, she says it never occurred to her that some people would read meaning into her eccentric style of dress. Last month, she chatted on camera with Ellen DeGeneres, Charlie Rose and Diane Sawyer, wearing men's clothes for each appearance. When Rose asked Rossellini about her outfit -- a dark suit, white shirt and red silk tie -- she explained that a bad back, a residual of scoliosis diagnosed when she was 11, prevents her from wearing high heels. Many feminine styles are tight at the waist, where she experiences painful muscle spasms. Flat shoes and a loose suit, OK, but even Rose didn't buy a necktie as a choice in service of comfort.

She isn't concerned about whether he or anyone else gets her look. Maybe that's why when DeGeneres greeted her by saying, "You could be the coolest woman in the world," it didn't sound like so much synthetic talk show gush.

How times have changed. In 1949, when Bergman became pregnant with director Roberto Rossellini's son while married to her first husband, Dr. Peter Lindstrom, the very public brouhaha was so huge that paparazzi besieged the actress and continued to stalk her family throughout Isabella's childhood. Bergman was drummed out of Hollywood. She returned six years later, winning her second best actress Oscar, but her career never quite recovered and, her daughter says, "It destroyed her." For her part, Rossellini conceived a child with the man who would become her second husband before she'd officially divorced Martin Scorsese, became the single mother of an adopted, mixed-race child and fashioned a crazy quilt of a career that's still evolving, defying the expiration date invisibly stamped on the foreheads of professional beauties. Laura Dern, who has known Rossellini since they worked together on "Blue Velvet" in 1986, says, "She's my hero. She's easy, funny, free, open and the most grown-up person I know." One era's pariah is another's role model.

An avant-garde approach

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