Driving Miss Bisset

updated 03/23/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/23/1998 01:00AM

No need to look twice: Jacqueline Bisset still fills out her jeans-as smashingly as she did in Bullitt 30 years ago. Still, at 53, she is something of an anachronism in Hollywood, where, as the movie First Wives Club declared, there are only three stages for a woman: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. Where does that leave Bisset, who, having appeared in more than 50 movies in 33 years, is still, forgive us, most famous for the wet T-shirt she wore in 1977's The Deep? She laughs. "This doggy still thinks I'm a babe," she says, looking to her terrier mix for confirmation. When she gets nary a ruff, she frowns. "It's district attorney, isn't it, Scruffy?"

The criminal justice system should be so lucky. The fact is, in her latest film, Dangerous Beauty, Bisset is once again utterly at ease playing the babe—indeed, some might say, the ultimate babe: a Venetian courtesan. Swathed in silk gowns and adored by rich and powerful men in this 16th-century romantic drama, Bisset sets out to teach her daughter (Braveheart's Catherine McCormack) the ways of her trade. "I guess you could say I'm turning her into a call girl," says Bisset, curling up on a sofa in the French country-style Beverly Hills home she has lived in for nearly three decades. "But from my point of view, it's teaching her about men and life."

An interesting take on the world's oldest profession—and precisely the kind of free thinking that drew director Marshall Herskovitz to the British-born Bisset. "This movie is about a woman who was stunningly beautiful, seductive and brilliant—and no one knew what to do with her," he says. "In her own life, that's who Jackie is—one of those rare people who has lived life on her own terms."

Not least when it comes to men. For the past three years she's been involved with Turkish martial arts expert Emin Boztepe. Bisset is unflustered by the fact that Boztepe is 18 years her junior. "He's got a very old soul, which I like," she says. "He's also very playful, he's very manly and he's very nice to me." And he plays by her lifelong rules: no marriage—an institution that she believes "takes the romance out of a relationship"—and no kids. "It's not that I'm against motherhood," she says. "I have felt the need for it sometimes, but I don't believe in all this I-feel-the-need-for-a-soft-cuddly-thing-so-I'm-going-to-have-a-baby. It's got to be more solid than that."

The solid Bisset has had three long-term love affairs in her life. The first was with actor Michael Sarrazin, whom she met when they costarred in 1967's The Sweet Ride. Then came Victor Drai, a real estate agent turned film producer turned restaurateur. And then there was Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov. The two lived together from 1981 until 1988, enjoying what Bisset called a very simple life. But for Godunov, life was also hard. His dance career stumbled in 1982 when Mikhail Baryshnikov dismissed him from the American Ballet Theatre. And though he had a starring role in the 1985 hit Witness, his hoped-for screen career never happened. In 1995, Godunov was found dead in his West Hollywood apartment, the victim of excessive drinking. "He was just a real Russian figure, with very deep emotions," says Bisset.

Still, Bisset says the public image of Godunov as an out-of-control loser is incomplete at best. "People try to turn him into a sad thing," she says, "but a lot of that is not true. Yes, he would be sad when he was drinking a lot because he'd be sick." But when she spoke to him two weeks before he died, she says, "he seemed in quite cheerful form. He had just finished a film he had done in Budapest. He had a lot of self-destructive qualities in him, but other sides were radiant."

Bisset won't say what went wrong in her relationship with Godunov—or the others. But she is clear about what soured her on wedlock in general: In 1968, after 28 years of marriage, her father, a rural Scottish-born doctor, walked out on her French-born mother, Arlette, a lawyer turned homemaker who has long been afflicted with multiple sclerosis. "He left her when she was very ill," she says. "You couldn't believe it." And yet, only recently has Bisset come to the realization—"a great shock to me," she says—that "the world does not revolve around romantic love. I always thought a playful, wild, alive, intelligent woman would be a great package of fun for a man. No!" she declares. "Men want an organized woman who's not too much trouble."

Since her parents' divorce, Bisset has had first-hand experience with what others might call trouble. Care of her mother has become a major part of her life. (Her father died in 1982; her brother Max is a business consultant in Florida.) Bisset sends money to cover Arlette's expenses in London. And she routinely flies Mama to L.A. so she can look after her at home. "Jackie spends a lot of quality time with her mother," says her friend, makeup artist Edward Ternes. "She always does it with a smile."

Perhaps that's because her tie to her mother is part of what Bisset has always considered a full life, which is defined less by roles than relationships. She has no regrets that she hasn't tackled more Serious Acting assignments—and no apologies for her part in such flops as 1990's Wild Orchid. "Everything taught me something," she says. Besides, life these days keeps her plenty busy—whether whipping up her monthly dinner parties or spending hours snuggled next to Boztepe reading the Los Angeles Times. No, nostalgia she leaves to others—like the fans who still flock to video stores to check out The Deep. Says Bisset with a grin: "There's a whole new generation of people who don't look me in the eye."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

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