The Prime of Miss Jacqueline Bisset

I've had so many interesting life experiences, so many psychological journeys, that on a certain level I feel fearless," says English actress Jacqueline Bisset. And so she should. Bisset's Hollywood career spans a prolific 35 years--and counting. One of the Industry's great beauties, she has played opposite Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen, Albert Finney and Nick Nolte.


She has been directed by John Huston, George Cukor, Stanley Donen, Roman Polanski and Francois Truffaut. She's graced box-office hits (Airport, Bullitt), ensemble art-house classics (Day for Night, La Ceremonie) and bad movies we love (Wild Orchid, Dangerous Beauty, Class). She even survived enshrinement as an erotic poster pinup in a wet T-shirt--an image far more memorable than the late '70s underwater epic it was used to promote, The Deep. Bisset's off-screen life has been equally compelling--the formidable list of Hollywood players she's been involved with over the years includes Michael Sarrazin, Alexander Godunov, Vincent Perez, producer Victor Drai and her current companion of several years, martial arts expert Emin Boztepe.

Despite all of this, there are two goals which Bisset has never fully accomplished: 1) getting people to pronounce her last name correctly, and 2) getting people to see past her looks. She may have resigned herself to an inevitable denseness about the former point (for the record, Bisset rhymes with "kiss it"), but she's still fighting the good fight on the latter. "I won't be confined by an image people have of me," she says. "It makes me laugh that when you don't look good on-screen, people start to see your talent more clearly. If you play an alcoholic or a loony and take off your makeup, audiences are tricked very easily." But those parts, she adds, aren't terribly common in Hollywood. "Roles for American women don't absorb as much of a character's background as they do in European movies. In the US, people sometimes think that women stop growing at age 30."

With the new indie The Sleepy Time Gal, Bisset has found a role to showcase the level of talent she displayed in such earlier films as 1973's Oscar-winning Day for Night and Huston's Under the Volcano in 1984. Written and directed by Christopher Munch and coproduced by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, The Sleepy Time Gal generated considerable buzz for Bisset at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Playing a fiftyish, politically committed mother and former seductress who's putting her unruly relationships in perspective as she deals with newly diagnosed cancer, the actress sought to portray, as she puts it, "a harsh and cantankerous, impish pain-in-the-neck free spirit." And she succeeded. "Character contributes to beauty--it fortifies a woman as her youth fades," Bisset said in an interview several years ago. From this perspective, it's fair to say that the actress has never been more beautiful or convincing on-screen than in The Sleepy Time Gal.

"When Chris Munch gave me the script," Bisset says, "I thought, 'Wow, this is really hard stuff. Do I want to go there?' I mean, for one thing, friends keep saying to me, 'Please don't die anymore on-screen!'" She laughs. "And I was terribly concerned about doing an American accent--one of my monologues was seven pages long. There was no escape for me in this movie on any level, but I just couldn't say no to it." She pauses. "It's got some things that are exceptional. It would be wonderful if it gets properly shown."

Looking back, Bisset acknowledges that there have been one or two roles she was sorry to see get away from her. "There haven't been that many parts I would have loved, but I was crazy about the woman's role in Bobby Deerfield when Francois Truffaut was considering directing it with Paul Newman and me. The movie didn't come together as it was written, but I knew that was my part. Later, I had said to my agent, 'If they ever make a movie of An Ideal Husband, I want you to let me know because I want to play Mrs. Cheveley.' He didn't. I was really annoyed. But I don't get crazy about those things." Smiling, she adds quietly, "Everybody wants things that they don't have. Whether I get to have the career that I'm fully capable of, I don't know. But I think I will."


Stephen Rebello