Brigitte Bardot, the French actress and chanteuse whose heyday was in the late 50’s and 60’s turns 80 years old today, Sept 28. She had a 40-year career in motion pictures and retired, as she planned it, at age 40. What is unique about Bardot is that she was a free spirit who did what she wanted in her life. Her initials “BB” were all that were required. In interviews she called herself a hippie and men and women emulated her lifestyle. She was not only known in France but around the world. Today she still is present in the public mind, an outspoken animal rights activist who has created “Foundation Brigitte Bardot” (see also Facebook page ) for the protection of animals.
Although she grew to hate the motion picture industry, she was not under the thumb of a studio. She ran her own career and even her agent was unable to persuade her to live up to promises to the press and film festivals. Every move she made was scrutinized, public as well as private, and her private life became everyone’s business. When invited to meet President Charles de Gaulle, she wore trousers, forbidden attire for women at the “Élysée Palace”, and a blazer with shiny military stripes. “Aha, a soldier”, commented de Gaulle when greeting Bardot”. What luck Madame! You are in uniform and I am in civilian clothes!”
Bardot took the young actress Maria Schneider (1952-2011) under her wing and made it possible for her to achieve her greatest success playing opposite Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” (1972). This was made one year before Bardot retired. But Schneider did not have Bardot’s tough skin and refused to succumb to the demands of film producers to be the next sex symbol.
Bardot’s acting abilities were often glossed over in pursuit of captivating an erotic image, and for this reason she disliked making motion pictures, many of which capitalized on her looks and were shallow enterprises.
In one of her early successes directed by her husband Roger Vadim “And God Created Woman” (1956) she plays Juliete, a woman married to a man who is unable to control her. She is shown going into an underground cavern and dancing with Brazilian musicians. The beat of their drums results in unleashing intoxicating erotic energy in a scene in which Bardot does the Mambo. The symbolism of the scene suggests that this is a kind of descent to Hades where Juliete engages in moral depravity until her husband Michel (Jean-Louis Trintignant) forces her above ground into society after slapping her around. This is the price she has to pay for her dance. Up to this point this is a new beginning in film for women of the 50’s with Bardot’s unpinned hair and dress slit up her barefoot thigh. There isn’t a trace of falsehood in her performance; her movements are instinctual and this bold style is what catapulted her into instant stardom. Vadim molded her image into being the woman that every man wanted. One of his films, and her last, says it all: “Don Juan (Or If Don Juan Were a Woman)” (1973) For this, she paid a heavy price personally and professionally. Her mediated image made her a woman who was both loved for her liberated view of sexuality and at the same time shunned for her scandalous film roles.
Some of her best films are “Contempt” (1963) by Jean Luc Godard where she plays the bored wife of a scriptwriter in a marriage on the rocks, and Louis Malle’s “A Very Private Affair “(1962) with Marcello Mastroianni. Here, Bardot plays a character not unlike herself, whose presence creates public mayhem everywhere. She is mercilessly followed by the paparazzi and longs to be free from a devouring public feeding on her image. In Malle’s “Viva Maria” with Jeanne Moreau (1965) the two actresses team up and create a ‘striptease’ in 1907 revolutionary Central America. For this she was nominated for a BAFTA best foreign actress award.
It is also worth mentioning that Bardot had an articulate and captivating voice and released several well known hits such as “Harley Davidson” (1968) for her album “The Brigitte Bardot Show”. Serge Gainsbourg wrote “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus …” for her in 1967, a song he later recorded with his wife Jane Birkin (1969). Gunter Sachs, Bardot’s husband at the time, prevented the release of Bardot’s version that was not heard until 1986. She also recorded “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) with Gainsbourg.
Even though she loved her US fans, Bardot decided to not give into Hollywood. However, one “Hollywood” picture was made in France starring Billy Mumy as a 12 year old math prodigy who writes to Bardot and James Stewart as his father in “Dear Brigitte” (1965).
Famous writers and even philosophers wrote about her, including Simone de Beauvoir who published a short treatise for “Esquire” entitled “Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome” (1962). Beauvoir, who shared student lovers with her partner Jean Paul Sartre, was enamored by Bardot’s sexual freedom. Beauvoir described her as a “woman-child” — a “garçon manqué érotique” — she retains the perfect innocence inherent in the myth of childhood.” Beauvoir esteemed Bardot for her “authenticity” and “aggressive sexuality devoid of any hypocrisy”. In Bardot she envisions the “charms of the ‘nymph’ in whom the fearsome image of the wife and the mother is not yet visible.”
Bardot was indeed a captive of the male gaze, yet it can be claimed that she was both predator and object of desire in a game she helped to cultivate. As far as the generation of young people who admired and adored her, and the reactions of an older generation who found her behavior and lifestyle scandalous, Beauvoir writes: “Children ceaselessly ask: Why? Why not? Are we going to stifle the questions that BB has raised?” Those questions inspired young people around the world and her impact on popular culture continues to be felt.