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Rossellini book explains haunting nude scene

What was it about that specific shot in "Blue Velvet" that forced me to take it so personally? When David Lynch's film was released in 1986, it was hailed as a masterpiece. But I gave it one star, and my review expressed discomfort with the way Lynch presented painful material and then pulled back to pretend it was all a joke.

My feelings were illustrated by one shot in particular, in which a character played by Isabella Rossellini appears naked. Now, 11 years after first seeing the film, I think I understand what I was feeling and why it disturbed me so. Rossellini's new autobiography, Some of Me (Random House, $29.95), provides the information I was lacking.

The scene in question required Rossellini to walk naked in public through the movie's small town, and although I'm sure we were intended to feel that was painful, somehow it was more - a violation of her own privacy and dignity. I sensed vaguely that some sort of boundary had been crossed, that the film was using its star in a way that went beyond the role. I felt Rossellini was hurt during the scene, and I felt sympathy for her; the spell of the movie's story was broken, and feelings were generated that colored my review.

I wrote: "In one scene, she's publicly embarrassed by being dumped naked on the lawn of the police detective. In others, she is asked to portray emotions that I imagine most actresses would rather not touch. She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated and undressed in front of the camera. And when you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film."

I felt Lynch let her down by leading her along a garden path of honesty, pain and revelation, and then left her hanging out to dry. Here is what Rossellini writes about that particular scene: "Once when he was a kid, (Lynch) told me, coming home from school with his older brother, they had seen a naked woman walking down the street. The sight had not excited them, it had frightened them, and David had started to cry. My 'model-trained' brain flashed me an image: the photo by Nick Ut of the girl in Vietnam walking in the street naked, skin hanging from her arms after a napalm bomb attack. That devastated, helpless, obscene, frightening look seemed to me what David wanted, and I adapted it for my scene. . . .

"I wish I'd found some other approach for the scene in 'Blue Velvet'; I did not like being totally exposed. I kept worrying about what my family would think when the film came out, and I searched and searched for other solutions until the last moment - also because people were gathering around the set to watch the making of the film.

"People came out with blankets and picnic baskets, with their grandmothers and small children. I begged the assistant director to warn them it was going to be a tough scene, that I was going to be totally naked, but they stayed, anyway. I went out and talked to them myself, but they were already in the mood of an audience and just stared at me without reacting to my plea and warning."

Unquote. Extraordinary. It is customary to clear the set before nude scenes. Here we have the general public settling down with picnic baskets to watch Rossellini enact humiliation. But Rossellini was being humiliated not only in the film, but by the film. Where was Lynch? Why did he film the scene with total strangers watching? Did he feel it would enhance her sense of embarrassment?

"Blue Velvet" was in some ways a remarkable movie, and my one-star rating probably reflects personal aversion to that particular scene more than a balanced judgment of its artistry. But now that I've read Rossellini's book, I feel more than ever that a compact between actor and director was violated, and that what I was feeling was really there - painful, humiliating and unwarranted.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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