Jacqueline Bisset


Only the very beautiful ever have the audacity to maintain “things are harder if you’re beautiful,” as Jacqueline Bisset does.

“I think it’s harder if you’ve got good bone structure, I really do. I don’t play up the glamour elements of my possibilities but people see me as someone elegant, with ‘class.’ I get a lot of accusations of being good-looking and that sort of thing.”

The rather apologetic smile would justify such “accusations” on its own.

“As soon as I take all my make-up off, make myself look exhausted, people immediately say how brilliant I look ! ‘So real !’ ” she laughs. “You make yourself look beaten up, downbeat, and the curtain will rise and they all say ‘Actress.’ It’s infuriating.”

At 46, Bisset is still beautiful enough to know all about such drawbacks. Meeting her at home in Beverly Hills, her rather tetchy tirade on the burden of beauty is her one concession to type. 

Her public image has evolved around her mini-skirt in Bullitt (billed, incredibly, as “the shortest mini-skirt ever seen in a motion picture”) together with her wet T-shirt in The Deep, and now Wild Orchid, Zalman King’s continuation of the voyeuristic themes and self-consciously steamy style of his movie Siesta and of course particularly 9 & 1/2 Weeks. Inevitably, the public image is deceptive.

For 20 years, she has lived in the same cool, cluttered, stone house – a modest, homely, roadside villa on Benedict Canyon – with her two cats and an old black Buick – “just muddling through.”

Bisset has survived Hollywood and the bizarre neuroses and narcissism suffered by so many of its stars, and emerged as one of its most unorthodox, no-nonsense, stubbornly independent, inhabitants. In fact her lifestyle is the antithesis of Beverly Hills glamour.

The daughter of a Scottish doctor and a French lawyer but supremely English (“Gosh !” being her strongest exclamation), she arrived in Hollywood via Reading, and the family’s 400-year-old cottage in Tilehurst where her mother still lives.

“I never actually decided to come to Hollywood. I came here reluctantly. I wanted to be a dancer. I really had no reference for this sort of life at all. I was very English – wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to a goose, clutching my mini-skirt. Terrified ! I was a perfect target for the sharks.”

She arrived “not knowing a single soul” having signed a 10-picture deal with 20th Century Fox but was sent home for doing a screen test for another company.

“God, I was naïve,” she sighs. “Incredibly naïve – for a very long time. Actually,” she laughs, “people say to me that I’m still very naïve. I couldn’t even say the word ‘actress’ for years and years. When people asked me, I’d say “I do a bit of acting’.”

Even now she looks a bit nervous about admitting it.

“I didn’t realize acting was my career for a long, long, time. It was a stealthy, mysterious, quiet, process within myself. I was ambitious to be good, I still am. I always said I wouldn’t compromise my own personal values. I like to look at myself in the mirror in the morning and feel I haven’t sold out.”

Her first film was a walk-on in The Knack – “I thought it was all quite mad” – before Roman Polanski and David Bailey gave her her first speaking part in Cul-de-Sac.

“I met Roman socially,” she recalls demurely, without batting an eyelid. “I left the audition completely traumatized. Roman put me on this diet, gave me these strange injections. I lost 11 lbs.”

In Casino Royale she made her entrance announcing: “I’m Miss Good-thighs.”


She stared with Sinatra in The Detective and her fee broke the $1 million barrier in Inchon. She rejected Return To The Valley Of The Dolls but her good intentions were scuppered by the posters promoting The Deep – inadvertently founding ‘the wet T-shirt’ in the process.

“I couldn’t believe it. I do regret it but I’ve got my sense of humour back about it. After that, people would shake my hand and look straight at my bosom. Hollywood is about showbusiness. Once you understand that, you’ll eliminate a great deal of pain for yourself. I’ve got nothing to say against films like Airport or The Deep. They helped me to get the intimate, not madly fashionable, French films I like.”

She has no qualms about citing Anna Karenina for CBS TV (with Christopher Reeve as Vronsky) as “the most satisfying work I’ve ever done” and actively downplays working with Polanski, Huston (Under The Volcano), even Truffaut who said after Day For Night “Jacqueline doesn’t need dialogue to let you know what she’s thinking.”

“Working with them was very rewarding, very humbling, but not terribly agreeable,” she recalls. “The funny thing is, you learn more struggling on your own, working with a useless director and a poor script.”

Zalman King sees her as “a wonderful mix – very decisive, very direct but very naïve”, and it does seem as if Bisset has survived Hollywood intact, almost innocent.

“I’ve never really seen any ‘swinging parties’, this sub-culture of gross, spiteful, greedy, sex-driven, money-driven, money-mad, people you get in every Jackie Collins book (laughs). I’ve never seen it ! I had more close shaves modeling in London than here. I can’t think of one, I’m sorry. I’ll have to make on up. Ha-ha. I don’t think there are any more unscrupulous characters in Hollywood than anywhere else. All those stories about screen tests with no film in the camera. The girls do come running but those directors are really small fry. To be perfectly honest, you’ve got to be a bloody idiot to get yourself in that situation or just plain greedy.”

Possibly only Bisset would admit that she co-produced Rich & Famous “for the creative aspects.”

“I’m not greedy. The business elements of life have never been madly attractive to me. I was never blindly interested in fame, rather the opposite. I tend to pull back from wide fame. There are plenty of soaps, mini-series, and films I could do that would make me far more famous, but I won’t do them.”

King agrees: “Jacqueline is a very unusual woman. She really has preserved an interesting life for herself.”

At 46, she’s “still not ready for children” and “very wary of marriage”, more comfortable with her more “bohemian, if insecure, lifestyle.”

“My father wasn’t a terribly good provider. I saw my mother suffer a lot. I realized early on you have to look after yourself. Women can’t depend on men.”

Relationships with Russian ballet-dancer and Die Hard star Alexander Godunov, actor Michael Sarrazin, and film producer Victor Drai all lasted seven years. She will not discuss her new partner, a Hungarian actor she met filming Anna Karenina

“I like exciting men. It doesn’t make for easy relationships. I’ve made a few mistakes, who hasn’t? I’ve met the odd crook in my life, but the odd crook who I thought was particularly charming.” She laughs. “I don’t think you should have too high expectations.”

In this respect, says King, Bisset couldn’t be more unlike her character in Wild Orchid. A woman who is obsessed with a man (Mickey Rourke) that’s completely unobtainable.

“A lot of women love the drama of thinking they’re in love. They love the fantasy. Jackie’s a realist.”

Like 9 & 1/2 Weeks, King’s film concerns Emily, a young business lawyer (Revlon model Carre Otis) whose moral control is undone by the sly manipulation of Wheeler, a self-made millionaire played by Mickey Rourke, whose problem is that he’s “not very good at being touched.”

With tremendous gusto and frantically camp humour, Bisset plays Claudia Lioress, a “dynamic, streetwise businesswoman fascinated by Wheeler, who joins him in trying to entice Carre Otis into what Bisset calls “sceney sex games.”

Censored after criticism from women’s organizations in the States (but uncut here), the film’s sexism extends to men too: all the men in the film are oily, conceited toads who treat women as possessions.

“Women have been going for repugnant characters from the beginning of time, haven’t they? Goodness knows why… Times have changed but it’s a primal choice that women go for: they like men that can protect them, men with money and power. It’s a big aphrodisiac.”

Wild Orchid is often ludicrous, occasionally intentionally hilarious, and self-consciously steamy. King describes it as “a rock ‘n’ roll, erotic, romantic, comedy-fairy tale. It’s fun.” Guardian readers might not agree.

Wild Orchid follows another brave choice – Paul Bartel’s lively parody, Scenes From The Classic Struggle In Beverly Hills, where Bisset plays an ex-sitcom queen whose servants are seeking sexual revenge over their mistress.

“I was actually shocked by the script. It was outrageous.” 

Indeed, Bisset visibly panics when prompted to repeat her choicest line – “He’d suck your box until your nose bled” – and blushing furiously, says: “I still can’t do it.”

Still, she finds herself pressurised to do unscripted nude scenes.

“Over they come, every film, in a little huddle…” At first she refused Wild Orchid, finally accepting as a favour to King.

“We all like to be involved in artistic projects with good actors. With my image, I very rarely get a decent script, a decent character. The women all look the same – the ‘ideal contemporary woman’, usually a broadcaster or journalist – a trendy lifestyle, so they can dress well and move in and out of society. Of course I get frustrated !” she snaps.

Even Bisset is capable of the occasional actressy moment.

“If I can’t find the subtext I’m not interested,” she whispers as if to herself more than me. “I need silent moments, quiet, moments where the audience hopefully goes under with you. I’m often wrong about films but (she adds softly) I don’t regret them because I grow, in my own way.”

She eagerly give me a tour of the villa – a cosy clutter crammed with rugs, small, simple, paintings from Mexico and Northern Brazil (where Wild Orchid was filmed).

Outside, in the searing heat, there’s a small pool but she’s more eager to show me where she’s fenced off the top of her land – “let it grow into a jungle” where she gets raccoons, snakes, and deer.

There are grapefruit, lemon, and avocado trees. But, reassuringly, even in Beverly Hills, the fruit falls on the neighbour’s side.

It’s a long way from Reading, I suggest.

“I go back all the time. I’ve taught myself to live in the present, not to miss things: it doesn’t serve any purpose… Sometimes acting can be very boring and frustrating. At other times,” she says quietly, “it can be more real life than life itself. It can be a very dangerous game unless you learn to conserve your life around it.”