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Dog Day Afternoon: A Jacqueline Bisset Excerpt

The fabled devotion of dogs to their human caretakers has earned them the title of “man’s best friend” and the status (continually jockeying with cats) of America’s most popular pet. Hollywood celebrities, like everyone else, are not immune to this imprinting. Quite the contrary, even more than we civilians, stars often need the incessant reassurance and unswerving love-without-qualification that dogs readily provide. Best yet, for the price of a dish of Alpo, dogs are bought cheap compared to the omnipresent retinue of paid flunkies and sycophants that some stars feel they must have.

Through the years we’ve seen proof of this a dozen times over: Lucille Ball and her poodle who had a disposition as skittish as her master; Gregory Peck and Howard, his German Shepherd, who was inseparable from a chew toy (an empty plastic Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil bottle) that added a snap, crackle and occasional pop underscoring to our whole interview; Director Stanley Donen’s collies that shed so much white fur on our dark suits, we looked like a couple of Himalayan Yetis’ at the end.

In one career first (and last) we even “interviewed” Eddie, the rambunctious little Parson Russell Terrier from the sitcom “Frasier.” The article was for a cigar magazine, and for the cover photo, Eddie’s trainer got him to gently mouth a Havana cigar. The banner headline read, “Eddie Doesn’t Smoke Dogs.” On later visits to NBC’s PR department, we saw that magazine cover dutifully tacked up to almost every cubicle wall we passed.

But no dog ever made quite the impression that Jacqueline Bisset’s pooch did during our visit to her Benedict Canyon hacienda one cold and rainy Sunday afternoon. “I’ve always had pets all my life,” she said. “I haven’t had many because I travel too much. It’s really an indulgence.” More on that later.

Back in 1996, when we met Bisset for the first time, Hollywood didn’t quite seem to know what to do with her, possibly because of the paucity of roles that called for the classic triumvirate of patrician beauty combined with talent and a kind of in-born grace – precisely the qualities Bisset (like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn before her) had demonstrated in spades during her long career in films. Bisset, like Hepburn, was trained in ballet and it’s what accounted for elegant carriage in films like “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen to recent guest spots in TV series like “Rizzoli & Isles” and “Dancing on the Edge.”      

“I’ve never liked to be part of any formula or cookie-cutter recipe when it comes to selecting projects,” Bisset told us. “I like to find an interesting story, and, hopefully, it will become popular. I’m not against success, of course, but who’s to say exactly what is a ‘big’ or ‘small’ film? If it fills the screen and packs some emotion, then it’s big by my standards.”

At 52, Bisset was striking with what had to be the squarest jawline and highest cheekbones this side of Mount Rushmore. Her auburn hair was tousled and her most prominent feature; her light, slightly translucent jade-green eyes seemed to shimmer in whatever ambient light was reflected whenever she moved her head. She was willowy and wore black leather pants, a cotton pullover top and no makeup – not that she needed even a smidge.

“I exercise regularly – a lot of fast walking usually,” Bisset said. “I also believe that what you think shows on your face. I work especially hard to eliminate any negative stuff in my life. People who are dissatisfied create dissatisfaction in others. People who are bored breed boredom. I’m always on the lookout for generosity, not petty bickering, and, of course, love is paramount.”

Enter the dog, a recently acquired mixed-breed puppy that as soon as we sat down, began to teeth on Bisset’s shoe. As a doleful Gaelic ballad from Enya (perfect mood music for a dank afternoon) wafted into the living room from a CD player located somewhere in the house, Bisset told us she and her dog were in the “get to know each other” phase. “He’s a bit of a challenge,” she said.

Andry Lunin CC BY-SA 2.0

Bisset wanted to talk about her most recent film, a Warner Bros. release called “Dangerous Beauty.” Set in Venice during the Renaissance, Bisset played a courtesan in the film who attempts to teach her daughter (Catherine McCormack) the tricks of the trade.

“It’s sure to be a truly beautiful film,” she gushed. “It has epic sweep to it. I’m just looking for a piece of language; an opportunity to recite some decent lines. This movie was written with a lot of depth and resonance.”

At about this point the dog began to move up Bisset’s leg from the shoe, gently lapping at her leather pants along the way like a painter swabbing a flagpole. During the interview, Bisset had sunk casually and comfortably in the chair with her back braced against one of the armrests, one leg dangling over the opposite arm and the other leg (the one getting all the undivided attention) touching the tile floor.

“Puppy, puppy, c’mon,” she pleaded, but the dog was undeterred. Bisset pushed him away with enough force that he slid on his ass a few feet across the porcelain tile squares.

“Dangerous Beauty” marked nearly 50 feature film performances for the actress born Jacqueline Fraser-Bisset in Weybridge, Surrey, England. Her father was a Scottish doctor and her mother a lawyer of French and English descent. Growing up, Bisset never harbored dreams of becoming an actress – ballet was her passion.

“We didn’t have a television and we never went to the cinema,” she said without a trace of regret. “I was exposed to really good ballet from an early age. I, myself, wasn’t very good technically, certainly not good enough to become a professional dancer, but I was totally obsessed nevertheless. To me, no one epitomized grace like Margot Fonteyn.”

With her aspirations of becoming a prima ballerina effectively out of reach, Bisset snagged some modeling assignments that dovetailed into her being cast as an extra in a few European films. In 1966 she landed her first speaking role in director Roman Polanski’s “Cul-de-Sac.”

Polanski was just the first in a long line of notable directors who put Bisset through her paces. Others included Stanley Donen (“Two for the Road”), George Seaton (“Airport”), John Huston (“The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean”), Peter Yates (“The Deep”), Francois Truffaut (“Day for Night”), Sidney Lumet (“Murder on the Orient Express”) and George Cukor (“Rich and Famous”).

“I had very mixed feelings about George Cukor,” Bisset said. “He was very autocratic; very bossy. I had a certain amount of admiration for his legend and we got along quite well privately. On the set, he didn’t really want to hear anything from me except as an actress. He liked what he called ‘humdingers.’ Women were ‘humdingers.’ He actually paid much more attention to men. I could tell. In ‘Rich and Famous’ the speeches were pure sex – wonderful.

“I asked George if I could change a line,” Bisset continued. “He said, ‘Nope.’ I’m actually pretty good at improvising if I know who I’m playing. I like to explore the subtext. The subtext in ‘Rich and Famous’ was fantastic. The dialogue had a beat, a cadence to it. The pauses were as important as the words.”

Truth be told, Bisset confided that most directors with whom she’s worked haven’t lived up to their advance billing.

“I can almost mention on one hand the directors who were helpful to me,” she said without a hint of malice. “There were maybe eight of them. I can remember almost every bit of meaningful direction I ever received because it was so scant, but it really doesn’t matter. I finally figured out that direction has nothing to do with what I’m supposed to do. Direction is all about filming the scene correctly, getting into the eyes; lensing the right angles – the whole visual thing. Historically, I haven’t generally been photographed to my full advantage.”

Although loathe to admit her status as a sex symbol, Bisset didn’t rail against it either.

“We all know that men like their women younger,” she said. “It’s not just Hollywood. This business has a lot to do with sex and sex appeal. People tend to think of sexuality as the main ingredient young people have to offer. I beg to differ. I think older people exude bundles of sexuality. It’s just that older men and women tend not to run around like cats and dogs in heat.”

Responding to that verbal cue as if it were a command, Bisset’s dog was back at it, but this time he ignored her leg and made repeated lunges at her, um, cul-de-sac.

“My God,” she said. “What is wrong with you?” All we could do was sit, fidget slightly, pretend to look at our notebooks and try not to turn crimson.

But the dog wasn’t giving up and continued to tussle and not be put off. “Jesus! I’ve got to take care of this,” Bisset said getting out of what had become a defensive position in her chair; her hands a blur of kung fu countermeasures to protect her chastity.

She grabbed the dog by the collar and hauled him out of the room.

“I never knew what the phrase, ‘Every dog has his day’ meant until now,” Dave whispered.

“Shut your yap, she might hear us,” Tom said.

Bisset soon returned and made an awkward rather sullen apology (she didn’t need to) and then picked up where she left off. “Youthful beauty connotes freshness and people tend to enjoy that,” she said. “But, unfortunately, something much deeper is lost in translation. There is nothing more fascinating than letting the human voice, whatever its age, express heartfelt emotions. That is real exploration and it never fails to turn me on when I watch it.”

Nearly 20 years before, Bisset in all her youthful, radiant splendor, made a worldwide splash in “The Deep,” a movie co-starring Nick Nolte and Robert Shaw. The opening scuba-diving sequence featuring Bisset in the wettest of t-shirts, was something not seen on the screen since Sophia Loren, as a Greek sponge diver in a clingy schmatta, rose like the goddess Amphitrite out of the Aegean Sea in 1957 in “Boy on a Dolphin,”  in the process causing thousands of theater-seat shifts in cinemas across the U.S. 

We began to embrace as interview subject matter what we took to be the portentous theme of the afternoon – sex – and told her that in a recent commercial-airing of the movie, her nipples had been fuzzed out by the censors. “I had no idea they did that,” Bisset said, truly puzzled. I would think that such an effect would only draw more attention to my boobs. God knows, they depict a lot more sex and nudity on TV today than what was portrayed in that tame scene.”

Meanwhile, in another part of the house, intermittent snarls eventually gave way to sustained high-pitched whimpering that became a kind of soundtrack for the rest of the interview which didn’t last long.

“Guys, I’m afraid I really have to take care of this. I hope you’ll excuse me,” an exasperated Bisset said.

As we stepped out of her house into the rain which had begun to pelt, we thought of that sage old bit of actorly advice attributed to W.C. Fields: “Never work with children or animals.”

Flash forward 20 years later, almost to the day, and we had Bisset on the speakerphone plugging her latest movie, a resounding dud called “The Last Film Festival.”

Her voice had that same posh, slightly silky accent we remembered from ’96, but because it was disembodied, she sounded even sexier this time. 

In the film (who’s release had been delayed six years due to the death of costar Dennis Hopper during shooting), Bisset plays a counterfeit Italian movie diva with an ersatz Neapolitan accent about as believable as Chico Marx’s “Tootsie Frootsie ice cream” dialect from “A Day at the Races.”

Producer-turned-director Linda Yellen encouraged Bisset to invent her character and accent almost entirely out of whole cloth which is not always a good idea unless you have the track record of Robert Altman or are Robert Altman. Nevertheless, Bisset had fun with it.

“Linda said that the film would have a lot of improvisation, and I really hadn’t done that before,” Bisset said. “I hesitated, and she said she sort of wanted me to put my character together myself; find a name for her and probably make her an actress.

“Any film that you’re doing that’s not a big budget and doing it in a great rush is always a degree of stress,” she continued. “I’m a reasonably good sport with these things and I was interested to work with Dennis (Hopper). We didn’t get to know each other well. He’s more of a Method Actor. I felt very free with him, but didn’t get to know him. We shared a large classroom at the school we were using for the setting of the festival. I had one corner of the classroom and he had another corner. We had partitions to cover the corners so we had privacy but we were very much in our own corners. I’m not a Method Actor at all. I have my own methods. I embrace the amount of knowledge I have of somebody rather than going right down to the ground and starting again.”

Talking about a stillborn misfire was all well and good, but interest in what was Hopper’s last film soon waned, at least for us. Taking a nostalgic tack, we reminded Bisset that we had a memorable interview in her home two decades ago and asked if she still lived off Benedict Canyon. She did.

“That Rhodesian Ridgeback Beagle or whatever it was that you had at the time was kind of boisterous,” Dave asked. “Do you still have canine companionship?”

“Um … no,” Bisset replied. We couldn’t know if she had connected the dots or even remembered.

Probably not.


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About The Author
David Fantle & Tom Johnson
David Fantle & Tom Johnson
Authors of Hollywood Heyday. In 1978, Fantle and Johnson, St. Paul teenagers, boarded a plane to meet with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. They had written the stars requesting interviews--and to their amazement, both agreed. Over the years, more than 250 other stars also agreed--Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Debbie Reynolds, George Burns, Rod Steiger, Milton Berle, Frank Capra and Hoagy Carmichael, to name a few. Published for the first time and with exclusive photos, this selection of 75 interviews chronicles the authors' 40-year quest for insights and anecdotes from iconic 20th century artists.
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