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Isabella Rossellini Tackles the Golden Years on the Silver Screen
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— March 16, 2012

Isabella Rossellini Tackles the Golden Years on the Silver Screen

By Allan Richter
  • Her latest film, “Late Bloomers,” takes a comic look at aging that also smacks of reality
Isabella Rossellini Tackles the Golden Years on the Silver Screen

Time has a way of becoming distorted as responsibilities pile up and fill our days. We spend our lives nurturing a family and career until signposts, some more visible than others, appear in greater frequency and point us to the realization that we are, well, old. At least older.

The clearest signpost for actors is that jobs dry up when they hit a certain age. That’s the conventional wisdom. Isabella Rossellini may have turned that conventional wisdom on its head. Rossellini, who will be 60 in June, has acted in four films over the past year.

Working on that many projects in so short a time, it turns out, is a function of her getting older. “Because I’m older sometimes I work in secondary roles, so I can work on four films because I might work two weeks on one, one week on another,” Rossellini told an audience at a recent Long Island, New York, screening of one of her latest films, the independent project “Late Bloomers.” Its subject: getting older.

Where does time go and what does the lapse of time mean for our relationships with the people we love? If only a theory of relativity measured the relationship between time and love, not just mass and energy. In the absence of such a formula, “Late Bloomers” shows what that equation might look like if acted out.

“It is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life,” the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir once said. “Old age is life’s parody, whereas death transforms life into a destiny: in a way it preserves it by giving it the absolute dimension. Death does away with time.”

Contrasting Reactions

Old age and death both rear their heads in “Late Bloomers,” but it is the former that has more screen time and presents itself as a greater foil for the film’s most comic moments—and perhaps its audience’s most reflective ones.

Rossellini is Mary, and William Hurt, her architect husband Adam. They are both nearing 60 and react in opposite ways when they realize they have entered the senior set.

Golden Oldies of 
the Big Screen

Ira Rosofsky, PhD, a film buff and psychologist who works with nursing home residents, once turned his attention to the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 films of all time. Rosofsky was scanning the list for films with themes about aging, but he came up short. “There haven’t been that many movies about aging,” Rosofsky concluded.

One film, above all others, on the AFI list jumped out at the New Haven, Connecticut, psychologist: “The Godfather.” Strip away the mob violence and vicious jockeying for control, and what’s left, Rosofsky says, is a film about basic family dynamics that accompany the journey of anyone advancing in years. 

“I interpreted the godfather as someone who is getting old, getting ready to retire and trying to provide for his family, Rosofsky says. “‘The Godfather’ can really be seen as a movie about someone dealing with how to age and how to pass on his legacy.”

If years from now Rosofsky scans an updated AFI movie list for films about aging, he may be in luck as studios produce more movies with nuanced gerontological themes and storylines to meet the demands of aging baby boomers. “Marketers are very aware of older audiences, and they’re concerned about alienating them,” says Maria Vesperi, PhD, a cultural anthropologist with New College of Florida, who studies aging and the media.
That means we’re likely to see fewer stereotype-laden films like “Grumpy Old Men,” and more like one of Vesperi’s favorites, “Away From Her.” The 2006 film tells the story of a man coping with the institutionalization of his wife, played by Julie Christie, because of Alzheimer’s disease. The film “is in no way a stereotyped image of dementia,” Vesperi says, adding that Christie’s character is relatively young and attractive, busting the myth that dementia is only an older person’s affliction, “and it remains ambiguous about what exactly her mental state is. It’s a very complex, layered presentation.” 

Raymond Green, PhD, who uses film to teach his psychology students at the the Honors College at Texas A&M University, where he is dean, points to the 2009 animated movie “Up” as having an unusually textured plotline about a widower who finds new meaning after becoming mentor to a Boy Scout. “He reinvests in the world,” Green says of the elderly main character. “He reconnects to people.”
“Up” manages to be accessible to young audiences, Green observes, while presenting them with an opening sequence that tackles serious themes like death, loneliness and depression. “The first eight minutes are incredibly emotional and have such great impact,” Green says. The film, about exploration of the world at large and oneself, “had a lot of good messages and focuses on the idea that to keep going you need meaning and you need people around you.”

“Hugo,”one of the nominees for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards (this article was written before the awards were presented), features similar themes about finding meaning later in life and reconnecting with the fire of one’s young adulthood. “It has good implications for aging,” says Norman Abeles, PhD, professor emeretus of psychology at Michigan State University and former president of the American Psychological Association. “The moral of that could be that you ought not to give up, or find other means of coping when things don’t go your way. Also, it’s never too late. No matter how old you are, there are things you could do.”
Earlier film history is not without its movies with textured approaches to aging. Psychologists and other experts on aging point to “On Golden Pond” (1981), “Harold and Maude” (1971) and “Ikiru” (1952) as giving audiences a rich look at getting older. There will be more of that ilk and fewer grumpy old men onscreen, they predict. Says Vesperi, “The ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’ thing doesn’t fly anymore.” —A.R.

Adam is in complete denial and begins keeping company with his young staff, though his youthful endeavors don’t stop him from peering over his reading glasses. Adam’s predicament is made all the more comical, and poignant, as he embarks on the design of a new senior center.

In contrast, Mary ultimately embraces her newly realized senior status, installing grab bars around the bathtub and equipping their home with large-button telephones. “We’ve crossed over to the other side,” she says as she tries to convince Adam to accept his age. But it is Rossellini’s visuals that are most striking as she encounters bursts of realization about her advancing years. There is something of a nod to Charlie Chaplin in Rossellini’s performance as she struggles around her reading glasses to work on her eyelashes, or as she reacts in astonishment after a teenager offers her his seat on the bus.

Rossellini works so well in this part because she is authentic. When Mary examines the soft folds in the skin of her neck, they are real.

“If you go to a therapist, they say, ‘Are you sure? How do you feel about your wrinkles?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, because I don’t really see them,’” Rossellini once said. “I see my hands, but I don’t see my face, so it’s not a torment. I only see it for five minutes in the morning when I brush my teeth. When you read women’s magazines you always read about this drama of getting old, about anti-aging cream and plastic surgery and whatever else. But I think if you’re independent, like I have grown to be, it’s welcome.”

In a brief interview after she introduced “Late Bloomers” at the Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center in Patchogue, New York, Rossellini confided with a laugh, “I haven’t had plastic surgery because I’m afraid of the operation.”

Rossellini has made her permanent home not far from the Plaza on Long Island, where she has worked on reseeding the Great South Bay with oyster beds and volunteers to help train puppies as guide dogs for the blind. She apparently also raises fowl; at the Plaza screening, officials presented her with a basking spotlight for chickens. Rossellini put her affection for animals on display in last year’s “Animals Distract Me,” a short documentary she wrote and directed for the cable channel Planet Green in which she dresses up as Charles Darwin and a male whale, among other characters. 

She is best known for her fiction film work. Rossellini’s résumé includes such films as “Fearless” with Jeff Bridges and “Death Becomes Her” with Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, but her best- known role is as the mysterious lounge singer in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.”

A Natural Process

Whatever her motivation for shunning cosmetic surgery, Rossellini’s “Late Bloomers” performance is made all the more fresh by what is evidently her character’s first major self-realization about aging. The humor and drama of Mary confronting her age might have been less edgy, and the audience less engaged, had Rossellini, and Mary by extension, once sought a solution to aging at the end of a plastic surgeon’s scalpel. Through the creases we see glimpses of Rossellini the former model more than any surgery could reveal.

“Late Bloomers” director and co-screenwriter Julie Gavras says she cast Rossellini in the role because she saw how comfortable the actress was with her age in “Green Porno,” a series of one-minute films Rossellini made about the sex lives of insects and other creatures.

“In a very pasteboard décor the over 50-year-old actress is disguised as an insect, wearing just a leotard and cardboard eyes to look like a fly,” Gavras says of Rossellini. “She shows such a complete freedom and serenity regarding her body and age that I thought she’d be perfect for the role. I knew it would not be a problem to get her to say she was nearing 60, which is often a critical age for many actors.”

Rossellini, it turns out, may be even more sanguine about aging than her “Late Bloomers” character. “Everybody ages. You age. I’ve aged. It’s just a natural process. It just is,” the actress says.

“Late Bloomers,” in large measure, is a woman’s film. Mary’s acceptance of her age, and her efforts to lead Adam to reality, show a maternal strength and maturity that Mary executes not just with Adam, but with their children as well. And Nora, Mary’s mother, is a feminist and wisecracking realist whose acceptance of the travails that sometimes bedevil us as we age tops even Mary’s acquiescence. Nora, played by British actress Doreen Mantle, also is the catalyst for any reconciliation between Adam and Mary.

A Story From Life

Rossellini, of course, is the daughter of screen legends—the actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini. Like Isabella Rossellini, “Late Bloomers” director Gavras is a second-generation filmmaker; her father is the director Costa Gavras, whose later years sparked the idea for “Late Bloomers.”

The project took shape when Costa Gavras was being honored for the 40th anniversary of his film “Z,” about dictatorship in Greece. Julie Gavras says the recognition bestowed on her father was the seed for “a story about the fact that at some point in one’s life it is the view of others that makes us feel old rather than the actual state one is in. So I imagined the life of this architect who is awarded a prize for his career’s work and all the incredible things that occurred during it. The architect, just like my father, above all wished to continue working without age becoming a problem.”

Having a woman at the helm of “Late Bloomers” appealed to Rossellini. Where a male director largely conceives of love as being between a couple, Rossellini says, “a woman who writes about love writes about family. That to me is very touching. It’s a story not only about a couple played by me and William Hurt, but their children, the woman who played my mother, and my best friend. I felt in that there was a very female touch.” 

Those are, after all, the more complex relationships with which baby boomers contend, says Gavras, who prepared for her film by becoming a student of gerontology, or aging, including subscribing for two years to Senior Plus magazine.

“It is a new generation, the baby-boomer generation that is now reaching 60,” Gavras says, “a generation that has seen the world modernize and transform, and that thought it would never grow old. And at the same time, reaching 60 is a no man’s land in between ages that needs inventing—not as young as one thinks one is, though not as old as others may think.”


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