Jacqueline Bisset (August 17, 2014)
Jacqueline Bisset has arrived early to meet me at Daphne’s restaurant in South Kensington. She is wearing a fitted tracksuit top with the zip pulled down enough to reveal her famous voluptuous cleavage, and the skinniest of skinny jeans that make her legs look like a ballerina’s. Her eyes are an extraordinary sea green. They peer right into you with an uncanny depth.
Her face is lined, sure, but still beautiful at 69. She doesn’t believe in botox or having work down, and as she said in her now infamous rambling speech when she won her Golden Globe for Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing On The Edge in January, ‘You have to forgive everybody. It’s the best beauty treatment.’
‘I don’t think it gets rid of lines. It just fills you up with an eternal light. I have massive lines, but I feel okay about them,’ she says as she instructs me about never looking back, never wasting energy on regret. ‘Also, as one gets older, one doesn’t have enough time to go through all this angst stuff.’
Her thanking everybody she’d ever met in her life speech which went on long after the get off the stage music had started playing was the highlight of this year’s ceremony. She simply didn’t want to leave. She admitted later that the shock after so many nominations, including one as Most Promising Newcomer for The Sweet Ride in 1968, had made her get ‘things a bit twisted up.’
People said at the time she appeared tired and emotional, but talking to her now where she speaks in long paragraphs searching for the perfect word, I think she was just being herself.
She seems to have always courted controversy with her unique blend of beauty and intellect, English propriety and French laissez-faire.
Everyone said she was having an affair with Frank Sinatra in her breakout role in The Detective (1968). She was not. And later that year when Bullitt came out they said the same of Steve McQueen.
When she was the lead in Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973) everyone thought she was French. She is not, although her mother was born in France. She was brought up in Reading but has been in as many French movies as English language ones and was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur in 2010.
In 1977 she starred in The Deep with Nick Nolte. The poster from the movie with her diving with her wet white T-shirt stuck to her became one of the most iconic images of the seventies. An image for which she did not pose and was papped underwater during filming on a closed set.
We are about to see her in what is set to be this year’s most controversial film, Welcome To New York. The film is based on the story of the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and his heiress second wife Anne Sinclair.
Her character is called Simone and not Anne, and Gerard Depardieu plays her husband, the head of a finance fund, called Monsieur Devereaux. The names are changed, but other details from the sex scandal are fully in place. The fictional character is also on course to become the next President of France.
He too is an unrepentant sex addict, a prolific one – we see endless sex – but is undone just like Strauss-Kahn, when he abuses the chambermaid of a smart New York hotel.
Some of the same interrogating officers were used as actors and much of the film is shot in the actual safe house where Strauss-Kahn remained under house arrest. Yet it’s not a biopic, so it can be as racy as it wants.
‘I think of Anne Sinclair as a beauty with a lot of spark and warmth and charisma, and I didn’t have that as a starting point for my Simone. I had an on-going thing that women struggle with – men behaving badly.
‘Gerard’s character moves cheerfully through life, avoids thinking because he has his own adventures. No remorse.
‘A lot of the lines were improvised. She feels like she is losing everything. She is beyond sad and shattered.’
The film is half in French and half in English and Bisset says, ‘I speak French well but not fluently. In the film it’s good because I choose the words I know. There is a lot of improvisation, but with structure.’
Bisset is the only woman in the movie who is not having sex with Depardieu, whose large bulk is naked for a good portion of it. What was he like to work with? ‘Charming most of the time. His acting is compelling. He wasn’t always in a good mood, but his energy is always very strong.
‘There was a love scene we had towards the end where we were both in bed. We weren’t having sex but it was a very tender scene with him. I think I have reached the age where they don’t ask me to do sex scenes any more, and that’s quite a relief.
‘Actresses these days seem so easy with their bodies. The sex scenes seem so realistic. The women used to be always underneath. Now the women are on top. Interesting, isn’t it?’
I wonder if she would have been as frustrated and controlling as her character. Has she ever had a relationship with a sex addict? ‘No, but I’ve known very sexual men. In the film Gerard’s character says he needs the sex to make him feel young. Everybody’s needs are different and everyone’s sexual appetite is different. Some people are fitter and healthier and they like sex more than people who put on weight, and there are some men who are just terribly sexy. Gerard is a man of big appetites generally. He is always talking about restaurants and wine and he’s very charismatic.’
His character though is an addict. He can’t change. ‘I have really tried not to change men. I am good at letting people be who they are, to my own detriment. If you allow somebody to be who they are they can be happy, but that’s not necessarily good for you. It means that you could be having a difficult time.
‘I remember somebody saying to me once, I understand why so and so stays with you. You let him be completely free. I thought he’s just being who he is and I don’t feel threatened by it. He was just very alive and a little bit wild.’
I wonder which of her sexy but wild lovers to which she refers. ‘It doesn’t matter who. I’ve had very good relationships, but where people have had addictions it’s been difficult. People who are artistic often have weak areas and may not be the strongest people in the world. Their thrust for life is powerful, you can’t say they’re weak.
‘I’ve always fallen in love instantaneously and mutually. My heart just becomes alert, a feeling that I’ve known someone for a very long time. You feel like you know them, so you are not in a hurry to know them or change them because you have time. You feel like you are witnessing someone who is witnessing you.
‘I had a good relationship with my father and I understood men pretty well.’ By this I think she means she never put on any pressure for the men to marry her.
She had long – around seven year – relationships with high profile, high-octane men. Firstly They Shoot Horses, Don’t They actor Michael Sarrazin (1967-74), ballet dancer Alexander Godunov (1981-88). In 1988 she met Swiss actor Vincent Perez when they starred in La Maison de Jade, and was with property and hotel magnate Victor Drai in the early nineties. From 1997-2005 she was with martial arts expert Emin Boztepe.
She has given various reasons in the past for not getting married to any of them, such as she didn’t want to live with a man with bad habits, she had a fear of commitment. ‘A variety of things. My first relationship the man had two children and he hadn’t married her so I thought if he hasn’t married that woman he’s not going to marry me. it was at the beginning of our careers and I enjoyed having a relationship with somebody who was teaching me a lot about life.
‘Also I was running backwards and forwards between England and California looking after my mother. She was a priority.’
What happened to her? ‘My mother got MS when she was about 47 and she started to have dementia in her early fifties, so both together it was a hard one. It was awful for her, and not easy for me. I was living in California, but also had a base here.’
Her mother Arlette Alexander was a lawyer turned housewife. During the war she cycled from Paris and boarded a British troop transport to escape the Germans. Bisset’s father Max was a GP.
‘He took off, which was a bit of a shock, as he was a doctor and mummy was really not well. I was about 22 when he finally left her. She was already ill. I did adore my father but I found it hard to imagine that he could leave somebody who was so ill and basically plonk mummy into my lap.
‘He remarried and I got very fond of his wife. They had a son who I am very close to. My father had the child when he was 70 and died when he was 71.
‘The problem was how would I cope with my mother. She had forgotten all about him leaving her. The dementia had set in and some of the painful bits she just forgot. It’s really extraordinary when you think about it. When you are older you can forget painful stuff and reach a state of bliss again.’
At this point she may be trying to be blissful, but the pain she went through is almost tactile. We order a glass of wine and she tries to be jolly.
‘I had to keep finding people who could help. In the end I took her to America. She didn’t know where she was but it was the best thing to do. She had dementia from her early fifties until she died in 1999 at 85.
‘I have a brother, Max, he lives in Miami. He doesn’t like Los Angeles. I was the one that…’ Her voice trails. ‘You just have to be there. Life has to go on and you have to deal with it. I had periods where I just didn’t know what to do and then I gradually started to sort things out with my mother.
‘The men that I was with, it was not always perfect. They didn’t do anything for her, but at least they didn’t nag me and understood that I always had to go and that she was my priority. Sometimes they were playful with her, which she adored. Sometimes you can find a jolly place where you can giggle. You have to give up all conventional thinking. You can’t think is the house tidy etc. The world becomes their world. There were people who were sympathetic and people who weren’t.
‘The thing I found most difficult was that people didn’t want to come and visit me. They would come if there was a meal for them or something, but they didn’t actually come over and just sit with the person who was not well. I think people don’t know how to cope with what was going on. It’s like when somebody dies people don’t know what to say. The biggest thing you could do for somebody who is in a situation like that is offer to give them just a half day off so they can get a break.’ And people did that for her? ‘No, they did not.’
It seems to me that her lack of life partner has nothing to do with lack of commitment but because she was already committed to looking after her mother. Is that the real reason? ‘Well… There are lots of brave people who do these things. For me it was a particular combination of trying to be a successful actress and have a life when my mother was a priority. I got very tired.
‘I put my back out when I was lifting her. I remember there’d be times when she’d be terribly giggly when I couldn’t lift her out of the bath. I had to call the Chelsea police station in order to get help. Some days she would lock herself in the bathroom until I took the lock off the door.
‘When people have Alzheimer’s it’s not every minute of the day, they go in and out. I was always wishing my mother could be more emotionally supportive to me because it was so emotional. It wasn’t a tug of war exactly, but some part of it was.’
Did she feel the need to support her in some weird way because she needed the support herself? ‘God knows what the psychology was. It just had to be dealt with on so many levels and it was all compounding, but eventually I got into the swing of it,’ she says brightly. She hadn’t wanted to talk about any of this. She hates looking back.
She says that she loves being in England but when she’s in California she feels healthier and she has trained herself not to miss being in London and not to miss Cadbury’s chocolate, so we indulge in a chocolate mousse.
Known for her on screen shimmer and incandescent beauty, she reminds me, ‘I’ve done very few raunchy scenes. That stupid photograph underwater. It was tacky, awful. I thought they had covered me up completely. We never saw the rushes. We didn’t know what my T-shirt looked like. I was more worried that I was going to die in the water. I was diving down 30 or 40 or possibly 90 feet of water and when I was swimming down the T-shirt was pressed against me. I think that picture was taken by the National Geographic photographer because he was the only one allowed on the beach. I tried to stop the whole thing, but I’m not going back there. I’ve got over it.’
As a teenager she loved to dance. ‘It got me in a state of bliss and every night I would dream I was choreographing amazing ballets. Margot Fonteyn was my absolute idol.’
So her love of ballet attracted her to Russian primo ballerino Alexander Godunov. ‘He was amazing. He was one of those people that when I met him I thought I knew him already. We were together for seven years and stayed close friends after that. It was complicated.
‘He is dead now. Alcohol killed him (he died at 45 in May 1995 due to complications from hepatitis due to chronic alcoholism). My two longest term relationships died for reasons I would say were alcohol related. (Michael Sarrazin died in 2011 aged 70 of cancer).’
Perhaps this is what she was referring to when she said that it can be negative if you let people be free. ‘I didn’t recognise it. I’d never seen anybody drink like this. I didn’t know what they were doing. The ballet dancer was a great soul and had a great spirit. I’m so sorry it didn’t work out for him.
‘I don’t think I have an addictive personality although I think I can be addicted to people. Certainly I can get passions for them, and that can be dangerous too.’
For the moment she isn’t addicted to anybody. ‘I don’t have a romance now but I have a very nice friendship with somebody. I don’t think I want it to turn into a romance, I don’t know. Am I looking for somebody to have a romance with? I’m not sure. I don’t meet anybody except people who are in relationships already. Everybody says the same thing.
‘I am not on any of those dating websites. I know friends who like them but I’m not sure. If I meet somebody who is my kind of person it’s just boom. I’ve never been a person who dates people. I’m either in it or I’m not. I mean I must have had a date in my life, but very few. I think conversation with a person who is alive is a great thing. I like people who are intelligent and self made. Life is more interesting if you are in a relationship, I do think that,’ she says slightly wistfully, but she never wants to dwell in a sad moment.
She seems to contradict earlier reports that she had a fear of commitment. Her relationships that lasted for seven years did not end because she had a seven year itch. ‘Things could have broken off much sooner but I wouldn’t give up on them. I don’t give up on things. That’s my motto.’
She started off in California because 20th Century Fox offered her a contract in 1967. ‘I didn’t like the idea of being owned by anybody. I didn’t mind if it was a man, but a film studio? I was preoccupied in thinking I have to keep going back to England for my mother. Instead they gave me a ten picture deal and they treated me well, and by that time I’d met an actor in the first film I made in America – The Sweet Ride (1968) – and that was my life then.’
When she was making that first film with Sarrazin in New York she got mugged. ‘I’m easily panicked, but on this occasion I was very calm thinking if they stab me I’ll have to go to one of those hospitals that we’re filming in. please God know. I started talking in ridiculous American jive talk. Suddenly I was talking in another language just as she was doing. She took my wallet and I was calm.’
She is godmother to Angelina Jolie. ‘Unfortunately I don’t have much of a relationship with her but I was really close to her mother. Her mother didn’t have an easy time and neither did Angelina, but whenever I see her I find it extraordinary how calm she always looks.’
Maybe her calm is an act, just like hers? ‘I don’t think so. I’m always worrying about things. One of my fears about living in California is that I am in an area prone to fires. I’m always thinking of what I would save.
‘I was shooting a film in Buffalo and the hotel I was in had a fire alarm go off in the middle of the night. The only thing I took with me was the wig for the film. If the wig was gone I would be hanging around until they made another one and I really wanted to get out of that place.’
She tells me with great amusement that a hair salon close to the restaurant we are sitting in today straightened her hair in the late sixties and it all dropped out. ‘So I wore wigs for years. Once I went on location and I took my cat. I’d had him fixed but he still sprayed occasionally and he sprayed on my wig when I was out filming. I was in Denver and when I came back to my room there was a horrendous smell and then I discovered it was my wig that he sprayed on.’
She shrugs it off reminding me that she was friends with Sharon Tate and was round at her house a few days before she died at the hands of Charles Manson. ‘She invited me to come over the following Friday. I cancelled at the last minute. And that was the day she was murdered.
‘Los Angeles changed completely almost overnight. Fear and paranoia and no one had a clue where it was coming from. It didn’t make me want to leave but it made me fearful. I am less fearful now. I feel like I have a big spirit and I am a lover of life and I don’t live in the past.’
With that we finish the chocolate mousse and she embraces me goodbye.