There are lunches at Michael’s and then there are lunches at Michael’s. Today I joined Isabella Rossellini at Table One and had a fascinating conversation with her about aging, celebrity, fashion and gay geese. Stay with me … these seemingly disparate topics are all connected. Ostensibly there to talk about Mammas, her new series for Sundance Channel which looks at the ways different creatures use their maternal instincts in nature, Isabella did get around to the topic eventually. Yet, there was no feeling of the usual PR spin to the lunch which was attended by a handful of journalists who sat enthralled by her stories of her days as an actress and model and her charming tales of growing up in Rome as the daughter of iconic actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini.
“The image I have of myself doesn’t correspond to the image people have of me,” she said. “I live on Long Island and I don’t go to fancy parties and premieres. I don’t like that aspect of celebrity. I never said, ‘When I grow up I want to be a celebrity.’” She didn’t have to. Between her famous parents, ex-husbands (Martin Scorsese and model Jon Wiedemann), her celebrated career as a model and 14-year run as the face of Lancome before the brand dismissed her in 1996 for being ‘too old,’ and her unforgettable turn as tortured nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, she secured a permanent spot in our collective consciousness without employing any of the usual contrivances associated with modern celebrity.
When she showed up to join the small group of journos gathered to meet her (I was lucky enough to score the best seat in the house right next to the guest of honor!) the conversation first turned to fashion as Frazier Moore asked her who designed her understated ensemble of a wool tweed cocoon coat, navy mandarin collared silk jacket, foulard blouse and simple slacks. She gamely removed her coat to reveal the impeccably tailored pieces designed for her by Christina Bomba in Italy. “It’s less expensive than Donna Karan or Dolce & Gabbana, and I like that I can pick the fabric and have it made just for me,” she said. Isabella told us she can’t relate to the fashion-celebrity complex which has turned the red carpet into big business. “When Mama got dressed for the Oscars, she wasn’t solicited by designers. She didn’t have a committee of business people telling her what to wear. She was loyal to one or two Italian designers, and, when they could no longer make dresses for her, the costume designers from her films created something unique.”
My eye fell on her beautifully understated handbag whose jewelry-inspired clasp I immediately recognized. She designed it for Bulgari when she was working with the house a little over a year ago. “They were between administrations, and they came to me and asked if I wanted to work with them and appear in their ad campaign,” she explained. “We have a real connection because both our families are from Rome, so it was easy for me. I went to the factory because I wanted to see how the bag was going to be made, and it was extraordinary. I went to the factory in Florence, and it looked like a photo studio. But these people were true artisans; it took 15 people to make one bag. I was honored to witness their craft. Today if someone came to me and asked me to design a line, I would not do it; it would be too hard. They probably wouldn’t ask me anyway.”
After all these years, people do still ask about her role in Blue Velvet as we did today. When the comment was made that she has made some brave, bold choices in appearing so vulnerable and exposed on screen, she explained matter-of-factly: “I don’t feel that I have been bold. It is about committing to the material. When my mother made a film, she spent most of her time reading everything written by the author whose work was used for the one film. There was a passion for the work and the process. My father was the same. For me, it is about that passion. I think that is why I left New York (City), because you are solicited to do so much (promotion) and I never liked that.”
She told me that she inherited her approach to her career from her mother. “It wasn’t really advice that she gave me,” she explained. “It was really by example. My mother was very practical and down to earth. She liked to keep things simple. Simple was good.” It’s clear in talking to her that she was never interested in the slightest in prolonging a career in front of the camera if it means being anything other than being true to herself. Still naturally beautiful at 60, she doesn’t believe in plastic surgery (“I think one must be so insecure to resort to that, because surgery is torture”) and is completely realistic about what getting older means to women in entertainment. “I don’t consider myself an actress. I’m someone who used to be an actress,” she told me. “Life goes in stages and thing fall away. It’s linked with age — there’s nothing you can do. You can be trapped at home waiting for the phone to ring with calls that never come, or you can open a new chapter in your life. ”
This new chapter started a few short years ago when Isabella found a unique way to channel her lifelong fascination with animals ( She currently shares her home with two dogs, a cat, two rescue rabbits, two chickens and two pigs — one of which was a birthday present) into some interesting projects. She’s getting her masters in animal behavior at Hunter College (“I am going slowly, taking one or two classes a semester, because I am still working. I love that I am doing it for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity”), and she did the Webby-award winning, internationally acclaimed short film series Green Porno about the sex lives of animals. There was a second series re-titled Seduce Me after it proved difficult to get sponsors for a project with the word ‘porn’ attached. “I am so happy that Sundance stayed with me even when we couldn’t find any money.”
Mammas came out of Isabella’s reading several books on female biology where she found some interesting discoveries about the maternal instincts among animals, particularly in the writings of Marlene Zuk, who serves as a consultant on the series. After spending months on research, Isabella told me her greatest task was distilling all the information into “dense but light” content that would translate well on screen. Among her discoveries: “Canadian geese are homosexual. Many of the female geese are. They find a male, and then when they lay the eggs they go back to their partners.” Another revelation: “The male seahorse is the one that gets pregnant. This comes out of new studies, but scientists already knew this.” As writer and director of Mammas, her unique style of subversive wit and intelligence is plainly evident. Isabella appears in each episode in fantastically elaborate animal costumes (my favorite is the fish head) in strangely hypnotic enactments. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? It’s airing on Mother’s Day, Sunday May 12 (the Web series will air simultaneously on sundancechannel.com).
As for what’s next, Isabella is developing a monologue on biology that she is planning to perform. “I’ve created a monster,” she said with a laugh. The producers have plans (sure to be scaled down at her request) for a very ambitious tour throughout the United States and overseas. And she’s hoping Mammas, will extend to Papas and Babies. Whatever happens, though, she will find a way to stay engaged and fulfilled. “There are so many interesting things you can do in your life if you evolve and change. What counts is that you’re happy and I am happy.”
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Isabella Rossellini, Suzy Berkowitz Weksel and Katie Lanegran from Sundance Chanel, Frazier Moore of AP, The Los Angeles Times‘ Meredith Blake, People.com‘s Caryn Midler, WSJ.com‘s Katherine Rosman and yours truly
3. Showtime’s Matt Blank and a blonde gal we didn’t get to meet
5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman
7. Artist extraordinaire Kim McCarty (Michael McCarty‘s wife, as if you didn’t know), hosting a table of oh-so-chic pals including Simon Doonan and his husband, designer Jonathan Adler
8. The absolutely ageless Nikki Haskell (Happy Birthday!), celebrating with three pals
11. Who’s that woman behind those Foster Grants? Jeanine Pirro, rocking some death-defying leopard platforms and bangs. Yowza!
12. Anne Hearst
14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew
15. Evan Greene
16. United Stations Radio chairman and CEO Nick Verbitsky
17. PR maven Lisa Linden and the best dressed lobbyist in New York, Suri Kasirer
18. Random House’s Jon Meacham
19. Author Wednesday Martin
20. Wenda Millard
21. Marshall Cohen
22. EIC of Hearst’s Design Group, the dapper Newell Turner
27. Producer Chuck Pfeiffer
28. Erin Malone
Faces in the Crowd: DialGlobal’s new CEO Paul Caine who is in Day Four of his new job. Time Inc’s former chief revenue officer told me he took two weeks off before starting his new post to clear his head so he could start fresh at the audio content syndicator. Good luck in your new gig!
Please send comments and corrections to DIANECLEHANE at MEDIABISTRO dot COM and LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.
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