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Monday 11 December 2017

The French movie icon, who is celebrating her 78th birthday, retired at the height of her fame -- but she has no regrets

Last week, at her secluded property in Saint Tropez, Brigitte Anne-Marie Bardot celebrated her 78th birthday. She has never resorted to plastic surgery, looks like any other well-to-do French old lady, and hasn't made a film in almost 40 years. Yet her every move is still scrutinised by the press, and high walls have been erected around her home to protect her from the attentions of over-zealous paparazzi.

Bardot retired from filmmaking in 1973 to devote herself completely to her sacred cause of animal welfare. But her right-wing political views have kept her in the news in France, and every now and then she emerges from her self-imposed exile to rattle the cages of respectable society by giving an outrageous interview.

She did so a couple of weeks back, and gave some revealing insights into why she decided to retire from films at the height of her international celebrity.

In an interview with Vogue Hommes International, Bardot said that she'd ultimately become "fed up" with fame, and had felt "literally crushed by celebrity".

In her youth, she said, she had "tried to make myself as pretty as possible, and even then I thought I was ugly. I found it very difficult to go out, to show myself -- I was afraid of not living up to what people expected of me".

"Nobody can imagine how appalling it was," she concluded. "A nightmare. I couldn't live like that."

In case you think Bardot is exaggerating about the pressure she was under, it's worth reminding ourselves just what a cultural phenomenon the Paris-born dancer and actress was.

After breaking through with an explosively sensual performance in a dodgy Roger Vadim film called And God Created Woman in 1956, Bardot became an object of desire in France, America and across the world.

Her hairstyles were copied, Andy Warhol painted her, the Beatles and Bob Dylan became besotted with her and Simone de Beauvoir decided she was a "locomotive of women's history" and the first truly liberated woman in postwar France.

Even the normally stiff and reserved French president, Charles de Gaulle, was impressed, calling Bardot a "French export as important as Renault".

She became known merely by her surname, and was one of the first people to suffer the full horror of 24-hour media intrusion. But in fact, Bardot wasn't initially much of an actress, and became a global superstar despite appearing in a long string of extremely ordinary films.

The future firebrand was born in 1934 into a comfortable but stiflingly respectable middle-class Parisian family. Her father, Louis Bardot, was an engineer and businessman, her mother, Anne-Marie Mucel, a housewife and ostentatious Catholic.

At the age of seven, Brigitte was encouraged by her mother to take dance classes, and at one point hoped to become a ballerina. That never happened, but her ballet training left her with a uniquely graceful posture that soon got her noticed.

In 1949, at the age of 15, she was asked to model in a small fashion show by a friend of her mother's. She was spotted by several women's magazines, and within a year had ended up on the cover of Elle.

The young Bardot had cropped brown hair and a gamine look, but Roger Vadim would change all that. The colourful filmmaker and impresario was enchanted by the young model when he saw the Elle cover, and became convinced she could become an international star.

He sought the 16-year-old out and persuaded her to grow her hair, dye it blonde and have a go at acting. He also married her, much to her mother's disgust, once she'd turned 18.

Bardot made her film debut in 1952, in an indifferent comedy called Le Trou Normand. Over the next four years she would appear in more than a dozen equally trite films, but the instant stardom Vadim had envisaged did not initially materialise.

She made more of a splash through the early 1950s at the Festival de Cannes, where her confident sexuality upstaged more established Hollywood stars. But she remained a minor starlet until Vadim cast her in And God Created Woman.

It was a silly film, but Bardot was a sensation playing an oversexed nymph who threatens the equilibrium of a small French town. She was luscious, dangerous, insolent and graceful all at the same time, and much less of a prepackaged male fantasy than the likes of Marilyn Monroe.

Bardot seemed in total control of her sexuality, but not everyone was impressed. The bourgeois class from which she'd emerged was horrified by her 'shameful' excesses. After And God Created Woman came out she was abused by strangers -- mainly women, it has to be said -- and spat at in the street.

The film was panned by French critics, but in America it became an unlikely hit. A scene where she dances barefoot with her hair dishevelled and her skin glistening with sweat is now regarded as one of the defining moments in cinema history. Teenage boys across America flocked to see her, and she became a star.

"In fact, I owe everything to the Americans," Bardot later said, but paradoxically she resisted Hollywood's strenuous attempts to woo her.

Time and again she turned down plumb roles opposite the likes of Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra, and rejected a million dollar offer to star in movie with Marlon Brando.

She appeared disinterested in her chosen profession, and was always dismissive of her abilities. "I started out as a lousy actress," she once said, "and have remained one."

And while she did appear in a number of fine films through the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Jean-Luc Godard's classic, Le Mépris (1963), she was always more of a social phenomenon than a mere film star.

After divorcing Vadim in 1958, she married twice more through the 1960s and had affairs with actor Jean-Louis Trintignant and pop star Serge Gainsborough.

Gainsborough wrote several songs for her, some of which she performed with him. But as the 1970s dawned, she became increasingly disenchanted with fame, and showbusiness.

In 1974, in a typically rebellious gesture, she celebrated her 40th birthday by posing nude for Playboy. But the same year, she retired from filmmaking and retreated to her beloved Madrague estate in St Tropez.

She has never regretted that decision. "I was sick of it," she told Vanity Fair last year. "Good thing I stopped, because what happened to Marilyn Monroe and Romy Schneider would have happened to me."

Cinema's loss has been animal welfare's gain. While she was filming on location, Bardot had started picking up stray dogs, cats and even goats and sheep destined for the slaughterhouse. And after she stopped acting she turned her Saint Tropez compound into a sanctuary for animals of all kinds.

Bardot has campaigned very effectively against vivisection, bullfights, industrial animals farms, hunting and the wearing of fur.

But she's also become associated with France's far right since her fourth marriage to Front National adviser Bernard d'Ormale in 1992. In 2012, Bardot vocally supported Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections, and she has always been outspoken about immigration.

She even earned a stiff fine from a French court for saying that "France, my homeland, is again invaded by an overpopulation of foreigners, especially Muslims".

But at this stage Bardot seems immune to public criticism, and content with the causes that have dominated the second half of her life. "I wasn't scandalous," she has said, "I didn't want to be. I wanted to be myself. Only myself."

pwhitington@independent.ie

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