Sept. 13, 1944— Jacqueline Bisset, whose beauty made Hollywood scramble to cast her—though, more often than not, unable to place her in vehicles that measured up to her talent—was born in Weybridge, Surrey, England, to an English father and French mother.
Her last name has left many people unfamiliar with her background thinking that the blue-eyed brunette was a French natural, but in fact she had to learn the language. Once she mastered it, it might have been better for her career—and certainly her sense of artistic fulfillment—if she had simply decamped for the continent, where filmmakers could have given her complicated, interesting roles as she matured.
In recent years, that strategy has worked for fellow Briton Kristin Scott Thomas. Bisset herself tried it once, in Francois Truffaut’s 1973 valentine to movies, Day for Night, in which her screen-siren character hopes she will no longer suffer breakdowns now that she’s married her doctor.
But it was Bisset’s misfortune to come to the attention of Tinseltown between eras more hospitable to actresses.
When she win notice for her supporting work in a quartet of films in 1967 and 1968 (the dramedy Two for the Road, the James Bond parody Casino Royale, and the police procedurals Bullitt and The Detective), Hollywood was in the death throes of the studio system that had held sway since the dawn of the sound era.
In the system’s heyday from the Thirties to the Fifties, Bisset might have been contractually forced to appear in unappealing projects, but she also would have done so much work—and maybe even of such variety—that it would have kept her constantly before the public.
Conversely, if she had started her film career in the late 1990s, Bisset might have benefited from an environment with more outlets, on cable TV and in independent film, where she could have had significant breakout roles rather than served as highly decorative background in movies crowded with major stars or major spectacles.
Instead, it was Bisset’s lot, in the Seventies and early Eighties, to play in American disaster movies (Airport, When Time Ran Out...)—or, more often than not, appear in American movies that became disasters: Inchon, The Greek Tycoon, Rich and Famous, and Class (the last two involving her older-woman character having sex with a younger man in, respectively, an airplane rest room and an elevator).
To her annoyance, the film that brought Bisset her greatest success depended less on her emotive talent than her anatomical charms. If you ask viewers of the 1977 movie The Deep to describe its plot, they will be very fortunate indeed to mutter anything beyond, “A couple discover buried treasure at sea.”
What they will remember is Ms. Bisset’s underwater wet T-shirt scene—footage that rescued an utterly forgettable adaptation of Peter Benchley’s utterly forgettable follow-up to Jaws enough so that producer Peter Guber would recall that it "made me a rich man."
Ms. Bisset took whatever solace she could from an on-location fling with co-star Nick Nolte and from a Newsweek cover story that pronounced her "the most beautiful film actress of all time." It was the kind of line a publicist can only dream of, perhaps not equaled until Nicole Kidman’s performance in David Hare’s The Blue Room elicited the description, “pure theatrical Viagra."
It was not until her 40s that Bisset appeared in roles that more consistently required greater depth from her, such as John Huston’s Under the Volcano and a TV adaptation of Anna Karenina co-starring Christopher Reeve. In the past two decades, she made more guest appearances on TV in smaller roles that often won praise, including on Nip/Tuck, Joan of Arc and Dancing on the Edge.
Bisset inspires warm memories from males of a certain age for her past work. But somehow, the hope still arises that she will finally land a role that calls for all of her skill and wins fervent critical notice.
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