Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Jackie, Ohhhh...

There have been a few movies and movie stars over the last seven years of Poseidon's Underworld who have managed to become passed by when it comes to a tribute, though today's lady is probably among the most surprising since she's a longtime favorite who, in fact, figures into one of my all-time favorite movie moments! Admittedly, I have covered that sequence itself before, but now it's time to highlight the star herself, Miss Jacqueline Bisset.

Bisset was born in Surrey, England on September 13th, 1944 to parents of Scottish and French descent. The details of her parents' heritage is forever mangled, so I hope I have it right when I say that her father was a Scottish doctor and her mother a French lawyer (who, incidentally, instructed her little girl to speak French from an early age, something that would later come in handy!) The child was named Winifred Jacqueline Fraser Bisset, which means that the world nearly wound up with an actress named Winnie Bisset had it not been for her use of the middle name!

By the way, her last name allegedly rhymes with "Kiss it," something she has stated on occasion during talk shows or interviews, so I was quite startled one time to see her hosting a fashion special on AMC quite a few years back, introducing herself as "Jock-leen Biss-say!!"

The young Bisset had dreams of becoming a dancer, but ultimately realized that her height was working against that pursuit as a career. Her youth was punctuated by a couple of profoundly upsetting incidents, one being the onset of multiple sclerosis in her beloved mother and another being her father's flight from the family in the wake of this illness. Thus, she was early on thrust into the role of not only caregiver, but breadwinner. Fortunately, her stunning looks afforded her the ability to model for income.

Bisset, however, in an admission that explains why she has always remained so grounded and likeable, never thought she was particularly pretty or attractive! Her principle aim was to provide stability for her mother, younger brother Max and herself. Modeling led to the opportunity for her to appear as a pretty extra in the 1965 film The Knack... and How to Get It. Her chiseled features and icy eyes stood out in a sea of other girls. (Also appearing in this was Charlotte Rampling, an actress who bore something of a resemblance to Bisset.)
Director Roman Polanski was one of the admirers and he promptly snapped her up for use in his surreal black comedy Cul-De-Sac (1966), which starred Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac as an unusual couple residing in a seaside castle who are beset by a pair of bumbling mobsters. Bisset's role consisted of very few lines, though she had rather ample screen time and the camera lingered on her features (when they weren't hidden behind some large sunglasses.)

That same year she popped up as a dancer in the Tony Curtis comedy Arrivedeci, Baby! Then came participation in the over-sized James Bond spoof/smashup Casino Royale (1967.) Though she looked delicious in this relatively brief role, it's disconcerting that her lovely voice was for some reason dubbed over by another person. One of my own favorite aspects of Bisset is her accented voice, so the fact that it was obscured here mars the role to no small degree.

Bigger and better things were on the horizon, though. Director Stanley Donen utilized her fresh, eye-catching face in his seminal Albert Finney-Audrey Hepburn romance Two for the Road (1967.) Even here her voice was partially dubbed by another actress, but in this instance it was because of availability. By the time the movie was being looped, she'd departed England for a starring role in a film for 20th Century Fox!

The film wound up being a rather negligible one, The Cape Town Affair (1967) opposite James Brolin, but it was a leading role and a good training ground for the fledgling starlet. A remake of Pick Up on South Street (1953), it costarred veteran Claire Trevor in a colorful supporting part.

1968 promised to be a banner year for Bisset. The Sweet Ride was a rather sordid tale of sand, surf and sex among a trio of men including Tony Franciosa, Bob Denver (!) and Michael Sarrazin with Bisset as Sarrazin's troubled girlfriend. The movie was notable for Bisset in that she and Sarrazin formed a real life relationship during it that lasted for about seven years.

She was also nominated for a Golden Globe award as Most Promising Newcomer for The Sweet Ride, but the statuette went to Olivia Hussey for Romeo and Juliet (1968.)

There was also the police procedural The Detective, which starred Frank Sinatra and Lee Remick. Sinatra had intended for his then-wife Mia Farrow to assay the role of a young widow who figures into the complicated, controversial case. As Farrow was caught up in the filming of Rosemary's Baby (1968) and refused Sinatra's orders to abandon it, she lost the part to Bisset and lost her husband entirely! Bisset was outfitted with a short wig to mimic Farrow's cropped 'do and shoehorned into the costumes originally designed for the waifish Farrow. 

Her highest profile film of 1968 was Bullit, with Steve McQueen. Though her part was principally window-dressing, she lent an air of feminine class to the gritty proceedings. It was another role (in what would be a chief staple of her entire career) in which she was shown lolling in bed with her leading man.  
Now having demonstrated that she was capable of a variety of roles and of being comfortable in significant parts, movies were being developed around her or with her in mind. The bizarre French-set drama Secret World (1969) found her in an unbecoming blonde wig as the obsession of a young boy. More entertaining was The First Time (1969), which was fun enough to warrant its own tribute in The Underworld. What came next was the one, the movie that really cemented my love for Jacqueline Bisset for all time.
My own first experience with Bisset came in 1974 when she was part of a large ensemble cast in a murder mystery (to be described in more detail later.) That was almost all I ever knew of her. But one day my step-mother was elatedly telling me all about one of her own favorite films, one I had never heard of before. The movie was Airport (1970) and when I finally got to see it, I was a fan forever of Bisset. 
As the cool, collected stewardess girlfriend of airline pilot Dean Martin, she's outfitted with an efficient auburn bob and dressed in a smartly-tailored Edith Head designed uniform. Married Martin has been dallying with Bisset until she's accidentally become pregnant and now she's at a life crossroads as to how to proceed.
Thing is, thanks to desperate, bomb- carrying passenger Van Heflin, she may not even get to make the decision about her unborn baby herself! Heflin is forever nervously grasping a suitcase with a trip mechanism on the outside that could blow the plane apart at any given moment. In order to prevent complete calamity, Bisset is called upon to take part in a scheme with Heflin's fellow passenger, the impish Helen Hayes, who's stowed away on the flight without benefit of a ticket in the first place!
The exchanges between the elegant, ice-cool Bisset and the Oscar-nabbing, little old lady passenger Hayes instantly became favorites with Bisset haughtily cutting down every attempt that crafty Hayes tries in order to weasel out of being caught for her misdeeds (and, later, as part of their little playlet devised to wrest the suitcase from Heflin.) I could listen to them banter over and over and over again, but especially love when their conversation escalates into a slap, followed by suspense and eventually an explosion on the plane!

In the Bisset canon, this movie represents an expensive, ensemble blockbuster; a crowd-pleaser which offered her a break-out success of name recognition and publicity. It doesn't for a minute offer up her best acting performance. However, where this author is concerned, it's the moment when my love for her crystallized for all eternity.

Later in 1970 came a complete Bisset showcase, The Grasshopper, which cast her as a Las Vegas showgirl who jumps (get it?) from man to man in pursuit of something of value. Her male costars, of quite the variety, included Joseph Cotten, Christopher Stone and Jim Brown. 
She made three films in 1971. Among them was a drug- themed romantic drama with partner Sarrazin called Believe in Me and a low-budget erotic story called Secrets, in which three members of one family indulge in sexual exploits over the course of one day. This is one of the rare times that Bisset displayed nudity and, were it not for a later success, it might have remained virtually forgotten. 

The third and most prominent (and expensive) movie she worked in that year was The Mephisto Waltz, an occult thriller in which she and her husband (Alan Alda!) become involved with Satanists. Her husband is controlled by pianist Curd Jürgens while his evil daughter Barbara Parkins roams around creating her own havoc. 
What's remarkable (other than the shock of seeing her in bed with Alan Alda!) about her role in this is that she was twenty- seven and yet had no qualms whatsoever about appearing as the mother of a preteen daughter (Pamelyn Ferdin.) It had long been considered a career death knell for a young, beautiful star to portray a mom, but Bisset was never concerned with details like that and most often wanted to find parts of depth and acting variety.

She once more starred in a film of her own, Stand Up and Be Counted (1972), a women's lib film that also featured Stella Stevens, Steve Lawrence and Gary Lockwood. Then she appeared in the all-star western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) as the title character's (Paul Newman) daughter (in a flash-forward.)

Bisset had always been an "inter- national" actress, with Secret World and Secrets to her credit even after having come to Hollywood, but in 1973 would cement that reputation further. There was fanciful spy romp The Man from Acapulco, opposite Jean Paul Belmondo, in which she was portrayed as a sexy Bond-girl type, during moments within Belmondo's imagination.

Then there was her own favorite movie, the celebrated Day for Night, directed by François Truffaut and all about the filming of a motion picture that is beset by any number of personal conflicts and situations, all threatening to upset the balance of the budget and/or the director's mental stability. The French-spoken project won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and quickly became a classic among film buffs and critics.

An American entry that year was the jewel robbery caper The Thief Who Came to Dinner. She played the lover of and accomplice to the title character played by Ryan O'Neal. Other castmates included Warren Oates, Jill Clayburgh and Ned Beatty.
Her sole 1974 film only featured her as one of an ensemble of players, but what an ensemble it was! Murder on the Orient Express was a high-wattage murder mystery based upon an Agatha Christie book. Albert Finney (with whom she'd worked on Two for the Road) starred as Belgian master sleuth Hercule Poirot, faced with sorting out a large roster of suspects after Richard Widmark is discovered stabbed to death in his train compartment.

Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar for this), Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud and Anthony Perkins were only some of the names on board. Bisset is paired for practically all of her screen time with on-screen husband Michael York and looks radiantly beautiful and elegant at all times in Tony Walton costumes.

1975 brought a remake of the old Dorothy McGuire 1945 suspenser The Spiral Staircase. For this color, con- temporary update, Bisset was mute for practically the entire movie as a deranged killer is targeting those with various physical handicaps. Christopher Plummer, John Phillip Law and Elaine Stritch were found among her costars. 

Though End of the Game was an English-speaking movie, it was set in Switzerland and had an inter- national cast. The quirky, idiosyncratic mystery featured Martin Ritt in a rare acting role along with Jon Voight. Voight and Bisset became friendly (not to mention familiar if one takes note of their loves scenes, one of which contains a teensy bit of frontal nudity from Voight) during the production to the point where she was named godmother of his newly born daughter (one Angelina Jolie!)

The inter- national flair to her career continued with the movie The Sunday Woman (1975) opposite Marcello Mastroianni in a murder caper involving homosexuals. The fact that a key story point involves large ceramic phalluses may be one reason why none of us in the U.S. ever saw this on Saturday afternoon TV!

By now an established "name" actress who'd worked alongside many of the day's leading men, Bisset next costarred with Charles Bronson in St. Ives (1976.) Uncharacteristically, Bronson played a crime writer hired to retrieve some documents that John Houseman doesn't want made public and not an ultra-violent vigilante bent on revenge. 

1977 brought Bisset's all-time biggest publicity splash. She and Nick Nolte were cast as the leads in The Deep, a sunken treasure yarn based on a novel written by Peter Benchley, whose prior success was made into a little movie called Jaws (1975!) Hedging their bets, the makers even cast Jaws actor Robert Shaw as a supporting player.

This was no shark attack thriller, though. It was an adventure that happened to take place in and around the sea. Those boys who might have come to see swimmers rendered in two by underwater creatures found something else to make them goggle-eyed: the sight of thirty-three year-old Bisset swimming in a white t-shirt without benefit of a brassiere! Photos of Jackie in her see-through get-up circulated around the globe and caused a sensation (and also reportedly led to a proliferation of "Wet T-Shirt Contests!") In the wake of this sensation, the makers of Secrets (1971) unearthed their little-known movie, which featured her breasts unclad completely, for another go 'round.

The furor over her chest in The Deep gave way to the shameless roman à clef The Greek Tycoon, opposite Anthony Quinn. Based on the turbulent relationship between another Jackie, Jackie Kennedy, and her second husband Aristotle Onassis, the expensive yet silly and inane film did little to help her career.

1978 also brought the comic mystery Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? with George Segal and the rotund Robert Morley. This one netted her a second Golden Globe nomination (after a decade), but there were two other ladies who tied for the honor: Maggie Smith in California Suite and Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year.

She made another European movie in 1979 called Together?, in which she costarred with Maximilian Schell and Terrence Stamp. One cannot fault Miss Bisset for the caliber of male costars she has worked with in her long career. With a few exceptions, she has worked with many of the best. This held true for her subsequent film, though it was one that most of the participants would love to have forgotten.

Paul Newman and William Holden still owed mega-producer Irwin Allen a motion picture from their deal during the staggeringly popular disaster epic The Towering Inferno (1974.) The result was that they, along with Bisset (as a woman torn between them), Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, James Franciscus and several others, were enlisted for When Time Ran Out... (1980), a head-shakingly derivative and tacky-looking production about a vacation resort threatened by a rumbling volcano.
Bisset and Newman, who would have made a sexy, entertaining couple in nearly any other movie, were fairly annoying here, with Bisset giggling effervescently over nothing in their love scenes and both of them looking appropriately embarrassed during many of the hackneyed and ripped-off escape sequences. (Also, for some reason in this particular film, she repeatedly displayed a strange affectation in her mouth that lent a lisping, awkward sound to many of her lines!)

She and Newman were trying to make something out of nothing and while the photo- graphy tended to be attractive, highlighting both of their handsome looks, the effects leaned towards the subpar and the film wound up a box office debacle, basically slamming the lid on the disaster genre until a CGI-laden resurgence in the 1990s. 

Residual ash in her lungs and brain is the only excuse for her next taking part in the notorious flop Inchon (1981), a mindbogglingly expensive Korean War epic that was made with money from Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. At least she went down the creative black hole with no less than Ben Gazzara and Laurence Olivier as costars! The film became a hopeless money pit and a colossal box office failure.

Ready to call some of the shots with her precarious career (as she was now hovering closer to forty), she turned producer for her next picture, Rich and Famous (1981.) Directed by the revered George Cukor (labeled a "woman's director" for his many great movies centered on females, though he resisted that description), it was a remake of a classic Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins film called Old Acquaintance (1943.)  This new rendition was called Rich and Famous and featured Candice Bergen as her costar.

Though entertaining and offering up showy roles for both Bisset and Bergen, the movie was met with lukewarm critical response. The old-fashioned story was "perked up" with sex scenes that likely put-off certain factions of its target audience (though one possibly unintended market - the gay male - was gifted with shots of Bisset yanking down Matt Lattanzi's pants and becoming an impromptu member of the mile-high club!)

It was two years until Bisset appeared on screen again and, once more, her chest would provide a splash of controversy. The movie was Class (1983) and it marks the first time I can recall ever seeing her in a movie theater, the film's primary stars being hot "teen" actors Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy and I being sixteen myself. She played the mother of Lowe who, thanks to an unfulfilling marriage to Cliff Robertson, has a sexual affair with young McCarthy.

Unfortunately, unknown to her at the time, McCarthy is a close pal of her son and there are some hefty emotional consequences for everyone over this. Where Bisset's chest came into, um, play, was in the movie's advertising, in which the presumably sexy Bisset's body was replaced with a buxom, big-boobed one in a revealing dressing gown. Aggravated not only by this, but by the movie's editing job, which eliminated some of her character's subtext, Bisset was disappointed by the experience.

More fulfilling was her next role in Under the Volcano (1984) with prior costar Albert Finney playing a British consul living in Mexico. As his elegant wife, who suffers from his character's over- whelming alcoholism, she earned critical praise and was nominated for a Golden Globe (which went to Peggy Ashcroft for A Passage to India.) Bisset also costarred in Forbidden that year, opposite Jürgen Prochnow, a Holocaust-era romance that was a feature in Europe, but released on cable in the U.S.

Apart from Forbidden debuting on cable TV, Bisset had heretofore been a cinema actress entirely. But in 1985 she starred in the TV-movie adaptation Anna Karenina with no less than Paul Scofield as her husband and handsome Christopher Reeve as her lover Count Vronsky. (One unfortunate side-effect of this telefilm is that it is the project which led Reeve to learn and love horseback-riding, an avocation that ultimately led to a horrific accident and eventually his premature demise.)

This was followed in 1986 with Choices, an abortion-themed domestic drama that found Bisset in the role of George C. Scott's wife and the result of that complicated gene pool being Melissa Gilbert! In 1987, she played a photographer living in gloriously beautiful Greece (and in bed again!) for the British-made romp High Season, costarring James Fox and Irene Papas.

The 1980s were the time of the miniseries and Bisset finally made her first one with 1987's Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story. The six-hour epic had Armand Assante as the famed emperor with Bisset as his wife. (And added treat for me at the time was Stephanie Beacham as one of Bisset's cohorts, though with limited screen time. I also recall feminist social critic Camille Paglia taking Bisset to task for swinging her arms while walking in this period piece! Ha!)

Her work in the 1988 French film La Maison de jade was key in that her costar was the twenty years younger Vincent Perez, with whom she enjoyed a three-year relationship. 

1989 proved to be a provocative year for Bisset as she starred in the colorful black comedy Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. The movie dealt with a lascivious bet between a chauffeur and a houseboy as to who could sleep with the other's employer first. A pall fell over the movie six weeks after its release when Rebecca Schaeffer, who portrayed Bisset's daughter, was murdered by an obsessed fan.

Bisset's other 1989 movie was Wild Orchid. Anne Archer had suddenly departed the project after determining she didn't approve of some of the material (yet she stuck it out for Body of Evidence, 1993, ?!?) and Bisset took the part. The film did involve a certain amount of controversy because of star Mickey Rourke's love scenes with newcomer Carre Otis. Many folks believed that the twosome (who became a couple in real life) weren't "acting" during their torrid sex sequences!

As the 1990s dawned, forty-five year-old Bisset began to balance made-for-cable movies with low-profile features and the occasional TV-movie or miniseries. She paired with Theresa Russell for a female remake of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train called Once You Meet a Stranger (1996) and played Leelee Sobieski's mother in Joan of Arc (1999), which netted her another Golden Globe nomination, though Nancy Marchand won for The Sopranos, and an Emmy nomination.  The Emmy went to Anne Bancroft for Deep in My Heart. In 2003, she portrayed Jackie Kennedy for a second time (!) in America's Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story. Bisset was finally granted a Golden Globe for the 2013 jazz-themed miniseries Dancing on the Edge.

Today at seventy-two, Miss Bisset remains a busy actress, one in demand in a variety of mediums. Never married, she has instead enjoyed long relationships with (the afore- mentioned) Sarrazin, Alexander Godunov (through most of the '80s), Perez and others (often younger than herself, which lends her the air of a "cougar," a label which she disdains.) 

She is also notable for having publicly denounced the practice of actresses augmenting their faces with extensive cosmetic surgery. Her quote on the subject was, "I have never had any cosmetic surgery. I've never worried about age. I don't think all the nips and tucks look good. If these women who've had work done looked sideways in the mirror, they would see that they get a stiff curtain across their face. I think they do it because they are terrified of not being loved and of other people's opinions. Things on my body are not up as much as they used to be, and that's a bore. So I just smile more, which helps. I am becoming a fuller person as I get older." Strangely enough, one of her late-career highlights was a 2006 stint on Nip/Tuck!

We salute the wonderful Jacqueline Bisset, who is beautiful at any age because she is lovely from the inside out. A tireless devotion to her craft has, by now, led to a staggering resume of parts and a 50+ year career in front of the cameras. We look forward to many more performances from her. 

Ta-ta for now!