Brigitte Bardot turns 80

As Brigitte Bardot celebrates her 80th birthday, we take a look back at the exclusive interview she gave France Magazine’s Paul Lamarra in 2010.

Brigitte Bardot shoots from the hip. At 75, she has no need to maintain the demeanour ascribed to her by publicists and film directors; it is clear that our interview with the French icon will reveal the real Bardot. “You have to be an idiot to be happy,” is her first salvo and she clearly does not consider herself an idiot. It is a statement calculated to shock, as she is well aware that Brigitte Bardot or BB (Bébé) is not supposed to be unhappy. Portrayed as a barefoot and carefree nymphet who seemed to spend all her time on the beach in Saint-Tropez, she was the very embodiment of 1960s freedom and one of the era’s cultural battering rams that ripped through the stuffy social mores of her parents’ generation. As Bardot shook off her strict Parisian bourgeois upbringing, so too did the youth of the post-war society who enjoyed with her the new age of rebellion and sexual confidence.

Discovered in 1950 when Roger Vadim, a young film director and later her first husband, saw her picture on the front page of Elle, she was on the very cusp of womanhood. With careful management of her public persona, she remained the perennial ingénue in the collective imagination of France.

Acting talents

While her first films were originally given innocent titles, it was clear that Bardot’s sex appeal was the main draw. Her first film, Le Trou Normand, (1952) was renamed Crazy for Love when it was released in America, while The Lighthousekeeper’s Daughter (Manina, la Fille Sans Voile) became The Girl in the Bikini and, to titillate audiences, had the tagline ‘A revealing episode on a lonely island’. Oh, how young men all over Europe and North America longed to find that island. The publicity for the 1956 Italian film Nero’s Weekend boasted that moviegoers would, ‘See Bardot bathe in milk’.

Clearly Bardot’s acting ability was secondary to other more tangible assets, such as her 38-24-36 figure – statistics that were to be used as part of the title of another film, Agent 38-24-36, so as to underline the Bardot appeal. It was for Bardot that the phrase ‘sex kitten’ was coined. Louis Malle, the director who worked with Bardot on the 1962 film A Very Private Affair (La Vie Privée), said that her acting talents were “instinctive” rather than “professional” and that she had a certain “Alice in Wonderland quality”. It was only for playing the role of Camille Javal in the 1963 film Contempt (Le Mépris ) directed by Jean-Luc Godard, that she would receive unequivocal critical acclaim. In a poignant analogy to Bardot’s relationship with the critics, her character dons a brown wig in attempt to be taken more seriously. The New York Times wrote, “she is utterly convincing as the tentative, demure ex-secretary”.

It was, however, in 1956 that Bardot became a phenomenon. Bardot, a classically trained ballerina, had men hooting and hollering all over America when she danced a barefoot and provocative tango in Vadim’s 1957 film, And God Created Woman (Et Dieu... Créa la Femme). There were plenty of noises off from outraged censors and church leaders who thought her role as a sexually voracious and capricious lover was having a corrupting effect on the nation’s youth. Raymond Cartier, editor of Paris-Match at the time, branded her “immoral, from head to toe”. When I ask her about the fuss, Bardot shrugs it off, “I didn’t give a damn about it.” Yet despite the furore, the film’s huge success prompted the very straight-laced President de Gaulle to concede that she was as “important an export as Renault”. In her 22-year career, which she brought to an abrupt end in 1974, Bardot starred in 44 films, released several albums and married and divorced three times.

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Her first husband was Vadim, whom she married at the age of 18, followed by actor Jacques Charrier – with whom she had a son Nicolas-Jacques – then Gunther Sachs, an international playboy and heir to the Opel fortune. There were also several lovers, including Sacha Distel and Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she recorded the original version of his controversial Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus and then begged him to destroy it. Bardot is under no illusions about her many relationships. “Sure, I was exploited and I am still exploited, but I do not regret any of my life’s loves and hassles,” she says. Her first marriage lasted five years with the other two lasting around three years. However, since 1992, she has been married to Bernard d’Ormale, a wealthy industrialist seven years her junior. “Bernard is my last and most enduring love,” she says. Nowadays, there is a certain satisfaction in being able to express her unhappiness.

At the height of Bardot-mania, her publicists denied suicide attempts and those that couldn’t be so easily waved away were dismissed by the media as attention-seeking publicity stunts. It was a dangerous no-win situation for her, but no-one really wanted to hear that Brigitte Bardot was unhappy. “You can be barefoot and have worries,” she tells me. “I have really been on the verge of suicide several times – it’s a miracle that I am still alive.” Her life in the limelight in her 1960s’ and 1970s’ heyday inevitably collided head-on with her rigid Catholic background and for Bardot this was at first difficult to overcome. “My parents gave me a strict upbringing, which at times has caused me to suffer distress but today I am grateful to them for it. I think they were impressed but found themselves at odds with this career, which was beyond their comprehension.”

Sensing that she should lighten the mood, she clarifies, “It was better to be there and be sexy than ugly.” My own attempt at lightening the mood by talking about her relationship with her son and her two granddaughters is firmly rebuffed. “That,” says Bardot, “is none of your business.” I also make the mistake of assuming that La Madrague, the house near Saint-Tropez with its “feet in the water” which has been her home for more than 50 years and has become synonymous with Bardot, would be her private haven of happiness. “I have had enough of you thinking that a particular place can make me happy – nothing makes me happy save the government joining me in my fight [against animal cruelty],” she fumes. “I live at La Madrague, surrounded on all sides by tourists – I live in a shop window.” Besides the celebrity-spotting tourist boats for whom Bardot is the most sought-after prize, the source of her unhappiness is the plight of animals throughout the world. For it is with animals that she has always sought solace: as a child, she had a cat named Crocus; her spaniel, Clown, appears in And God Created Woman; and while on location in Spain, she rescued a donkey and kept it in her hotel room. Vadim once said of her, “She did not get much affection from her parents, and when we started dating she didn’t want jewels but a dog.” He added, “She was always allergic to fame, power and everything that suggested success. The innocence and honesty of animals reassured her.”

A new calling

In 1974, on her 40th birthday, Bardot announced her retirement from the film and music industry. “It was the right time to do it and if I had to do it again I would do the same,” she states. And from then on, Bardot devoted herself to the plight of animals. In 1977, she brought to the world’s attention the killing of baby seals on the ice floes of Newfoundland and has lobbied for a ban on the sealskin trade. Nearly ten years later, she established the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and raised three million French Francs by selling jewellery and personal items and has, since then, donated La Madrague to the Foundation. For Bardot her international profile has been key to the setting up of the organisation. “My career was unique and extraordinary and unexpected. It allowed me to be known throughout the world and is the basis for the success of my Foundation,” she says. Forthright in its tone, the Foundation has 57,000 supporters and operates in 60 countries. Projects include a mobile veterinary clinic for the sterilisation of stray dogs in Eastern Europe, which the foundation hopes will reduce the number of dogs being put down, and a sanctuary for primates in Cameroon. Inevitably, her role as an animal rights campaigner has brought her into contact with politics and politicians. “Politics disgusts me,” she says, referring to her campaign to have bullfighting banned in France. She rails at the president: “I believed in Sarkozy and I have been disappointed as he made me promises he has not kept. “From now on, I will give my vote to the one who will help in my fight otherwise let them go and sweeten the pill for themselves.”

Recently, Bardot has even written to Carla Bruni asking her to persuade her husband to ban bullfighting. Disappointment, however, has turned to anger and she recently scolded Bruni for failing to say thank you for the gift of a Lancel handbag from Bardot’s BB range. “She is as beautiful as she is badly brought up,” Bardot told the French media. In another outburst she told Sarah Palin, the US Republican vice-Presidential candidate, that her denial of man’s role in global warming and advocating gun rights were statements that were “disconcertingly stupid” and she was a “disgrace to womanhood”. Her most controversial tirades, however, have been directed at immigrants, especially Muslims, and she has written that she fears an Islamicisation of France. For such comments she has been fined five times for inciting racial hatred.

A living legend

Many people suspect the influence of her husband, Bernard d’Ormale, who was an adviser to Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right Front National party; although Bardot herself has never been a member nor declared her support for the party. Without referring specifically to her ill-advised comments on race and Islam, Bardot makes her case, “I am shocking, impertinent and insolent that’s how it is. I never regret anything but I am greatly misunderstood by politically correct idiots,” she says.

Nevertheless, Bardot continues to receive approval from the French people; her music is still played on the radio and her memoirs have sold more than one million copies. Imbued with the 1960s’ zeitgeist, she is more likely to be remembered as a rival to Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe, but less tragic and more sexually potent. Still ranking regularly as one of the top 20 sexiest actresses of all time in film magazine polls, she is certainly a screen icon. Yet she recently warned that “sparks will fly” if any director wishing to portray her on film did so without first seeking her approval. “I am not OK with a film about me when I have not been told about it and when I have not given my agreement to the person playing my role,” she told French radio station Europe 1 in August, in response to rumours that American film director Kyle Newman wished to cast his girlfriend Jaime King in the lead role of his biopic. She had said previously: “A film about my life? But I’m not dead! They wouldn’t dare do it without talking to me.” The desire for others to portray her in film is further confirmation that Bardot is considered to rank alongside the likes of Elvis Presley and John Lennon as an icon of the 20th century; indeed, one of Andy Warhol’s 1974 portraits of her fetched US$10.8 million in 2007.

She has also been recognised as a feminist icon by Simone de Beauvoir who regarded her a truly liberated woman. A few years later, Bardot was pleased to be asked to represent is Marianne, the personification of the French nation. Even back in 1969, when she was chosen as the model for the first official bust of Marianne, it is clear that she was already being considered a French icon. Although Bardot insists that she does not consider such questions, she is clearly pleased with this particular accolade, which has also been extended to Catherine Deneuve and Laetitia Casta. “To have been the first Marianne sculpted by Aslan (Alain Gourdon) was an unexpected surprise – as well as the first it is also the most beautiful of all that followed.” Born in 1934 in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and raised in Paris during the Occupation, she has stayed in France for the good times and the bad times. Jane Birkin, her co-star in If Don Juan Were a Woman (Si Don Juan Était une Femme, 1973) observed that she had no ambition to leave her beloved France and make films elsewhere. Bardot agrees, “I love Jane Birkin and if she said it then it must be true.”

Outside France, it is unlikely that anyone could ever think of Brigitte Bardot without thinking of France. At 75, and requiring crutches to get around, she is still making her presence felt. Her approach, now it seems, is to remain determinedly unhappy as she continues to represent a cause that is closest to her heart. “Happiness is fleeting and rare in our time,” she says, returning to her life’s passion, “and especially when we see the unhappiness in the animal world every day and one doesn’t have the power to change things. “When one sees what I see every day and the huge distress of animals then the world would know that my life, alas, will not be enough to change moralities and improve things.”