THE 2016 SANTA FE INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL
Jacqueline Bisset laughs — a lot. In between reflecting on subjects as varied as her mother and Dean Martin, the legendary performer told Pasatiempo about a film she appeared in over 40 years ago, Day for Night, and another that was filmed about seven years ago called The Last Film Festival. Both movies screen at this year’s Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, where Bisset is honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday, Oct. 22.
The seventy-two-year-old Englishwoman has been acting in motion pictures for about 50 years, starting with small parts in big films like Casino Royale (1967), Bullitt (1968), and The Detective (1968). She has worked with directors François Truffaut, John Huston, George Cukor, and Roman Polanski, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the British television mini-series Dancing on the Edge (2013). Many people may still remember her in a wet T-shirt for a film called The Deep, way back in 1977, but she has fought to establish herself as a serious actor — with a good sense of humor.
In Day for Night, Truffaut’s comedic love poem to making movies, Bisset plays an actress appearing in a domestic drama that looks, well, not very good. It’s a movie about people who love making movies so much that they cast aside lovers, friends, health, and everything else to make sure the picture gets made. In Linda Yellen’s The Last Film Festival, Bisset plays an aging Italian screen queen who attends a film festival where her latest project — an apocalyptic environmental drama — is going to be screened for the first (and perhaps the last) time.
Pasatiempo spoke with Bissett by phone from an undisclosed location, since she called us and all the caller identification said was “anonymous.” Pasatiempo: When you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up? Jacqueline Bisset: I wanted to dance around. [She laughs.] I was always listening to music. I always
had a sense of rhythm and noise. My mother would encourage me, really, and leave me there with music going. It was a lot of classical music, and I was leaping around. It was a small house, so it was small leaps. I was pretty carried away by that. Pasa: How realistic is Day for Night when it comes to capturing the day-to-day aspect of making movies? Bisset: The things he [Truffaut] talks about are pretty true. I’m not sure we were always as obsessed with the process in terms of my character . ... But it had a lot of truth to it — the process, the coming together, and the certain kind of joy that connects people is something rather addictive. Pasa: How did you find Truffaut as a director? Bisset: He was organized and pretty precise . ... He worked with all of us prior to the beginning of the shoot. There is lot of irony in that everyone in the film is telling the story. Everyone says this is a film about their character — they see it from their point of view, which is something we all tend to do. He was quite jolly, really. He knew a lot of the people on the film — there was a camaraderie between him and his group — and that made me a fraction nervous. My French was not very good, so when we were all sitting together and eating, I couldn’t get to that wonderful place where you can use your sense of humor in that language, so I sometimes felt left out. Pasa: Jumping ahead to The Last Film Festival, Dennis Hopper seems pretty happy and lively in that film, which was the last project he made before he passed away. [Hopper died of prostate cancer in 2010, shortly after filming finished.] Bisset: He seemed very happy, very fit — there was no sign of him being ill. That was quite a shock to all of us when he died. Pasa: In both Day for Night and The Last Film Festival, you play an actress. What is that like — an actress playing an actress? Bisset: I wasn’t interested in playing just a plain actress. I wanted to find something funnier . ... In The Last Film Festival, it was sort of a parody of an actress. I thou h
if she could be Italian, that would be interesting. That was a character I used to do at home with my mother when I was quite young. I was about fifteen when my mother got ill, so she was stationary, and I would try to amuse her when I was around her. So “The Italian” was one of a couple of characters I would play . ... I suggested it to [director] Linda Yellen, and she said it might be fun.
Pasa: How important is it for you to have fun when you are making a film?
Bisset: It’s not always about fun. Sometimes it’s about getting deeply into what you want to do. It’s certainly not good if you are miserably down. Sets can be incredibly boring, and when things are going very slowly, sometimes you lose energy. You ask yourself, “How can I keep my energy, where can I go, what can I do?” It’s like having a car with an extra gear — you need that extra gear. I have good energy. I try to conserve it as I get older. I used to give up a lot of energy talking to the crew and chatting and having fun, exactly that, and then I’d be tired when they got to me at the end of the day.
When I did Airport (1970) with Dean Martin and Burt Lancaster, it was like working in two different movies. Dean was constantly joking around, and Burt’s set was completely quiet. You could hear a pin drop — he was much more serious. I didn’t have scenes with Burt, but I came on the set when he was working to watch. The actors do set the mood of the piece. It can be heavy, and it can be light. Pasa: What do you like best about acting?
Bisset: I very much enjoy the preparation — thinking about this person and thinking how they live, and what do they do, and how do they dress, and getting that together and talking psychologically about what it’s all about. Breakfast is fun — early morning breakfast, especially when there’s cold weather and a cup of coffee and a big Mexican sandwich, which is what you get offered in California. That’s less fun in France: You get a dry croissant, no butter, and a cup of black coffee. [She laughs.] It’s a great feeling when everyone is bustling and doing their thing, that feeling of anticipation and that energy all comes together, and it’s lovely. If you get it right, of course, you feel you have cracked it.
Pasa: You’ve worked with some extraordinary people. Were you ever in awe?
Bisset: I don’t like to watch people show off . ... In normal life, a lot of people think that the people who are hammy at parties — the ones who are showing off and being the life and soul of the party — would be good actors, but that is really not the case. Most good actors are quiet and concentrated. They have their moments of being fun . ... Dean Martin was always joking around, but that was the character he made for himself. He was serious about the work, he didn’t make it seem difficult. He liked to make people laugh, and he liked to be light and amusing. So he was pretty consistently like that all the time. I think that was his public persona.
Pasa: You brought up Dean Martin, so I want to bring up his counterpart of sorts — Frank Sinatra, with whom you worked in The Detective.
Bisset: I was told Sinatra would only do one or two takes, but that wasn’t true. He was helpful to me, kind, and very protective. And he defended me when the writer was getting a bit dodgy with me. He was most definitely serious about the work . ... People were projecting upon him things that were not true. I remember I had to deal with a wig in that film, and I was told by people around me, “It’s got to be perfect. He won’t wait if there’s a problem with it.” And that attitude never came up once . ... Presumably at some point, maybe, he had been high-strung, but he was not like that on this set. He had been going through problems with his wife, Mia Farrow, and I had replaced her in the film, so it wasn’t a jolly time for him. But it didn’t show in his work.
Pasa: I found this quote from you from an interview in the late 1970s — which I don’t expect you to remember — in which you talked about always looking back over your shoulder at your private life and wondering about the price you paid to be an actress. Do you remember that?
Bisset: I don’t recognize that quote. I don’t know if you give up anything to be an actor. You give up some degree of — what’s the opposite of discipline? You have to keep your discipline together. You have to learn to forget about yourself to a large degree. I think you need a degree of comfort so you can concentrate, and I think you need energy. You don’t generally go out all night and go drinking and carrying on until four in the morning when you are working. You have to try and take care of yourself and be alert. And do your homework. When I first started, I didn’t know that yet. I would be out until four in the morning! [She laughs.] Pasa: Do you look back much?
Bisset: I look back a little bit. I can’t believe what I have been involved in . ... But I don’t really hang onto it. It’s not what stays with me. What stays with me are the issues faced by the characters in the films, the moments where you overcome fears and you make steps forward, — or maybe backward. Hopefully forward. Pasa: What’s next for you, in terms of film?
Bisset: I just got an offer this morning to play a ninety-two-year old. Ninety-two! Oh lordy, lordy. That may be a bit much. I’ve played mid-eighties, in a film with Jonathan Winters (Swing, 2003), and he made me laugh a lot. He made me laugh rather more than I needed to, because his humor was wicked, and I was made up as an old lady, and my makeup kept cracking . ... I had to get away from him because my skin would burst through because he made me laugh so much.
What makes them think I can do a ninety-two-yearold woman? Ah, well. Maybe there’s some comedy in this.
Stills from The Last Film Festival (2016); above, Jacqueline Bisset in Monaco in 2013 (AP photo, Lionel Cironneau)
With Jean-Pierre Léaud (left) and François Truffaut in Day for Night (1973)
In High Season (1987)
With Dean Martin in Airport (1970)
With Frank Sinatra in The Detective (1968)