A Softer Light: Catching Up with Jacqueline Bisset

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A Softer Light: Catching Up with Jacqueline Bisset

If Jessica Chastain’s stunning 2011 had a forbearer in the “bursting onto the scene in one year” category, it would have to be Jacqueline Bisset in 1968, when she kicked off her career by starring in a trio of movies. There was The Detective, an underrated police drama with Frank Sinatra, Robert Duvall and Lee Remick. And there was The Sweet Ride, an Easy Rider precursor for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. And of course, she starred—unforgettably—opposite Steve McQueen in Bullitt. As her career progressed into the ’70s and ’80s, she became one of the most famous actresses in the world, starring in films like Airport, Oscar winner Day for Night, Class, The Greek Tycoon, and of course The Deep.

And embedded in that “of course” preceding The Deep in that last sentence is one of the chief contradictions in Bisset’s career. She’s worked with some of the top directors of her time—Roman Polanski, John Huston, Francois Truffaut, Sidney Lumet, Stanley Donen, and others just in the first decade of her career, for instance, with many more greats after that. She’s turned in consistently excellent work—she’s been nominated for Golden Globes in five of the last six decades. And she was even awarded the French Legion d’Honneur in 2010. And yet, for many, it all comes back to her admittedly breathtaking beauty. (Time famously called her “the most beautiful actress in history.”) Perhaps it’s that famously revealing photo that was taken (without her consent, it should be said) on the set of The Deep. Perhaps it’s the way that she embraced glamour in a way that some stage beauties of the past were not able. Or maybe it’s just that, for most of her career, some observers have been unable to imagine that perhaps great beauty and great talent might come in the same package.

Whatever the reason, the long and storied career of Jacqueline Bissett is one worth celebrating. On the eve of the premiere of yet another film, this one a madcap comedy with the late Dennis Hopper (The Last Film Festival, which opens this weekend), Paste spoke to Bisset about the film, about Hopper, about film festivals, and about that famous California light.

Paste: Tell us about how you came to this project. Was it through Dennis Hopper?
Jacqueline Bisset: No, I had a movie in Sundance—Something and Love… I can’t remember. What the hell was it?

Paste: Maybe Death in Love?
Bisset: Yes! Death in Love! That was it! I asked Linda Yellen to come with me, because she’s a friend. She heard Dennis Hopper was there, and arranged to meet him. And unbeknownst to me, she had started working on this idea. When she asked me to be in it, she said the movie was going to be, basically, improvised. And I said, “Well, I’m not sure I know how to do that.” I was a bit leery of it, as was Dennis. She said, “I’d like you to play an actress,” and I said, “Well, that’s not terribly interesting to me. But is there any chance it could be an Italian woman?” Because as a teenager, I had two characters I used to play at home and make my mother laugh, quite a lot—one was Italian, one was cockney. I thought, “Well, maybe that character could make this more amusing?” So she said, “Okay, yeah.”

Paste: Sure, sure. Well, your accent in the film really is a great touch. It’s very, very comic. Works very well.
Bisset: Thanks. I thought it worked well, because otherwise she’d just be a whining actress, and an Italian whining actress? It’s just funnier.

Paste: Something about her haughtiness works very well with the Italian, you know?
Bisset: (Laughs) That’s good. I’m glad you liked it.

Paste: And then, I mean—
Bisset: What kind of film would you say this is? Somebody said it’s farce. Do you think it’s farce?

Paste: I think farce is not a bad way to describe it; it’s certainly madcap. I don’t know, it might have a few too many real-life moments to make it a complete farce.
Bisset: Yes.

Paste: I’d call it a madcap comedy with heart. How about that? Does that ring true to you?
Bisset: Well, I don’t know. I mean, yes, to a point. I’ve lost perspective on the whole thing, you know?

Paste: Sure.
Bisset: And then when Dennis died, we—there were a lot of—I mean this was a very, very independent film, and the money was not a big issue. When Dennis died, it coincided pretty much with the recession, and we lost a lot of the things that had been promised to us, apparently. And we were really in trouble and didn’t know what to do. And Linda wanted to pay respect after he died, but gradually she got back into it, and she’s been very tenacious.

Paste: I can see both sides of that. I can see why it would be difficult to go on, and then I can see why it would be important to bring his last role to the world, right?
Bisset: Yes.

Paste: And he is so wonderful in it. It’s a fun role for us to see him in. You can tell he’s having fun. It looked like the whole cast was having a lot of fun filming it. Is that right?
Bisset: I think so. It often looks like one is having more fun than one is actually, I think. When you’ve got very little time and small resources, everybody has to pretty much get to the point, you know?

Paste: Sure.
Bisset: So there’s not a lot of carrying on and joking around on the set. It was fun, but it was to the point, I would say, from my point of view anyway.

Paste: Have you done a lot of film festivaling?
Bisset: There’ve been quite a few. I like to go to festivals and be on juries and see lots of films.

Paste: I find it’s really important to have good fellow jurors; then even if the films are bad you can make fun of them together.
Bisset: Yes, but you never know who’s in the room, that’s the trouble. You can’t really make—you can’t go for open hostility (both laugh). You never know who’s related to whom. So you don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings but you might just want to go to the bathroom a lot, you know? (Laughs)

Paste: (Laughs) In researching this interview, there was a quote that you have where you’re comparing England and Los Angeles. You said that you love them both, and then you said that you love the light of California. It’s funny, I’m just going through a book by David Thomson called The Big Picture where he spent several pages talking about how people throughout film history have raved about the light in California.
Bisset: It depends where you live. If you live down on the flats with the extreme sunshine all the time, I’d probably see it as quite oppressive. I live in the hills, and we’ve got some degree of filtering, which makes it softer. I find the desert beautiful but sometimes very overwhelming. But the light that I move toward somehow just naturally is sort of a softer light. I don’t particularly care for glaring heat.

Paste: Sure.
Bisset: To me, light is absolutely key on every level. It affects people. Their mood—it affects the way they look. There’s a degree of pleasure they have when they feel the warmth of an embrace of light. Light is love, as far as I’m concerned—it’s all tied in together.

Paste: That’s beautiful. Thanks so much for spending some time with us!
Bisset: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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