One of the highlights of the Hamptons International Film Festival, which opened on Wednesday October 15th was when the international film star Jacqueline Bisset, who in 1977 appeared on the cover of both Newsweek and Time in the same week, sat down with Steven Gaines for an intimate chat about her illustrious career before a live audience at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Bisset, who is renowned as one the world’s great beauties, stars in the Hallmark Channel’s new film, An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving, one of the festivals upcoming Spotlight films, which will be shown in East Hampton at 6 pm following the interview.
The film directed by Graeme Campbell and making its World Premier at the festival is based on a story by Louisa May Alcott, author of the beloved classic Little Women, and is set against the snowy backdrop of nineteenth century New England. The heroine, Mathilda Bassett is very much like Jo March: an aspiring teenage writer, quick-witted, and typically headstrong. With her family struggling financially after her father’s sudden death, ‘Tilly secretly writes to her grandmother (Jacqueline Bisset), whom she has never met, hoping Grandmother Isabella, a wealthy New York socialite, will help the Bassett household.
Although many people assume she is French because she speaks the language fluently, the Jacqueline Bissett was actually born and raised in England. Bisset took ballet as a child and studied diligently to learn French because of her mother, who was French. When Jacqueline was just a teenager her mother was diagnosed with disseminating sclerosis. Her father left the family, requiring Jacqueline to work as a model to help support her ailing mother. Bisset took an early interest in film and worked as a waitress so she could take acting lessons.
Her stunning beauty helped Bisset gain work and her first small role was in the 1966 film “Cul-de-Sac, directed by Roman Polanski, who ironically Ms. Bisset said was probably her favorite director because of “his sheer competence and brilliance, although I was too young to know it at the time.”
Two years latter she came to Los Angeles feeling a bit like a fish out of water, but has been working steadily ever since. Today she is not only an outstanding actress, but has been an international film star since the late 1960’s working with such great directors like John Huston, François Truffaut, George Cukor and Roman Polanski. She has co-starred with actors of the likes of Anthony Quinn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Newman (twice), Armand Assante, Candice Bergen, and the list keeps growing.
Ms. Bisset gained her first critical attention in 1967 for her work in “Two for the Road” and later that same year appeared in the popular James Bond spoof “Casino Royale,” playing Miss Goodthighs. In 1968 when Mia Farrow unexpectedly dropped out of the shooting of “The Detective” with Frank Sinatra, her role went to Bisset, who received special billing in the film’s credits giving her optimum recognition. Next she gained additional attention by playing opposite Steve McQueen in the 1968 classic action film Bullitt.”
A major turning point occured when she played the lead in Truffaut’s brilliant 1973 film “Day for Night” (Nuit Américaine, La 1973), giving her acclaimed recognition in Europe as a serious actress. Indeed Truffaut, himself, said at the time that Bisset was “the most beautiful actress with whom I’ve ever worked.
However it would take several more years before she would attain the same recognition in the United States. That would come when her underwater swimming scenes in the 1977 movie “The Deep” with Nick Nolte inspired the worldwide wet T-shirt craze. And Newsweek magazine exclaimed that she was "the most beautiful film actress of all time.” Ironically she hated the wet T-shirt scenes and felt exploited because of the provocative way in which the scenes were shot without her knowledge.
She was, however at what many consider the pinnacle of her success, and she formed her own production company. Her first and last project would be “Rich and Famous (l981), which she said was an “astonishment” that she was able to co-produce at her relatively young age in a male dominated business. She met Candice Bergen, who has been a lifelong friend, on that shoot.
Her well-received performance in Rich and Famous (1981) gave her recognized acclaim in the US as a serious actress. She received four Golden Globe nominations for her roles and in 1996 she was nominated for a César award, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for her role in Cérémonie, La (1995).
Bissett, the God mother to Angelina Jolie, has never married, but has been involved in several long-term romantic relationships refusing to take the plunge. On marriage she was once quoted in an interview as saying, “I think under all the frippery and makeup we women are hard as nails. I find it curious that men are attracted to our independent ways, then marry us, stuff us into domesticity and wind up blaming us for not being more interesting.” This may contribute to her fear of marriage, but the fact that her father, a doctor, divorced her mother, an attorney before their marriage, in the mid 1980’s after thiry years of marriage is probably at the core of her apprehension.
Ms Bisset once said in an interview, “My father said to me when I was quite small, ‘Jackie, you happen to be pretty because of your mother and me. You did nothing to earn it. And it will not last. So go out and learn to relate to people.” Well Ms. Bisset has been doing it ever since. In fact the actress said “It is rare for me not to like someone.” And she attributes this quality as one of the cornerstones of her success.
“There is so much I haven’t done,” she said “I don’t think about that. I try to focus on the task at hand. I feel I have a fairly balanced sense of priorities. I have a tendency to get to the essence of things quickly. I still get frightened which is ongoing and not terribly pleasant, but as I get older difficult things do become easier. I get support when I need it and understanding your character gives you so much.”
She continues to work steadily in films and television and has a re-occurring role in the television hit show “Nip and Tuck. But Jacqueline Bisset leads a restrained social life these days. She considers Los Angeles her home base, where she maintains a 14 room cottage that once belonged to Clark Cable and Carole Lombard. She travels the globe for her work but home is where she feels best.
By: Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers