“You have to be an idiot to be happy!” — An interview with Brigitte Bardot.
A controversial character this siren of the 60s and animal campaigner needs no introduction. A chance encounter with Brigitte Bardot when I was researching a story on bull-fighting in France and around the time of her 75th birthday led to her agreeing to this interview. It is among the very few she has given in recent years and may indeed be one of the last. She was in combative mood throughout and for the avoidance of doubt she wrote down every answer she gave. The interview was conducted in July 2010 and published in October 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.
“You have to be an idiot to be happy,” is her first salvo and she clearly does not consider herself to be an idiot. It is a statement calculated to shock, as she is well aware that Brigitte Bardot or BB or (Bébé) is not supposed to be unhappy.
Portrayed as the 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 French collective imagination.
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 further, the tagline ‘A revealing episode on a lonely island” was added. 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 moviegoers would, “See Bardot bathe in milk.” Clearly Bardot’s acting ability was secondary to her other more tangible assets such as her 38–24–36 figure — statistics that were to be used as part of the film title of another film Agent 38–24–36, 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 Mepris) directed by Jean Luc Goddard, 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 an 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 straight-laced President de Gaulle to concede that she was as “important an export as Renault.”
During her 22-year acting and modelling career, which she brought to an abrupt end in 1974, Bardot starred in 44 films, released several albums and married and divorced three times.
Her first husband was Vadim, whom she married at the age of 18, followed by actor Jacques Cartier — with whom she had a son Nicolas-Jacques — then Gunter 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 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 the Bardot-mania, her publicist denied suicide attempts and the events that could not be so easily waved away were dismissed by a complicit 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 no worries,” she tells me. “I have really been on the verge of suicide several times — it is a miracle that I am alive.”
The limelight in her 1960s and 1970s heyday inevitably collided with her rigid Catholic background and for Bardot it 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 sexy than ugly.” My own attempt at lightening the mood by talking about her relationship with her son and 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 had 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 allergic to fame, power and everything that suggested success. The innocence and honesty of animals reassured her.”
In 1974, on her 40th birthday, Bardot announced her retirement from film and the music industry. “It was the right time to do it and if I had to do it all 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 setting-up of the organisation. “My career was unique and extraordinary and unexpected. It allowed me to be known throughout the world and it 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 sterialisation 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 politicians and politics.
“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 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.”
In another outburst she told Sarah Palin, the US Republican vice-Presidential candidate that her denial of man’s role in global warming was “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 Islamicisation of France. For such comments she has been fined five times for inciting racial hatred.
Many 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 sixties zeitgeist, she is more likely to be remembered as a rival to Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe, but less tragic and more sexually potent. Still regularly ranking as one of the top 20 sexiest actresses of all time in film magazine polls, she is certainly a screen icon.
She has been recognised as a feminist icon by Simone de Beauvoir who regarded her as a truly liberated woman. A few years later, Bardot was pleased to represent Marianne, the personification of the French nation. Even back in1969, when she was chosen for the first official bust of Marianne, it is clear that she was already 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 Laetatia 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 shadow of the Eifel Tower and raised in Paris during the Occupation, she has stayed in France for the good time 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 France and make films elsewhere. Bardot agrees, “I love Jane Birkin and if she said it then it must be true.”
Outside of 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 the 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 of animals in the animal world every day and one doesn’t have the powers 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.”