My father said to me when I was quite small, ‘Jackie, you happen to be pretty because of your mother and me. You did nothing to earn it. And it will not last. So go out and learn to relate to people.’ ” For a long time it might be said that movie actress Jacqueline Bisset related all too pliantly. She played 30 movie roles in 10 years, including Giovanna Goodthighs in Casino Royale, the Jackie O character in the ludicrous exploitation flick The Greek Tycoon and, currently, perhaps her greatest embarrassment of all: When Time Ran Out, a new seismic silliness set amid a South Seas Pompeii by Hollywood disaster mogul Irwin (The Poseidon Adventure) Allen.
What does Bisset say for the record? “I rather liked the film. I have no idea why it’s doing badly.” Of course, she adds: “It’s not really proper, is it, to take the money and complain?” But even her $1 million-plus take is not hush money enough. She acknowledges that she lost some script skirmishes with the adamant Allen. “In his films the people are secondary effects,” she explains. “There really isn’t a lot of input from actors.” Yet Bisset, 35, one of the most intelligent and secure of actresses, is finding her own way of dealing with what she sees as “regression” in her career. François Truffaut hailed her as “the most beautiful actress with whom I’ve worked” in his 1973 Day for Night, which was her finest property. Now she observes, “I’m either offered window dressing parts in large movies, or I’m given little arty films no one ever sees. People think the movies I end up doing are my real choices. They don’t realize I do the best things I’m offered.”
Indeed, in the three years since her big splash in The Deep (and her successful fight to deep-six a promo shot of her in a revealing wet T-shirt), Bisset’s movies have bellyflopped. Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? was a relative bomb in 1978. So were The Greek Tycoon and a recent Italian work, Together, a well-intended and unheralded feminist film.
No matter. Fonda, Streep or Streisand aside, producer Allan Carr proclaims Bisset the new queen of Hollywood. She seems to be, at least at the negotiating table. Bisset received a reported $1.25 million to star in the upcoming, Moonie-financed Korean war epic Inchon, in which Lord Olivier is cast as General MacArthur. She shrugged off The Jazz Singer lead to Deborah Raffin (and later Lucie Arnaz). Previously she had rejected $1 million to do the Audrey Hepburn role in Bloodlines. “I turned it down because I didn’t think I could do much with the part,” she says.
So why did she do When Time Ran Out? The attraction, she admits, wasn’t the script or money but the chance to work again with Newman, who played her father in 1972’s Judge Roy Bean. Though Newman was walking through yet another lucrative but undemanding role, Jackie remembers that “at the end of the day my face felt like it was permanently encased in a huge smile. Paul loves to make people laugh, and he laughs so hard at his own jokes. He was wonderful.” Indeed, the movie’s Hawaiian location, despite two minor earthquakes and costly rain delays, became an extended luau, with Newman often inviting cast and crew to his private Japanese-style house for hamburger cookouts. (Newman lived in a private villa, while Bisset and the rest of the actors made do in condos or at the hotel.) Jackie cooked up pots of spaghetti for the company, and one grateful co-star, Ernest Borgnine, pays her tribute as “the girl to end all girls.”
This time, however, there were no rumors about location liaisons such as had plagued Bisset and Nick Nolte during the filming of The Deep. (Joanne Woodward flew in three times during the eight weeks of location shooting to be with her man.) Jackie concedes, “I’m a terrible flirt. There is something about men that makes me want to see them individually. I like that part of me that likes to be treated differently because I am a woman. I like the pat on the fanny, the looks, the whistles.” But, she adds, “I have a tremendous fear that I am losing my femininity, because I’m no longer afraid to use my intelligence.”
Her concomitant worry is that “the romance goes out of a relationship with marriage.” Victor Drai, 33, her love of six years, is willing to risk it. “I want to get married, she doesn’t. That’s that,” says Victor, a Frenchman who sold his Paris clothing store and became an L.A. real estate operator to be near Jackie. His presence (not to mention his considerable financial success) provided the security Bisset admittedly values. “I do seek male strength,” says Jackie. “Sometimes, when I have had a particularly long, difficult day, I just want to rush home to Victor like a little pussycat for a cuddle. I love tenderness, but you don’t see much of that in Hollywood. Strong men, like George C. Scott and Anthony Quinn, have it. It has nothing to do with softness or effeminacy. Actually,” she adds, “I think under all the frippery and makeup we women are hard as nails. I find it curious that men are attracted to our independent ways, then marry us, stuff us into domesticity and wind up blaming us for not being more interesting.”
One reason that wedlock is not an ideal is that Bisset’s physician father and lawyer mother were divorced two years ago after more than 30 years of marriage. “It was best for both of them,” says Jackie sadly. Born Winifred Jacqueline Frasier Bisset in Surrey, England (she is still a British subject), Bisset was raised in a “proper” household. “I didn’t do wild things. I was not naughty or sassy,” she says. Sent to a French Iycée in London, Jackie began modeling, then worked as a waitress to earn money for acting lessons. Two years after being cast for Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac in 1966, she split for L.A. “I was a pretty weird dingbat when I arrived,” she says now. “I didn’t know anything until I was 28.”
Her maiden Hollywood venture, the 1968 surf flick The Sweet Ride, led to a seven-year liaison with co-star Michael Sarrazin, living part of the time in ’60s chic in a packing crate shack on Malibu Beach. (When they split, she recalls, “Michael got the sheepdog, and I got the cat.”) “I never hear from him anymore, but I think he’s a wonderful actor and I wish he’d get a good part.” She has had hers opposite the likes of McQueen, Sinatra, Alda, Bronson, Voight and O’Neal.
Now, Bisset says, “My life is changing.” Part of the reason is that she has conquered her initial reservations and formed her own production company with a friend, Bill Allyn. Their first project, Rich and Famous, starts shooting in June and stars Jackie and Candice Bergen as two writers. “There is a tremendous difference between waiting for someone to call and initiating a project yourself,” says Jackie. “It feels good.”
Hanging a producer shingle befits a life that has been one of Hollywood’s most envied. Victor’s Rolls-Royce, her new green Jaguar and her battered but beloved 1970 Cadillac sit in the courtyard of her 14-room “cottage” (it once was owned by Clark Gable and Carole Lombard) high up in exclusive Benedict Canyon. The airy house is decorated in bright shades of green, yellow, blue and red. The bar is stocked with her favorite tipple, Perrier Jouet champagne. There is a daily maid, but Jackie cooks and Victor calls her “the best in town.” She’s a regular with the tony Ma Maison lunch bunch (“It’s really like a club”), but her social life is otherwise restrained. “Sometimes I’m very outgoing,” says Jackie. “I put on a sexy dress and go off to a party to giggle. Two gin and tonics and people think I’m a nut case. Other times I’m very reclusive, just puttering around the house.”
As she closes in on 40, the pre-Fonda age cutoff for actresses, Bisset says, “My main problem is that I can’t make up my mind what kind of person I am. I need affirmation all the time. I’m not paranoid, but I really don’t see myself very clearly. I used to kill myself trying to be the perfect woman, the perfect cook, the best actress. It’s an awful pressure to put yourself under. But I’ve come to terms with myself somewhat,” says Jackie Bisset. “I realize I’m just an average woman who has worked hard all her life. But I’m bright too. I have a good brain, and I don’t know why that should make me less a woman.”