Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Positive Memories and Impressions of Jacqueline Bisset


I was dismayed to see all the negative comments and ridicule directed at Jacqueline Bisset ever since she gave her admittedly unfocused, slightly profane, and eccentric acceptance speech at Sunday's Golden Globe awards for winning Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television for the BBC drama "Dancing on the Edge" (2013).  A lot of people on the internet commented that they thought she was unintelligent, inebriated, haughty and crazy.  And I'm not here to criticize people who might have reacted that way because I certainly have negative reactions to the way other celebrities have behaved when they rub me the wrong way.  (But, usually, to evoke my ire, it takes more than just three minutes of rambling talk to get me to hate a celebrity.)  It just saddened me that, to a lot of people, that may be their only impression of Jacqueline Bisset because I dealt with her personally several years ago when I was working on a book interviewing actresses of the 1960s.  Because of the prolificacy of her career, having worked with some major directors and leading men, Bisset was probably the most successful of all the actresses I interviewed.  I sincerely appreciated that she agreed to let me interview her.  I also will never forget how she treated me with respect, always regarded me as a grown up adult, and never condescended to me the way other actresses did.


The thing about her, which I think the public may have forgotten or may have gotten the wrong impression of this week, is that she was one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, articulate individuals I have ever encountered in my life.  It took awhile before we could actually set up the interview.  She received my query letter in the mail and called me personally on the phone to chat about it.  After a few minutes of allowing me to explain who I was, what I was trying to accomplish, and who else I had interviewed, she agreed to do the interview.  I offered to send her some questions in advance, which other actresses had demanded so that they would know what I would be asking, but Bisset said that that was not necessary.  The impression I came away with was that, if there was a question I might have asked that she didn't like, she felt confident enough to be able to handle it by being direct with me about it and decline answering it.  It was a refreshing contrast to other actresses who seemed uptight with me about what subjects I might bring up that they gave the impression that they wouldn't be able to know how to deal with it and, as a result, they often acted in a weird, evasive manner with me concerning what topics I might pose to them.  I am sincere when I say that I've dealt with actresses who are truly weird, crazy, self-centered, narcissistic, airheaded, delusional, and pretentious...and Jacqueline Bisset was not one of them.


Over the next few months, she stayed in contact with me and let me know when she thought she would be in Los Angeles so we could try and schedule the interview.  One time, I received a voice message from her when she was staying in London.  She had finished a film in Europe, and thought she would be back in town by that point, but decided to stop over in London, if I remember correctly, to visit with her brother.  She apologized she had not returned when she had originally said she would, gave me an approximate date as to when she thought she would be back in town, and asked me to follow-up with her then.  This might not seem like much, but it was a stark contrast to some other actresses who would play games and not be forthcoming as to their intent and purpose with regards to trying to schedule time for me to interview them.


When I finally did schedule an interview with her, she called the day before we were to meet because she had come down with a cold and had laryngitis.  She apologized sincerely and asked me to get in touch with her in a week to reschedule.  Before we ended the call, I distinctly remember her barely being able to speak anymore, but she said, "Thank you for understanding.  Please forgive me."  I remember being surprised she even said that because other 1960s-era actresses I dealt with would never have bothered considering whether cancelling at the last minute might have caused an inconvenience.  Eventually, weeks later, we did do the interview at her home one afternoon, where she served me tea and I spoke with her for almost three hours.  What I remember most is the fact that she started the interview talking at length about her parents--her father was a Scottish doctor and her mother was a French attorney--and how she missed them and how they taught her strong values that have helped her hold onto the priorities that are important to her and not lose her identity while working in show business.


At one point, when we were discussing European film directors of the 1960s, she seemed surprised that someone my age had heard of them because I was so young.  I told her that my father--who passed away a year and a half ago from battling lung cancer but who was a Chinese opera musician--was kind of a renaissance man who instilled in his kids an appreciation for the arts and for politics and history and current events.  She asked me, "Don't you miss being able to talk with him like that?"  At the time, he was still alive so I told her, "I see him all the time!"  She responded by saying "You're lucky, you really are" and described to me how she misses her conversations with her father, how engaged he was about life and about other people, and she reminded me to always appreciate my parents and family.  After my father passed away, her words resonated with me even more deeply than before.  She was not narcissistic because she often talked about other people in her life who had made a great impression on her, in stark contrast to some other 1960s-era actresses who only talked with me about themselves.  At one point, she even sort of turned the interview around on me and started asking me about more of my life and background, my experiences in college, and asking about how young people now behave in social settings because she was fascinated with how the dating and courtship rituals have changed since when she was a teenager and in her 20s.  (I remember having to steer the conversation back to discussing her and her career, as I didn't want to use up my limited time with her by talking that much about myself!)


I found her to be a very substantial and thoughtful person, with no ego.  It was interesting that some people, who saw the speech, interpreted from her mannerisms and gestures that she was egotistical, which surprised me, because she was one of the least self-aggrandizing actresses I ever dealt with.  At one point, when I was telling her about dealing with other actresses who had a negative opinion about some of the actresses I already interviewed, and as a result didn't want to be associated with them by being in my book, she explained why she agreed to do the interview.  She explained that, even if she hadn't heard of everyone I had interviewed, she reasoned that she didn't know, or work with, or watched the work of, everybody who was working back in the 1960s, and it wasn't up to her to judge the career accomplishments of others.  Bisset fully acknowledged that, to a significant portion of the population, the other women I interviewed are indeed important and accomplished actresses.  She agreed to do the interview because she thought the subject I was writing about had merit, and she didn't let the fact that she wasn't familiar with all the actresses I had interviewed deter her from speaking with me (which other actresses had or, at the very least, made a fuss over).


I do admit that I was surprised that Bisset wasn't more prepared on Sunday night when she gave her speech, because she was always so articulate and thoughtful and insightful about not only her career, but also about how Hollywood has changed during the course of her career.  Bisset was someone who clearly understood the business aspect of show business, which I realized other actresses I dealt with rarely grasped because the others appeared flighty with regards to how they handled their careers and finances.  I always found her one of the shrewdest and most media savvy of any actress I dealt with because she definitely was conscientious about how the media had changed over the last several decades.  I also felt, based on my dealings with her, that Bisset is a realist who does not have any delusions about herself or her career.  So I don't know what to make of the speech she gave.  I think what happened on Sunday night could best be described as a "perfect storm" where, despite her best efforts, everything came together in a way that was less than ideal the moment her name was announced as the winner.  That being said, my impression is that Jacqueline Bisset is a very genuine human being.  There were no airs, calculation, or subterfuge about her and, whenever she spoke, it was always in a very sincere and honest and unaffected manner.  I think, if her speech struck people as "strange," it's because she wasn't putting on airs at all, and she was being completely unfiltered.  I think she was just surprised she had won and, according to her later statements, she hadn't expected her category to come up so soon in the program.  That, combined with the fact that they seated her so far from the stage, contributed to the "deer in the headlights" quality that people seem to be responding to.  I also believe that, the fact she didn't have a speech prepared, undermines the comments of some individuals who thought she was behaving like a diva.  Having known other frustrated actresses who are still waiting for that moment to be called to the stage to win their award (and how they appear to have already rehearsed in their minds what they plan to say once they get there), I think Bisset's speech demonstrates how she doesn't spend her life waiting for that sort of affirmation or acclaim because, if she had, she would've already known what to say that night.  (As a point of contrast, another actress I interviewed, in responding to my question regarding whether she was satisfied with all she had accomplished, said, "No, I still need to win the Oscar, because I've already won everything else."  Bisset never said anything as presumptuous or self-aggrandizing as that with me.)


I also remember how, with self-effacing candor and humor, Bisset recalled how she moved to Hollywood in 1967 after she signed a picture deal with 20th Century-Fox and that she worried for many years that she might end up "going Hollywood" and losing all the values that her parents had raised her with.  She said she used to wonder how it would happen with other actors that they changed drastically and negatively once they arrived in Hollywood.  She used to ask herself whether she had the strength of character to be able to live and work in Hollywood, and not pick up any bad traits from the environment, and have enough perspective to go back home to England if her career did not work out and earn a living at a regular job back there.  She told me that for years she used to ask herself if she had "gone Hollywood" yet.  She often concluded that she didn't believe that she had, but sensed that it could still happen, so she was always on guard about it in order to ensure that she held onto her sense of identity.  She acknowledged, while laughing good-naturedly about it, that she finally allowed herself to relax about it around the time she turned 50 years old because she figured she had been in Hollywood nearly 30 years by then, and that if she was going to "go Hollywood" it would have already happened by that point.


The other thing I remember about Bisset was that she appeared to have a lot of integrity.  Even though she had high standards with regards to what she considered a good film, she was also a realist.  She knew it was difficult to have any sort of success as an actress in as competitive an industry as Hollywood, and recognized how, despite best efforts, sometimes every actor ends up in a film that isn't very good.  There was no sense of entitlement about herself that I sometimes encountered with other actresses.  Despite her frustrations at the limited opportunities for mature actresses in Hollywood, I sensed that she knew she was fortunate to still be working.  She was one of the smartest actresses I ever met with regards to understanding the business end of Hollywood.  I learned a lot from her about maintaining a decorum of maturity and professionalism that I try to apply to my own life and career.  In particular, I recall an anecdote she shared about a boyfriend she had when she was a teenager in London who used to call her an "ignoramus" all the time.  She knew she wasn't an ignoramus, but when he called her that it really challenged her to prove to herself that she was not.  She said to me, "The odd insult, or criticism, really isn't so bad.  It can be very motivating and it's good to continually be challenged.  If people told you all your life that you're wonderful and brilliant, why would you ever bother improving yourself?"  I always remembered that statement.  It really made an impression on me, which is why I always try to be receptive to constructive criticism in all aspects of my life, because it can only help you improve.


What I also appreciated about Bisset was the fact that she didn't self-indulgently criticize the "bad" movies in her career.  She completely appreciated and recognized the acclaimed films she had appeared in, but concurrently didn't needlessly disparage the bad, or unsuccessful, ones because she felt that every professional experience--whether it was a TV movie or a flop feature film--was a worthwhile experience where she learned a valuable lesson, or made a lifelong friend, or was a particularly pleasurable working experience that was a happy time in her life.  I admired how she didn't take a bad movie in her career as somehow being a personal reflection upon herself, which other actresses self-indulgently do, and found value in flops like "When Time Ran Out..." (1980) or "Inchon!" (1982).  As I mentioned earlier, there was no sense of entitlement about herself and she often spoke about how lucky she was to have been in the films she has made, and worked with the directors and stars that she has throughout her career.


Which is why I thought it strange that people appeared to get the wrong impression of Bisset when they reacted to the portion of her speech where she said "I want to thank people who have given me joy, and there are many who have given me sh-t.  I say like my mother.  What did she say?  She used to say, 'go to hell or don't come back!'" because of the way they misinterpreted that remark to indicate she was someone who was bitter, had a chip on her shoulder, or had an axe to grind.  Hank Stuever of the Washington Post summarized that perception and reaction when he wrote, "At a loss for words, Bisset soon found some, reaching back across decades of apparent show-biz hurt and neglect, to the chagrin of the person at the control board tasked with muting out bad words."  The reason I interpreted that portion of her speech differently from others is that, in my experience, Bisset had the least-victimized mentality of any of the 1960s-era actresses I interviewed.  In contrast to others--who openly shared with me their hurt, hate, and resentment over losing out on key movie roles that they thought would have catapulted them to greater stardom; how they were treated cruelly by co-stars, directors, or the property master; or were cheated out of their life savings by unscrupulous agents, managers, or ex-spouses--Bisset had none of that "woe is me" attitude when discussing her life and career with me.


In fact, Bisset shared with me how she felt she was well treated by 20th Century-Fox when she had a long-term picture deal with them in the 1960s, and that they never put her into any movies she didn't want to do and always allowed her to work with other studios.  Bisset recalled how, many years later, a former Fox executive told her that the studio enjoyed working with her because she was always so polite with them that she brought out the best in people and, as such, they never wanted to force her into any movies she wasn't keen on appearing in.  Having dealt with her first-hand, I understood why the Fox executives responded positively to her civility.  This was in contrast to her contemporaries, who often complained to me about being under contract to the studios, and how they openly complained about it at the time, and how they resented being forced into films they didn't want to appear in, and not being allowed to work for other studios, as if it were some great tragedy.  Bisset's anecdote taught me how being civil, yet assertive, with people can help go a long way towards building allies and accomplishing goals, rather than creating turmoil and conflict and alienating individuals.  I got the impression that she's someone who knows how to take care of herself and hasn't done things to open herself up to being victimized.  I admit I'm not a close confidante of hers, but based on my experience with her I'd be surprised if she perceived herself that way, especially because of how she described her and her brother were raised by their parents to be mature individuals who took responsibility for their lives.  She did acknowledge one or two instances in her career where things did not go so well with specific people she worked with, but there was no hate or resentment on her part when she described them, and those anecdotes were nothing compared to the dozens and dozens of archenemies and perceived wrongs that other 1960s-era actresses shared with me.  My impression is that Bisset knows she is fortunate and I think she was just trying to make a joke when she made that aforementioned statement during her acceptance speech and people are reading more into it than is actually there.


I think Bisset's sensible outlook on her life and career was the reason why my late friend, the acclaimed production designer and producer Polly Platt, spoke so highly about Bisset.  Polly had big likes and big dislikes in terms of the people she worked with throughout her career.  Bisset was one of the few people--along with Ben Johnson and Lois Chiles--that Polly without reservation praised as a collaborative working professional and as a human being.  (Polly wasn't alone--almost every other 1960s actress I dealt with had only positive things to say about Bisset, which is amazing because so many of them were ready to criticize one another, but they appeared to reserve their criticism when it came to Bisset.)  I remember Polly telling me a story about how she worked with Bisset on "The Thief Who Came to Dinner" (1973) and how Bisset had no comprehension of how beautiful she really is, and the effect she had on people.  Polly felt that Bisset didn't have the narcissism or ego of other actors she worked with.  I think this has to do with something that Bisset shared with me--that her idea of beauty and perfection was the French film star Jeanne Moreau.  She really admires Moreau and how comfortable she is in her own skin.  Bisset said to me that she doesn't want to have a facelift and look plastic because, even though she realizes that one's appearance is important in the profession she is working in, she also wants to retain a sense of being genuine so that the people important to her in her personal life still respect her as an individual.


When the interview wound down, Bisset thanked me for the time and research I put into preparing for it and for asking detailed questions.  She said she enjoyed getting to know me and recognized that I had prepared at length for the interview and wasn't just asking her generalized questions.  I guess I was surprised because other actresses rarely thanked me for having prepared or researched to get ready for the interview.  It was as if they expected that I would have watched every film or TV appearance before I met with them--and they're correct to expect me to be ready--but few really took the time to make note of it as Bisset did.  I got the impression that day that she's a very decent, conscientious human being.  She didn't play games and never messed with me like some of the other 1960s actresses had, was always above board and direct, and was thoughtful and considerate.  I guess one thing that surprises me about the reaction to her speech was the level of schadenfreude and vitriol directed at Bisset.  Aside from saying the word "sh-t" in her speech, she wasn't cruel or offensive or really do anything to warrant the level of ridicule and derision expressed by columnists or people commenting online.  I wanted as much as anyone to see her hit it out of the park, but I think the reaction to the speech was completely disproportionate to what actually occurred.  I can sort of understand it if the vitriol was directed at someone who was consistently and vocally obnoxious, but that's not Bisset. 


I don't want to give the impression that I am bosom buddies with Jacqueline Bisset because I haven't been in touch with her for years.  I remember that, a week after I interviewed her, she called me at home to say that she had spoken with her friend Ursula Andress, who lived in Rome, and tried to persuade Ms. Andress to let me interview her.  Bisset said that, she wasn't sure Andress had decided to do it, but wanted to give me her phone number and contact information and said I was welcome to contact her directly.  (I did reach out to Andress, but was never able to connect with her.)  Nevertheless, it was a thoughtful gesure on Bisset's part considering she had already given me quite a bit of her time.  The last time I heard from her was several Christmases ago.  She had sent me a Christmas card and hoped I was doing well and asked what I was up to, and commented on a few things that had happened in her life.  Anyway, I'm not sharing this story to try and impress you that I was able to interview Jacqueline Bisset, or other 1960s actresses, when I was working on that book project, because I admit it sounds kind of obnoxious and self-aggrandizing.  (And if I am opening myself up for ridicule for sharing my positive memories and impressions of her, well so be it.)  I simply wanted to provide another perspective about her which appears to have gotten lost this week after her unforgettable acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.  What I regret the most is the fact that Bisset's Golden Globe win, which was richly deserved both for that performance and for her lengthy career, has been overshadowed by a lot of nasty comments that really aren't warranted in the larger scheme of things. 


If there is a bright side to this, it's that I got the impression in my dealings with her that Jacqueline Bisset is a strong, sensible person who is able to laugh at herself and I think she'll ride out this controversy in the long run.  (It's been more than 2 days since her speech--and to date she hasn't rushed out any press release out of any fear or concern for damage control--so it's entirely possible she's unfazed by the attention and I hope that that's the case.  But I also recognize that Bisset, like the rest of us, is a sensitive human being and I wouldn't blame her if some of the comments directed at her could be taken to heart.)  More importantly, if there's anything positive to be gained from this, hopefully it'll allow a lot of people who may not be familiar with Bisset to become more acquainted with her and her work.  I think one reason why the fallout from her speech appeared to be so negative is because, even though she remains a very prolific actress, especially in independent films and TV movies, she admittedly hasn't had a major hit movie in awhile.  It's possible that a lot of younger people in their 20s probably haven't seen her in Francois Truffaut's "Day for Night" (1973), or "Airport" (1970), or "Bullitt" (1968), or "Murder on the Orient Express (1974) or "Rich and Famous" (1981) or "Under the Volcano" (1984) and don't realize what a sophisticated, earthy, winning presence she is as an actress (and why so many of us who remember her heyday in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s have such a positive opinion about her).  Hopefully, they will now. 

6 comments:

  1. Making a movie with Francois Truffaut is alone enough for her to qualify as a goddess.

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  2. "Day for Night" is my favorite Truffaut film, so I heartily agree Joe Leydon.

    I always like Jacqueline Bisset as an actress, and not just because she is beautiful. She has brought good things to every movie she was in and I'm anxious to see this BBC series. I had never seen or read a formal interview with her until she appeared on "The Tavis Smiley Show" on PBS-WNET a few months ago.
    Maybe it was her slightly "posh" British accent but I thought she might be a bit off-putting and remote to an interviewer. She was ANYTHING BUT! She was doen-to-earth and intelligent and talked candidly about her career and life in Hollywood and other places in a way that make me feel jealous of anyone who got to have tea with her for one hour, much less three.
    Anyone who has a negative impression of her should find that interview and watch that "Tavis Smiley" appearance. .

    As for her appearance on The Golden Globes, well, when she said she didn't think she'd win, I take her at her word. She was unprepared, but she said nothing ugly or uncouth in my book. So NBC had to bleep out a few words. I've seen a lot worse from male presenters who who got away with being flat-out rude--Ricky Gervais springs to mind--and be that comparison, Ms. Bisset was as golden as the award she won.

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  3. She has always been and always will be my favorite. A great beauty and talent - forget that one night. Great Article.

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  4. Thank you for this wonderful article on this incredible lady. Not only is she a fine actress, and a lovely person; she is also the perfect neighbor.
    Believe me, when you are seated in the boonies, where she was placed....one gets their meal very late. It's a difficult thing to 'dance' through in any circumstance. And, Jackie, having always been snubbed, was certainly not prepared. Indeed, seeing her, no matter what she did or said, is certainly more of a treat than looking at, and listening to, some of these 'odds & ends' of today.

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  5. What a sublime article. What a sublime and gorgeous actress.

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  6. Delightful post, and I find it thrilling that Ms. Bisset is, by your description, such a thoughtful, kind, and level-headed woman. I was also pleased to learn of Polly Platt's high opinion of Bisset (I've always been very fond of and very intrigued by both women), as well as Platt's astonishing assertion that Bisset had no idea of the impact of her beauty (surely, it must have crossed her mind-I've long considered her the most beautiful actress who's ever lived, and the fact of her apparently innate humility only serves to deepen that conclusion). Many thanks-it warms one's heart to learn that someone whose work has long respected seems to be worthy of even more respect in terms of how she's lived her life.

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