FRENCH model-turned-actress Brigitte Bardot embodied the half-girl, half-woman quality of a real-life Lolita. Sensual and nanve at once, the French “sex kitten” titillated audiences with her protracted promise of striptease. She was discovered by director Marc Allegret’s assistant, Roger Vadim, when he spotted her on the cover of Elle magazine in 1950. The fifteen-year-old Bardot fell hard for the opportunistic director-wannabe, much to the chagrin of her society matron mother and industrialist father: their tractable young daughter had brought home a tomcat. It must have been a struggle for them: Brigitte had always been such a lovely child, such a good girl, really–she had submitted quietly to her governess, her ballet lessons, the family vacations. She would have married someone of suitable pedigree, and faded politely into a life of marital obscurity if it hadn’t been for that damnable magazine cover. Despite the Bardots’ best efforts to put a stop to the nonsense, they managed only to delay Brigitte’s marriage until after her eighteenth birthday. Vadim claimed her hand in 1952.
The Vadim Effect
Long before their wedding day, Vadim had busied himself with styling his future bride as a newfangled screen Venus to embody post-war France’s modern filmmaking movement, the nouvelle vague. Under his tutelage, Bardot shed her demure, upper-class petite jeune fille frocks in favor of blue jeans, and adopted a sexy unkempt sailor’s-knot hairstyle and an incessant pout. Though the couple would see some lean years trying to achieve Vadim’s vision (he became quite the master at sculpting sex symbols in subsequent romantic-professional relationships with his next two wives, Annette Stroyberg and Jane Fonda, and with Catherine Deneuve), they finally set the world aflame with Bardot’s semi-clad sexual athletics in Vadim’s first major directorial effort, Et Dieu . . . CrTa la Femme (And God Created Woman, 1956). The paparazzi fueled Bardot’s instant cult following (she was named “The Girl I’d Most Like To Go to the Moon With” by one publication), and she became an object of rumor, adulation, and impersonation, much like her modern-day equivalent, Madonna. Bardot’s new-found celebrity weighed heavy on her, and, not surprisingly, the film’s completion marked the demise of her marriage. After divorcing Vadim, Bardot became the subject of even more worldwide sensationalistic attention, as the press gleefully ticked off her numerous headline-making affairs with her various leading men, her subsequent marriages, and her plaguing death wish, which resulted in at least four suicide attempts.
Although Bardot’s career would slowly trail out in a procession of numbingly similar flicks (which, more than anything, provided a showcase for tantalizing glimpses of her stark-naked beauty), she quickly became a fashion influence to nymphet wannabes all over the world: hairdressers cashed in on Brigitte ‘dos, and haute couture houses released lines of Brigitte blue jeans; young women took to wearing the men’s button-down shirts, cigarette pants, and ballet-slipper pumps she popularized, and dispensed with smiles in favor of sultry gamine pouts. Like Marlene Dietrich before her, Bardot was employed by directors more as an aesthetic and sexual ideal than as an actress; the exception was her performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), an outing that provided her with one shining, if underappreciated, opportunity to demonstrate her untapped versatility as an actress.
Retirement and Activism
Bardot retired from the screen in 1974 and has since attempted to “erase the Bardot legend” by devoting herself–some would say too strenuously–to various animal-rights causes. Her first major crusade, on behalf of baby seals (whose snow-white fur had long been culled for coats), brought Bardot worldwide attention as a militant activist, and her efforts did indeed help stop the clubbing of these small sea mammals. Bardot’s press has since ranged from laudable to laughable (indeed in 1997 Bardot was successfully sued by her son Nicholas and his father, actor Jacques Charrier, for some rather unflattering comments she made about them in her recently published memoir, Initiales B.B.. She ponied up $26,000 for referring to her ex-husband as “a vulgar, dictatorial, and uncontrolled macho, a gigolo, alcoholic and despicable,” and $17,000 for calling her son a “tumor feeding off me.”) but she still remains an icon for everything that is sexy and stylish.