Film: The bewitching Ms Bisset

Jacqueline Bisset might be best remembered for that scene in The Deep, but over the past three decades she has worked with some of the greatest names in film, from Chabrol to Houston. And now she's busier than ever. By John Walsh
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The Independent Culture
Did I ever get my kit off?" asked Jacqueline Bisset. "What does that mean?" It is one of those moments when you feel you may have misjudged things. Not just in forgetting that the divine Ms Bisset has spent the majority of her life in America, and would be unfamiliar with bloke-speak, but also in failing to realise that you are addressing a film star of the utmost grown-up sophistication.

To Hollywood she is the living embodiment of class. To the rest of us she's an actress who could always radiate a unique brand of stroppy, hands- off, English sexuality. Now 54, Ms Bisset still breathes the same aloof and combative sultriness.

She stands in the doorway of the Dorchester suite. She has tremendous presence. Her eyes scorch you. They hit you like Stalag searchlights. Her clothes are appealingly contradictory. A Jean-Paul Gaultier black linen two-piece suggests a no-nonsense committee woman, but her grey waistcoat is buttoned over a tremendously surging cleavage. The authority-figure with the Grand Canyon poitrine - she has been wowing two generations of chaps with this oxymoronic image for three decades.

Her latest release is The Honest Courtesan, an enjoyable piece of tosh from first-timer Marshall Herskovitz. He created a Hollywoodised 16th- century Venice at Rome's Cinecitta to tell the story of a poor-but-headstrong beauty, Veronica (Catherine McCormack), who is instructed in the arts of pleasing men by her mother - a seen-it-all ex-courtesan played by Bisset with stained teeth and unsmiling worldliness. After becoming the sexy toast of La Serenissima, she is tried for witchcraft by the Spanish Inquisition.

It's not the most sympathetic role in the world, I observed, playing a mother who teaches her daughter to be a whore. "I didn't think it was unsympathetic," she said. "You have to think yourself into her position. She'd lived the courtesan life 20 years earlier. Now she's married and raised two children, and unforeseen need has made her tell her daughter, `You have to take care of us'. She can't get a job in the wine fields. Only courtesans were properly educated then. That's the point of the film, that women didn't have alternatives. It's the story of a woman who gets punished for being too charming, too magical, too sexual and too powerful."

In one risible scene, Bisset introduces her daughter to a naked man and shows her what you're supposed to do with one. "You must touch him here and here," she says to her mystified child, with the air of someone explaining how to hot-wire a Jag, while the unclothed homo erectus glares at them both with evident hatred.

Only someone as cool about sex as Bisset could have, er, pulled it off. "It was difficult to do," she concedes. "The poor guy was really quite embarrassed. But the thing in scenes like that is, basically, you don't look, you do it without looking. The etiquette of naked-man scenes is that you glaze over, so that you don't stare at the person."

The etiquette, eh? It's easy to forget that Ms Bisset has a curriculum vitae as long as both her arms; over 50 films beginning with Richard Lester's The Knack in 1965. Easy also to forget that she has worked with some of the best directors - Chabrol, Truffaut, George Cukor, John Huston - and ageing screen gods such as Paul Newman and Marlon Brando. (The latter once asked her to dance. She said no as her boyfriend was in the gents, and she knew how he'd feel if he emerged to see his date jiving with The Wild One).

The best directors, she says, are the ones who don't muck about with the script and who reassure you: "who make you feel that, if you make a terrible blunder, you won't have egg on your face - or if you do, it'll be quite fun. Who, like a grandfather, put their arms around you and make you feel safe."

She was especially impressed by Huston, "who was very much about shaving everything, getting cleaner and clearer, and more linear until you were left with the bare bones. In Under The Volcano, he was so lackadaisical. He'd let Albert [Finney] and Anthony [Andrews] and I just wander about, make no attempt to direct us, and say `What have you come up with, dears? Let me see what you've done and I'll put the camera in front of it'".

A bad director, by contrast, she says, is "someone who talks too much, who keeps going on and on, and who makes you confused, until all you're aware of is concentrating on concentrating".

I said the reason some directors babble at her was probably because they're mesmerised by her Lamia-like gaze. "Do you think so? I met a producer once, who said `Don't look at me. Your eyes are so frightening. You remind me of Jack Nicholson.' So I said, `Don't look at me then'. And we had to have a conversation with both our heads turned away."

She is currently busier than she's ever been. In the Seventies, her sexpot heyday, she averaged three movies a year. This year she has seven projects simmering away. One is Joan of Arc in which she plays the Orleans visionary's mama. "And I just realised when talking about it the other day, it's a similar theme to the Courtesan, though it's a century earlier - Joan is an independent spirit fighting against the society of her time, is accused of being a witch and punished..." You're in danger of becoming typecast, I said: The Witch's Mother. The idea didn't, for some reason, please her.

The night before we met, Charlotte Rampling was on television, impersonating Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. The fictional Miss H was slightly younger than Miss B. There's an honourable tradition of film beauties graduating to playing non-beautiful madwomen (Joan Crawford, Bette Davis). Was she going to join it? "I'm managing the transition to older-women parts quite smoothly, I think," she said sleekly. "I've just played a very ravaged woman in a new American movie called Backward Looks, Hard Corners. Very ravaged. But it's incredibly liberating - so much easier than having to look beautiful all the time." It's like, you know, really hard for her.

She's also to be seen in a remake of Hitchcock's 1951 Strangers on a Train, a French comedy, two small British dramas, and an Australian thriller, in which "I play a woman who's accused of witchcraft and kidnapping". Witchcraft follows Jacqueline around. She even met some white witches in Melbourne. "They told me, magic is just will. And the power of the will is strong, I think..."

There, I think, may be the key to her appeal: the strong-willed Ms Bisset's natural determination is translated, by the camera, into bewitchment, just as Jack Nicholson's will (and eyes) sold you Wolf and The Witches of Eastwick...

Why did she keep up this punishing strike-rate of movies? "Lots of reasons. It keeps me interested in life. It's an opportunity to talk to people I wouldn't otherwise meet. It's - it's life, you know? It's stuff. It's what I do best."

She has no intention of spending more time by the pool or tending her garden. "I'm not very sociable. I have very intense conversations with friends, people I really interconnect with. We talk about politics, important things. I like to talk about ideas and get people to be specific. My friends laugh at me, they call me The Inquisitor because I ask such a lot of questions. And in Hollywood, nobody asks any questions, after `How're you?'."

Emboldened by this news, I asked her about kit-removal. Amazingly, this gorgeous woman, this Berkshire Aphrodite, whose most famous screen image was the wet T-shirt shot in The Deep, has never appeared naked on celluloid. "But in 1987 I did a film called High Season, directed by Clare Peploe, in which I had to run naked into the sea with Kenneth Branagh. I was up for it, I took my rowing machine with me, got my bicycle sent from London, got to Rhodes and exercised till midnight every night, trying to get my bum up to the right place. I was extremely self-conscious. Kenneth was not. We cleared the beach. It was night. Finally, I threw all my clothes off and rushed into the water..."

Is it, I enquired neutrally, available on video? "She didn't use it! And after I worked so hard." And the bewitching Ms Bisset's searchlight eyes narrowed with laughter.

`The Honest Courtesan' is reviewed on page 10