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- March 20, 1978
- Vol. 9
- No. 11
'I'm Insecure but Strong'
After Two Divorces, a Departed Son, and a Box Office Hit, Coma Star Genevieve Bujold Reluctantly Adjusts to Superstardom
Geneviève has been denied her deserved public reputation because she chose to appear in what one admiring production executive refers to as "films instead of movies." She adorned the Alain Resnais classic La Guerre Est Finie, Philippe De Broca's cult favorite King of Hearts and, in her 1969 Hollywood debut, won an Oscar nomination opposite Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days. Then—following a career-damaging retreat back to art and to her native Quebec—she finally decided in 1974 to run for the movie money, and picked mostly claptrap: Earthquake, Obsession, Swashbuckler.
Only this year has she belatedly gotten top billing on a box office killer of her own—the medical-mystery chiller Coma, written by Dr. Robin Cook and directed by Dr. Michael Crichton.
Some may regard the MGM adaptation as a quasi-feminized version of Nancy Drew Goes to the Hospital, but everyone has been awed by Bujold's performance as Dr. Susan Wheeler. Her rabbity features and brimming eyes combine vulnerability, intelligence and terror in a way that might do more to empty hospital beds than preventive medicine or the bankruptcy of Blue Cross. Coma producer Marty Erlichman marvels that "Geneviève is both young and old emotionally and in ability. She was the one woman who could do all that on screen"—a courageous compliment from the man who also manages Barbra Streisand.
Indeed, the child-woman now wiggling her toes into the Malibu strand has just as often been up to her ankles in insecurities. Life, for Bujold, is an object lesson in the perils of permanence. Her millionaire neighbors' houses are slowly slipping into the Pacific. Even before it was finished, Bujold's own new home was burned by an arsonist last month. Divorced for four years from her second husband, Canadian director Paul Almond, Bujold suffered a shattering setback last Thanksgiving when her only companion in life, 9-year-old son Matthew, left her to live with his father in Montreal. Yet she has now found peace with her disjointed state. "Like the waves, I have my own rhythm," she says. "I roll in and meet and share. And then I roll back out to sea."
That could give a lesser spirit mat de mer. All the while she is rebuilding her new place at Malibu, she fatalistically speculates, "I'll never live in this house." And while the absence of her son is wrenching—"It was just like losing everything at once"—she has been reunited with him at least once a month in Montreal.
Bujold's heart will always be in her native Quebec, and she works on a green card in the U.S. "Montreal is where my number came up," she shrugs, "not L.A. or Calcutta." Her mother was employed as a maid in the Gaspé Peninsula boyhood home of Quebec's Premier René Lévesque, and Bujold has since spoken publicly on his behalf. " 'We're plainly using you,' René told me, and I liked him for that." Though she avoids "separatist" rhetoric, she still supports Quebec nationalism. ("We are different from English Canadians and should not be assimilated.") Yet at a time when Quebec elitists criticized Bujold for "selling out" to Hollywood, Lévesque advised her to "go."
Geneviève's earlier influences were neither the premier nor her Montreal bus driver father but an intimidatingly bright older sister and a strict convent school education. "It makes you feel guilty about so many things," she shudders. "A chunk of my guilt beast is dead now, but she hasn't been buried yet." Geneviève escaped into her own world of Elvis Presley records (although she spoke only French until 18 and could not understand the lyrics) plus ballet and theater. Performing, she remembers, made her feel "loved and needed." She dropped out of Montreal's Conservatory of Dramatic Art—not to mention an 18-month marriage to a biology student (it was "just to make legal ¦love," she said later)—to try the local stage and then films.
Though Anne of the Thousand Days offered instant stardom, Bujold abandoned Hollywood and Universal (which sued her for $750,000 for breach of contract) to make impeccably arty films like Act of the Heart with Almond, her husband from 1967 until 1973. That was the year they split. "I was the one who walked out," she admitted. "I felt guilty, but I was in love with someone else." She had a brief fling with a director friend and later fled to Malibu. As Geneviève winces, "As soon as I fall in love, I get into trouble."
The shock of giving up Matthew is just as disturbing. "He kept saying, 'I don't have a father,' " Bujold recalls. "And I said, 'But you do. He's alive and well and living in Montreal.' It had never crossed my mind that he would want to leave, or that Paul would have him," she continues. "But I couldn't play handball with Matthew at 8:30 at night. I earn my living, pay my bills and do everything a man does, but I'm a woman person, not a man person. I can't know what it's like to be a little boy."
She and the since remarried Almond are still friendly (Geneviève stayed at her vacationing ex-husband's home in Montreal during her last visit), and she admits her subsequent romances "have never come close to a serious relationship. It's not that I'm against marriage; I've just been too busy doing something else. I really think it would work for me the next time I do it—so I might not do it," she adds contradictorily. "It's too grave. Those are serious words: marriage and divorce."
Instead, without Matthew, Geneviève is proudly living "totally alone" for the first time in her life. "I don't want to share my downs," she confides. "I want to share ideas, enthusiasm, love and sometimes even sadness. But I need total privacy, even when I have someone living with me. There are times when I can't even share the same kitchen or bathroom. Like an animal," she adds, "I have to go off somewhere to relax and recuperate, even if it's only the bathtub."
Bujold has likewise scaled down her environment. She has 50 feet of beachfront, but her property is smallish by Malibu standards. It is, though, the first piece of land she's ever owned, and the thought leaves her feeling "scared." Indeed, while her house is being rebuilt, the star is cheerfully holing up above her garage in a monastic cell. "I have a bed, a table, a chair, a piano and a single-burner hot plate."
Just recently she quit smoking "as a test of inner strength. I was able to control everything but that, so I had to control that too." She does drink a little wine or sake. Other escapes include swims in the Pacific, tuning in to the likes of Dolly Parton and Keith Jarrett on her stereo and fondling her two cats (unfelicitously named Fartface and Poo-Blackie by Matthew).
Despite her new box office clout that elevates her to superstar stature—"It's not normal to have those big checks coming in; if it's easy, it doesn't agree with me"—Bujold isn't rushing her roles. She recently dropped out of the upcoming Hanover Street after Kris Kristofferson jumped ship. (Typically, the reclusive Geneviève had never met Kris's replacement, Harrison Ford, and has never even seen Star Wars.)
What's next? "Going back to the stage is one must. Further," she adds, "I'm a good mother, and it's still not too late to do that again. Actually, I want to do it all. I have the energy. I'm insecure, but I'm strong. Michael Douglas told me," she recalls of her Coma co-star, "that I'm a very late bloomer. I hope he's right."
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