Actress Jacqueline Bisset received one of the greatest compliments from Francois Truffaut. When the French film director was asked why he chose Bisset to star in his 1973 film, "Day for Night" (original title: "La Nuit americaine"), his answer was because of her 1967 performance in Stanley Donen's "Two for the Road."
In that film, Bisset appeared briefly in a supporting role; she played one of the young women who want to hitchhike across Europe, but then all, except one, come down with chicken pox en route to the Continent. The group trip is canceled and this allows the film's heroine, the only one vaccinated for the illness, to set off on continue on the trip accompanied by the man she met on the boat over and who had expressed an interest not in her, but in the character played by Bisset.
In the same interview, Truffaut noted that when he watched Donen's film, he was disappointed to find that it was Jacqueline Bisset who comes down with chicken pox; he would have preferred for the film's star (the much-loved Audrey Hepburn) to have dropped out of the trip and for the film to continue with Bisset in her place. Saying that in an interview is undoubtedly a big compliment.
I mention this story to Jacqueline Bisset in a phone conversation with her ahead of the screening in Israel tonight of her new film, "Death in Love." I am not sure she knows the story; "who said that?" she asks, and when I repeat that it was Truffaut, she reacts with a certain irony: "Well, okay, people always say nice things about you in interviews." However, later on in the conversation she acknowledges that "Day for Night," in which she played a film star, was the most significant film in her career.
"He opened doors that were previously closed to me," she explains, "and this, even though there were films in which I did much better work as an actress." In general, throughout the conversation Bisset is critical of herself and the films in which she has appeared. Her best performances, she feels, were actually in films that few heard about and hardly anyone saw, and there were many of these. "I did my best performance in 2001 in the film 'The Sleepy Time Gal,' directed by Christopher Munch," she says. "In it, I played a woman who has cancer and tries to organize her life before she dies."
Bisset, who was born in England in 1944, could have been one of those stars who becomes famous for their beauty and disappears a few years later. She never was appreciated as an actress, was not nominated for an Oscar award and even appeared in several really bad films (the ultimate? "Wild Orchid," from 1990, in which she appeared alongside Mickey Rourke and Carre Otis; a film that I was even embarrassed to mention in the conversation with her). Nevertheless, she has worked almost nonstop since her first film in 1965, Richard Lester's "The Knack and How to Get It." She has appeared in over 85 movie and television films, and among others worked with directors such as Roman Polanski, John Huston, George Cukor and Claude Chabrol.
When I ask her if she describes herself as "a survivor" and apologize for using a concept that has become a cliche' when describing the long careers of film stars, primarily women, she does not hesitate in responding: "Yes," she says. "It's not accurate to say that I worked nonstop. There were long periods where I wasn't offered a thing, and there were times when I agreed to any offer made just to go on working. I have many moments of weakness when I don't believe in myself, when I hesitate about each of the choices I make. I also have a very strong work ethic, and tremendous discipline, and they are what often saved me."
How important was it to you to be a star?
"It was important to me from a pragmatic perspective. Being a star means getting roles you want, and that was always what interested me more than anything else. I always went for roles that interested me, and that wasn't necessarily always in the most talked about or the biggest films. For this reason, Hollywood didn't know what to do with me. Even the fact that I worked in America and also in France turned me into some kind of 'odd bird' in the eyes of the Hollywood establishment."
Thanks to her performance in "Day for Night" Bisset attracted the attention of directors in Europe, where she appeared in some of her best films, such as Claude Chabrol's "La Ceremonie," (also known as: "A Judgment in Stone") for which she was nominated for a French Cesar award for best supporting actress in 1995.
There were also quite a few film roles she turned down, she says. "It was particularly noticeable after I appeared in 1977 in 'The Deep' which was a huge hit and the poster of me wearing a wet white t-shirt hung everywhere; when I saw it all over the place I said to myself: 'that's not me.' The film helped my career, it made me famous, but as a result I was offered roles in dozens of films of that genre and I rejected them. The concept of stardom has something addictive to it, I became aware of this and was careful not to fall into that trap."
Bisset, who at the time was described by Newsweek magazine as the most beautiful woman in the history of film, apparently realized this when right after "The Deep" she starred in one of the most talked about films of that era, "The Greek Tycoon"; she played a fictional character named Liz Cassidy, who was based on another Jacqueline, Kennedy that is, and Anthony Quinn played a Greek millionaire named Theo Tomasis (i.e., Ari Onassis). The critics mocked the film and it was a box office failure. In 2003 Bisset played Jacqueline Kennedy, this time using her real name, in a television film about the short life of John Kennedy, Jr.
Were there roles you wanted and didn't get?
"Sure, there were many. One I recall in particular was 'Fatal Attraction,' whose screenplay I read and I very much wanted the role that eventually went to Glenn Close." According to the principle Bisset cited earlier, whereby nice things are said in interviews, she immediately adds that when she saw the film she realized that she could never have played the role as well as Glenn Close did.
Bisset also appeared in numerous television films and guest roles in series such as "Ally McBeal" and "Law & Order." "For me it's the same - appearing in film or on television," she says. "More than anything I enjoyed appearing in seven episodes of 'Nip/Tuck.' It was perhaps the wildest series I ever appeared in and the wildest role I ever played. I never knew where the series' creators would take the character and that gave tremendous freedom of action. It was an absolute joy."
Did the subject of the series also attract you?
"Do you mean plastic surgery?" Bisset asks and chuckles: "Me? Never." Boaz Yakin, the director of "Death in Love," also asked her to let loose.
"Boaz asked me to play the role of the mother in the film as if she were a wild animal," she says, "and in other scenes to play her as moonstruck. This combination is one of the things about the film that captivated me.