Brigitte Bardot at 80 / Still outrageous, outspoken and controversial
Brigitte Bardot at 80: still outrageous, outspoken and controversial
Since her first public appearance in 1950, BB, the screen icon who turned her back on film fame, has courted scandal
by Agnès Poirier
The Observer, Saturday 20 September 2014
Brigitte Bardot in 1965. Photograph: Alamy
The woman Paris-Match deemed "immoral, from head to toe" in 1958, is turning 80 in a few days. "The most beautiful woman in the world" may have chosen to leave the limelight in 1973, at the peak of her fame and beauty, to dedicate her life to animals, yet Brigitte Bardot has never ceased to be a controversial figure.
Some anecdotes speak volumes. On the evening of 7 December 1967, Paris held its breath. Charles de Gaulle and Brigitte Bardot were about to meet for the first time. Le général had invited the film star to the Elysée Palace. And in shocking breach of Elysée protocol, which at the time banned trousers for women as evening wear, Bardot arrived dressed as a Napoleonic hussar. With gold braiding and more than a dozen rows of shiny buttons covering her chest, she had her long blond mane loose over her shoulders, and her eyes neatly circled with black kohl eyeliner. The chamberlain at the Elysée must have felt a cold sweat down his spine when he saw her walking up the steps in such attire. The star and the general met on the steps. She was the first to talk: "Bonjour, mon général," she said, a little shy. De Gaulle, feigning to inspect the frogs on her dolman, replied: "Indeed! Madame." Panache is the word, and they both showed plenty during their lives, albeit in very different fashion and circumstances.
Unlike other screen goddesses of the time such as Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren (who had her 80th birthday on Saturday), Brigitte Bardot was not a working-class lass. She came from a very bourgeois, pious Catholic family, living in a seven-bedroom apartment in the plush 16th arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Eiffel Tower. Having studied ballet for three years from the age of 13 at the Paris Conservatory (her fellow dance mate, Leslie Caron, would later be picked up by Gene Kelly to star alongside him in the Technicolor masterpiece An American in Paris), she developed the elegant poise and gait which would soon fascinate the world.
On 8 March 1950, at 15, Brigitte Bardot appeared on the cover of Ellemagazine, and the Earth's axis shifted. Here was the epitome of grace and style. She was demure, she was a Catholic, she was all curves, and yet her body was toned and strong; an athlete's build sculpted by intense sessions of entrechats. She wore uncorseted cotton dresses with no elaborate lining and bright-coloured pattern bikinis. With Françoise Sagan, who penned the bestseller Bonjour Tristesse at 17, she shared an impudent smile, an intelligent gaze and barefoot summers in St Tropez. They were France's bright prodigies. After Bardot's early "retirement" from cinema, Sagan wrote a book about her in 1975, both a celebration and a eulogy: "Bardot didn't apologise for her absolute triumph whereas so many others apologised for their half-victories."
The innocentjeune fillegrew, in just a few years, into a sex symbol. In 1957, age 23, she made cinematic history inAnd God Created Woman, her husband Roger Vadim's seminal film, where her exploding sensuality is as graceful as ever, and never lewd. In a famous scene, she dances as if in a trance, barefoot, her skin glowing with sweat, her hair wild and loose. Her thighs, that of a dancer, are tanned, strong and muscular. She is so far from the neat and constructed image of Hollywood stars of the time that, when the film was released in America, it provoked outrage on a continental scale. When they saw those pearls of sweat, American men went wild. Movie managers daring to show such a film were prosecuted, the film was banned in some states and newspaper articles denounced the depravity of it all. As a result, the film proved an even greater box-office success and the furore travelled back toEurope.
"Ban Bardot!" advocated the morality leagues as if she were some kind of illegal drug. Bardot's appeal is, in fact, unlike any other. Based on her great beauty, a combination of ravenous sensuality and great style, she also fascinated at least two generations because of her lifestyle. For Bardot behaved in her private life just like a man. She had no restraints; she felt alien to convention. She was no wife and no mother. She tried both, was married four times and had a child, and decided she was not cut out for it. She was not acting out any kind of rebellion, she was just being herself. In the 50s, 15 years before les événements of May 1968, such behaviour was both a scandal and a secret aspiration for many other women. In a study of Bardot published in 1959, the other French woman who lived her life outside bourgeois conventions, Simone de Beauvoir, had recognised in Bardot "absolute freedom". Her lifestyle, for many admirers, amounted to a philosophical manifesto.
Serial biographer Marie-Dominique Lelièvre says of all the stars she turned her attention to, from Yves Saint Laurent to Coco Chanel by way of Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Sagan, Bardot is the most complex personality she has encountered, her celebrity having worked as a smokescreen. "She is the first woman to have publicly displayed her sexual freedom," said Lelièvre. "Before Bardot, a woman who changed lover at the slightest whim was called a bitch, a salope. After Bardot, such a woman was simply seen as libérée. Unlike Hollywood actresses who played by the rules, Bardot set her own. She attracted women who wanted to do like her, and men who simply wanted her." John Lennon, mad about the girl, had a giant poster of Bardot pinned on the ceiling of his bedroom. Gainsbourg wrote her a song after they broke up in 1968 called Initials BB in which he sings: "All the way to her thighs, she is booted, and it's like a chalice to her beauty; she wears nothing other than some essence of Guerlain in her hair."
Today, still, Bardot is an icon. "Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse owe her a lot," explains Marie-Dominique Lelièvre. And a controversial one. Unlike Faye Dunaway, Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, and almost any movie beauty of her stature, Bardot has never resorted to cosmetic surgery. "She has never avoided the cruel gaze of the mirror. She withstands ageing with aplomb." Nevertheless, all is not well in Bardotland. Having lived for decades as a recluse in her two properties in St Tropez, unable to go out without being harassed by fans and paparazzi, she has developed, says her biographer, "a rather distorted view of the world", concentrating only on her foundation for the protection and welfare of animals. Opposed to what she sees as the inherent cruelty of the halal process in killing animals, she has made anti-Muslim comments for which she was condemned by French courts and made to pay hefty fines. Between 1997 and 2008 she faced French judges five times for "incitement to racial hatred". On the last occasion she received a €15,000 fine. She was condemned for saying: "I am fed up with being under the thumb of this population [the Muslim community] which is destroying us, destroying our country and imposing its acts." She was referring to the lack of anaesthetics before slaughtering sheep. "Animals are her whole life, and being the spontaneous woman she is, she expresses opinions that she should simply keep for herself. She doesn't really understand that being Bardot, her words, carry a certain weight. On many levels, she has remained an insouciant and egocentric child," says Lelièvre.
Then there is the question of her apparent flirtation with the Front National. But, according to Lelièvre, the extent of her far-right sympathies can be overdone: "Brigitte Bardot's husband is a friend of Jean-Marie Le Pen, but neither of them is a party member. Bardot is not racist and not an extreme-right activist." In fact, says Lelièvre, any attempt to classify Bardot is futile. "Bardot is Bardot, she defies definition."
Born 28 September 1934. Father, Louis, was an engineer. She studied ballet at the Conservatoire de Paris and began modelling at 14.
Career Shot to fame in 1956 after writhing on a beach in cult film And God Created Woman. She starred in 47 films. She retired in 1973 "fed up" with fame and wanting to devote her life to animals.
Family Married film director Roger Vadim at 18. Divorced five years later. Then wed actor Jacques Charrier, having her only child, Nicolas. Later married German millionaire Gunter Sachs. In 1992, she married Bernard d'Ormale, former adviser to the far-right Front National. In 2012, she supported the Front National leader Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election.