Living Legend Brigitte Bardot

“Owning a woman’s soul is a harder task than owning her body.” 

So said Brigitte Bardot in her very last film, released in 1973, The Edifying and Joyous Story of Colinot.

By this point in Bardot’s career and her life, her soul was far more important to her than the perfect body that had brought her fame, three husbands, one child, and international fame.

Bardot was 39 years old when she retired from movies, four years older than she’d anticipated. She’d hoped to be gone by 35, before the encroachments of middle age marred her image. She was still a beauty, but time was taking its inevitable toll. Also, the white-hot frenzy had come and gone. Despite—or perhaps because of—her position in France as the epitome of sexual allure, good movies were not coming her way. She was a symbol, an image, the eternal girl/woman of the newspapers and paparazzi photos. She had resisted Hollywood—fame in Europe was enough for her—but even her first husband and the “creator” of her image, Roger Vadim, had little to give her as she matured. Anticipating Bardot’s retirement, he had directed her one last time, in Don Juan (Or if Don Juan Were A Woman) which was also released in 1973. This seemed nothing more than a coarsening of her nymphet in And God Created Woman, which was Vadim’s original homage to her youthful beauty, their own relationship, and its inevitable end.

Bardot was much like America’s Kim Novak—she loved nature and animals and freedom. She, like Kim, got out while the getting was good. But Novak allowed herself to be lured back to movies from time to time. Bardot stuck to her guns. Perhaps because she did not think she’d been a very good actress (which was not true) or perhaps because she’d been so scorched by fame—by what she was supposed to be, the image created for her by Vadim, which was partly her and partly his obsession—that she never looked back in regret.

Bardot, although blonde and curvaceous and girlish, was the antithesis of America’s Marilyn Monroe. MM was a fantasy woman in her most popular films, a musical comedy star, an actress who rarely portrayed a real woman, with real issues. BB on the other hand, in her best movies (And God Created Woman, Contempt, A Very Private Affair, The Truth) would present reasonably complex variations on the alternately sullen or vivacious “sex kitten.” More interesting, Monroe was considered a great artist in Europe, but a joke in America. And Bardot was better appreciated by American critics than those in her homeland. The actor and entertainer Yves Montand, who worked with Monroe in the 1960 movie Let’s Make Love would comment, “We have nothing like Marilyn in Europe. Well, Bardot, but she is known only for the body!”

Neither woman got what she wanted from a career. But Bardot survived and Monroe, of course, did not. The two most famous alliterative initials—MM and BB—met just once, in London in 1956. Marilyn was filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier and was newly married to Arthur Miller. She was at her apex. Bardot, who had been married to Roger Vadim for four years, was just about to explode in And God Created Woman. They literally ran into each other in the ladies’ room, during a command performance where both were required to curtsy and make small talk with Queen Elizabeth. Bardot would later recall, “She was just exquisite, the prettiest thing. Very shy.” She would also often condemn the show biz “system” for having destroyed Monroe. As for Marilyn, who rarely acknowledged other blondes, she relented for Bardot, when asked. “I think she is so charming,” said Marilyn, who was also probably thinking, “Please stay in Europe!”

Brigitte Bardot was born in Paris in 1934, in an upper-middle class Roman Catholic home. She was taught in private school and also at home. Brigitte was encouraged to satisfy her dancing aspirations, and studied ballet for three years at the Conservatoire de Paris. She also modeled. It was on the cover of Elle that 15-year-old Bardot caught the eye of film director Roger Vadim. He sought her out, and told her to forget modeling and become an actress. He was seven years her senior and apparently his advice struck a nerve. They would marry when Bardot was 18, and her film career began at just about the same time. Between 1952 and 1956 she appeared in almost 20 mostly silly films, a stage play (Jean Anouilh’s Invitation to the Castle), and was much fussed over at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, in her bikini. She was well-known, she was delicious, she was so, so young. But she had yet to break through. Roger Vadim had waited long enough, and knew her well enough to finally put his image and ideal on the screen. It was called And God Created Woman and it made Bardot an instant international sensation. Was she an actress or simply a ravishing creature with long, wild blonde hair, impossibly full lips, huge dark eyes, and a backside that could topple every world religion? It did not matter. Within weeks of the film’s American release, she was “BB.” In the movie she is a confused young woman, more or less a prisoner of her emotions, most of which involve sex. Does she want her husband, her husband’s bother, or the wealthy older man who keeps popping up? The film presents a more or less bourgeois conclusion, but the uninhibited free spirit that was Bardot, wiped away tiresome critiques of the movie or her character. Nobody looked like Bardot at all. Nobody, up till that time, behaved the way Bardot did on screen. She seemed to both resent and relish her own beauty and its power over men. She had what men wanted, but what did she want—did her men, did any man, really care?

In time, this aspect of her screen self—and very possibly her real self—would be refined, but nothing can touch the impact of Vadim’s introduction of his then-wife to the world. (Later, Vadim would attempt to mold another wife, Jane Fonda, into a Bardot image, but despite her beautiful body, Fonda exuded a centered, no-nonsense vibe that was at odds with the child-woman Vadim seemed to cherish. Ann-Margret would also display some Bardot-like qualities, but she was altogether too aggressive! Vadim never worked with A-M, which is rather a pity.)

Inevitably, Bardot’s stardom—and the fact he’d known her since her teenage years—ended the Vadim marriage in 1957. She would marry again in 1959, the handsome actor Jacques Charrier, her co-star in the charming (and blessedly non-exploitive) Babette Goes to War. They had a child, but soon the young couple were at war. It was her career, of course. Who could be married to this symbol, who created such a frenzy? She attempted suicide. They reconciled, but eventually parted. Bardot then made one of the most adult decisions of her life when she granted custody of their son, Nicolas, to Charrier. Years later she explained: “I was still a child myself, really. I couldn’t raise a child.”

Despite pleas from Hollywood, Bardot remained firmly on French ground and her career continued apace. She was tauntingly perverse in The Truth; acted out aspects of her own relentlessly publicized life in A Very Private Affair; remarkably good as the dissatisfied wife in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Contempt; persuasively torn as a woman caught in an abusive relationship in Love On a Pillow; and wickedly entertaining with Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle’s musical, Viva Maria! (Bardot had a lovely voice and could dance, too. She recorded a great many popular hits in the 1960s and 70s.)

After Viva Maria!, with the exception of the underrated romantic melodrama, Two Weeks In September, Bardot’s films began to seem very much the same, and lacking in quality. But that hardly mattered. The swinging sixties were kind to Bardot. She looked divine in mini-skirts, in boots, dancing at discothèques, tossing her famous mane of blonde hair wildly. There were romances and the paparazzi never tired of catching Bardot and her latest flame lounging half-dressed in St.Tropez. Her fame remained undiminished. BB even agreed to appear briefly—as herself—in an American film, Dear Brigitte. Once again, Hollywood hoped to snare her. She was not inclined. Her homegrown worship was enough. (Likely, she knew she might not survive the cutthroat ways of L.A.’s dealmakers, agents, and PR people. European filmmaking was considerably more relaxed.)

Bardot married for the third time in 1966, to German playboy and millionaire Gunther Sachs. It looked good on paper, and in the papers—they were a much sought-after couple—but by 1969, they had had the best of each other, and parted.

Now single again, and with her career sputtering, or at least not progressing, BB thought more about retiring before her fans had to face the inevitable—a no longer nubile BB. When she did announce her retirement in 1973, nobody believed her. As usual, many thought she would segue to America and test those waters, but Bardot was as good as her word.  Although she did not abandon her image—she posed for Playboy the following year to celebrate her 40th birthday, there would no more BB onscreen ever again.

Brigitte Bardot
Brigitte Bardot

In the vacuum of her retirement, BB asserted herself for a cause she had always been close to—animal rights. I recall interviewing George Hamilton, who was the male star of Viva Maria! What was Bardot like? Hamilton, who is never at a loss of innumerable words, replied: “To be honest, all I recall about Bardot is that she was surrounded by animals. Of every kind. That’s it, that’s the impression she made.” 

She condemned seal hunting, the consumption of horse meat. She became a vegetarian and, naturally, gave away every fur she’d ever owned. In 1986, BB established the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals. In time she would auction off jewelry and other personal belongings for the cause. “I gave my youth and beauty to men. I am going to give my wisdom and experience to animals,” she declared. 

Bardot also did something else extraordinary—she aged, naturally. The St.Tropez sun had done its damage, the years piled on. BB remained untouched. No lifts, no skin peels, no attempt to stop nature. She appeared in public, gave press conferences and interviews (usually having to do with the animal rights issues) and never flinched. When she was 50 she said: “Well, it is not terribly nice to be fifty and to look fifty, but…what else can one do?” Her sisters in cinema, Simone Signoret, Jeanne Moreau, and others displayed themselves in similar fashion, but Bardot would not return to the screen as an older woman. Not a recluse (like Dietrich) or a fantasist (like Mae West) but a woman who valued the image she created. Unlike so many others, Bardot was able to free herself from that image.

In 1992, BB married Bernard d’ Ormale, a far right politician. Although Brigitte keeps to herself more or less, she has engendered some unpleasant publicity with remarks that have been seen as bigoted in a number of ways, towards a number of groups. On the other hand, she has referred to Sarah Palin as “stupid…a disgrace to women.” So, let’s give BB a big break at age 82.

I do not linger on the later/current Bardot. She herself would refer us, with a wry smile, to her halcyon days as the world’s most provocative, desirable woman. She was wise in the ways of image and myth and the fallibility of those things.

It would not be vanity for her to say, “Look at And God Created Woman. Because likely she would add: “Isn’t that what you want, what you need? How foolish. I was not her. She was not me. We were similar but not the same. I am Brigitte Bardot. But I am not ‘BB.’”