It is 5 p.m. on a languorous Monday in L.A., and the sun has eked out a small victory over the smog above the rustic home of Jacqueline Bisset. Set back from the curving road of Benedict Canyon, the white stone house resembles a quaint lovers' hideaway, not a movie star mansion. The atmosphere—more lush than lavish—is heightened by a striking presence in the sycamore-cooled courtyard. Impossibly short blue-jean cutoffs, stretched to begging around the buttocks, display the long legs and shapely torso of a classic body beautiful. Draw nearer and the fragrance worn on that bare skin is all but overwhelming.
If the image flirts with narcissism, don't blame Bisset, who hasn't made her appearance yet. These legs belong to Alexander Godunov, 35, one of ballet's most famous defectors from the Soviet Union and Bisset's housemate for some four years. Once spotted, the wary Godunov darts off like the frightened faun he's danced so superbly in Debussy's Afternoon.
"He's shy," says Bisset as she greets her visitor at the door and moves through a two-story living room awash in the sunshine that pours through a skylight in the beamed ceiling and lights the room's centerpiece—an unmistakably erotic abstract by painter Uli Moroder. "Was Alexander's cologne really that strong?" she says with a laugh, as she leads her guest into the cozy study. She is being charming, but the laugh betrays a certain anxiety. She decides not to hide it. Interviews upset Godunov, she explains, even when the focus is on Jackie. "Alexander always gets very mad when he reads what I've said about him," she says. "We really believe in trying to have a private life.... We're very simple."
The temptation to raise an eyebrow is great. Her sultry beauty and his blond good looks have made them a fixture on the party circuit and a joy to paparazzi. And what they've got, they flaunt, often in outrageous outfits that seem a parody of sex. That physical dazzle has often eclipsed their talent.
That talent is most evident lately. Godunov's debut on the screen in Witness, the top box office hit in the country for three weeks running, has made him an instant screen idol. Playing an Amish farmer who rivals Harrison Ford for the affections of a widow played by Kelly McGillis, Godunov, with a relatively small amount of screen time, has audiences and critics raving. "Mr. Godunov displays a kind of quiet, amused self-assurance that effectively steals every scene he's in," said the New York Times.
Godunov's new fame as an actor is not lost on Bisset. "Women go berserk around Alexander," she says. "I feel like an outsider watching other people watch him." Bisset's sea-green eyes betray no sign of envy about her younger boyfriend's intrusion on her Hollywood turf. But her career is definitely a problem. She recently gave a lovely supporting performance as Albert Finney's wife in Under the Volcano but, unlike Witness, few bothered to see it. At 40, the beauteous Bisset has been used mostly as window dressing for a succession of male stars such as Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, Nick Nolte and Paul Newman. She's made three bad pictures (The Deep, The Greek Tycoon, Class) for every good one (Day for Night). And she must face younger bundles from Britain, including Rachel (The Thorn Birds) Ward, Kelly (The Woman in Red) Le Brock and Victoria (All of Me) Tennant, who are infringing on her territory.
Bisset, it seems, is determined to do battle. This week she will make her TV debut with two films—HBO's Forbidden, based on a true story about a German countess who hid her Jewish lover from the Nazis, and CBS' Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's classic story of a Russian wife's tragic love for a cavalry officer (played by Christopher Reeve). Karenina is the clear favorite. Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh did film versions of the story in 1935 and 1947 respectively, but following those giants in the role, Bisset claims, didn't threaten her. "As far as I'm concerned," she says, "the part belongs to Tolstoy. In any case Alexander told me I'd be very good in it."
Alexander (she sometimes calls him Sasha but never Alex, and he calls her Jacqueline, never Jackie) is rarely out of her thoughts, though they are often apart. Last year, when he was on a ballet tour, she traveled to Hungary to film Karenina. On her 40th birthday he sent champagne and a trio of violinists to her hotel in Budapest. "They're very, very attentive to each other," says co-star Reeve, who met Godunov for the first time at a recent bash given by Andy Warhol. "Sometimes couples go out to a party to work the room. They didn't. They were very much involved."
Bisset doesn't deny she can give off a steamy image. "I'd rather have that image than not," says the actress, who has admitted to liking "the pat on the fanny, the looks, the whistles, especially when I'm in a certain mood." Though she can give off a cool naughtiness in public, she says she's different with Godunov. "I am silly and childish around Alexander," she says. "I want to be sexy with my man. I don't necessarily want to be sexy all of the time to everybody." Why not? "If you put something provocative between you and someone, it can be blinding and cut off communication."
Still, Bisset admits her first meeting with Godunov at a luncheon party given by a mutual friend in New York stirred an immediate sexual attraction. "He was magnificent looking," she says. "I felt I knew him...there was nothing logical about it." Despite her feelings, they did not then begin an affair. Godunov was still a married man. Though his wife, Ludmila Vlasova, a Bolshoi ballerina about seven years his senior, had voluntarily returned to Moscow after the 1979 tour during which Godunov defected, they did not divorce until 1982. By then Bisset had severed her ties with real estate magnate Victor Drai (a film producer now and wed to actress Le Brock). Six months after that luncheon they met again, and she learned more about this mysterious Russian.
On the face of it, the genteel daughter of an English physician father and a lawyer mother would seem to have little in common with a wild-maned ballet dancer, the son of a soldier father and a train engineer mother. Alexander was enrolled at the prestigious state ballet school in Riga at age 9. There he met Mikhail Baryshnikov. "We were short boys, always worrying about how we would grow." At least Godunov did—he's 6'3" to Baryshnikov's 5'7". Both eventually became renowned in the ballet world—Baryshnikov for his graceful leaps, Godunov for the passion and animal strength of his dancing. Baryshnikov defected first and made it first as a world figure—as dancer, actor (The Turning Point in 1977) and lover of a film star (Jessica Lange). Godunov has admitted he was jealous.
Two years after his defection Godunov declared with an affecting naïveté: "I want to do film.... I will someday live in Southern California. I will get in my convertible and drive to see my friends and let the sun and wind come to me." It didn't come as fast as he hoped. After joining Baryshnikov in late 1979 at the American Ballet Theatre, Godunov was quickly pegged as the brooding tartar, subject to wild mood swings. "It's the Russian temperament," he said. "I try to keep my feelings inside of me." He doesn't always succeed. When, after almost three years with the ABT, his pal Misha (by then the company's artistic director) booted him from his $5,500-a-week position, Godunov was devastated. "Nobody prepared me...it smells like Russia."
Bisset provided solace. She knew what it was like living in someone's shadow. Working with major male actors had made her reticent about expressing herself. "I felt strongly but I didn't know how to say it," says Bisset. "I still don't, always."
She does with Alexander. "I'm still finding out about him," she says. "But I think we're quite similar. In the evening we go out—we're both movie freaks—or we cook." The latter they seldom do together. "We're both far too bossy," says Bisset. "He likes to be left alone, which is just fine with me. If he does cook [he favors Russian cuisine], I get the hell out of the kitchen."
She also keeps far away from his work. "I think it was great that I couldn't visit [on the Witness set]," she says. "I missed him but I was busy in Germany with Forbidden, and I think he would have felt it a bit strange, my being around." This doesn't apply to the phones, which they use constantly, or to weekend visits. On Jacqueline's 39th birthday, Alexander suddenly appeared in Mexico on the set of Under the Volcano bearing a mammoth chocolate cake and leading co-stars Albert Finney, Anthony Andrews and director John Huston in a sing-along. She hopes they'll work together but denies reports that a Ninotchka remake is in the works. Meanwhile Godunov is up for a role in Steven Spielberg's The Money Pit.
Until recently Jacqueline was very firm about her territoriality. A year ago she said: "He has a place in New York [near Lincoln Center], and I live in the Los Angeles hills. I'm not sure I even believe in lovers living together because, as in marriage, you have a tendency to stop discovering fresh qualities in each other." Perhaps she was still smarting from the hard knocks of togetherness. She had purchased her house in 1970 with actor Michael (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) Sarrazin and lived there with him for about four years, as she did for some seven years with Victor Drai. The relationships dissolved, without bitterness, she says, but she still feels the loss. "It's very important to me that people I love remain somehow linked to me," she says. "I'm not interested in doing the thing that makes it end. I want to do the thing that makes it last."
That has never included marriage. Her parents' divorce after 28 years clearly soured her. "I haven't seen a great number of happy marriages," she says. "Ideally couples need three lives: one for him, one for her and one for them together. But what I usually see is a rather muddled life where no one is happy. I think the situation of marriage potentially lacks mystery, which we all need a little of."
The coolness in her tone changes when Alexander appears on the scene. It is sunset now, and the siege on his life and his woman is nearly over. His handshake is firm, his manner gracious and his "hello" to the visitor as emphatic as the "goodbye" that quickly follows. Bisset is clearly proud of this man, of his physical grace, of his drive to succeed on screen and of his obvious passion for her.
Perhaps that "life together" is getting more important to her than her life alone. She allows the possibility, grudgingly. "When I look at the group I'm in, the over-40s, it seems we're being sold like Amazons. The stories seem to be about women who have been stripped of their families or never had them but who are successful in their careers. You have to be despondent over the way womanhood is portrayed today. Suddenly we're all tough and greedy."
As for marriage, she says, "there are times when I waver." She feels nearly the same about motherhood. "Sometimes—when I see an adorable baby—I think maybe I'm missing something, not having a child. But I don't miss it yet." Might she eventually defy her old suspicions and disappointments and, perhaps without "settling down" exactly, make a commitment to life with Alexander? As she talks about her role in Anna Karenina, she courts the speculation. "It's as close as I've come to being a romantic heroine," she says. That it ends with Anna's suicide on the railroad tracks seems to Bisset a tragic ideal. "It seems to me the basic reason most people are unhappy is love or the lack of it." With a soft smile she adds, "Love: What else is worth dying for?"