FASHION : Brigitte Bardot, Then and Now : In her youth, the actress was a sex object. Now, it seems, she is an object only of ridicule.


With two screen goddesses reaching their 60th birthdays this month, it would be nice to draw a parallel moral on time and fading beauty, but Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot have taken so differently to senior citizenship that we are left to muse on the cruelty of the coincidence.

Loren has worn the years well, aging with her myth. Her birthday pictures, all glamour and elegance, epitomize the modern dream that time's hand can be stayed, preserving youth and sex appeal into a seventh decade.

In Bardot's case, the lesson is of a different kind. There are no Loren-style glamour shots to celebrate B.B.'s birthday. Her only public outing of late has been to defend the wolf of the Vosges, an elusive animal that has made headlines for killing sheep. "Just leave him alone," she pleaded to the hunters who are out to bag the animal.

But Bardot's sun-weathered and unlifted features are familiar from her infrequent appearances on behalf of dogs, donkeys, whales, bulls, horses and all the other fauna to which she has devoted herself since, as she puts it, "I gave my beauty and my youth to men."

Ever jealous of her image, she sends lawyers leaping to protect her from anything outside those tightly controlled occasions where the light is kept soft and television cameras avoid close-ups of the famous pout and the hair still piled high, the look once copied by females around the world.

Bardot has not forgiven that world, which she once said robbed her of her life, and the feeling in her homeland this month seems to be somewhat mutual. Just as B.B. transcended movies to stand as the symbol of an epoch, her aging seems to be resented in a France obsessed these days by its lost innocence.

"It's because of Bardot that women do not exist. She killed them like Parker killed the saxophone," L'Express magazine noted recently as one television channel devoted a night to her films.

Bardot has long been the source of unease in France. Even though she emerged in retirement in the 1970s as a national monument, with her likeness given to Marianne, the allegory of the Republic whose bust sits in every town hall, she was reviled by many in her years of greatest fame. Women spat at her in the street, priests denounced her from the pulpit, and the press chronicled with morbid delight the misfortunes of her marriages, the abandonment of her baby son and her suicide attempts.

Roger Vadim, her Svengali, had barely launched her in "And God Created Woman" in 1956 when the intellectuals were already trying to fathom the deep trouble that she was inflicting on the French psyche. In a celebrated essay, Simone de Beauvoir diagnosed the threat she posed as a force of nature. Catholic, strait-laced France, said an approving De Beauvoir, could not swallow such a shameless hussy.

Bardot was a femme fatale who was not a cinematic artifice like Ava Gardner or Marilyn Monroe, but a barefoot waif with a predatory sexual appetite.

Loren, De Beauvoir wrote in 1959, was the former type, a "full-blown woman" shaped by moguls to appeal to men. Bardot, in turn, was "the perfect specimen of the ambiguous nymph." As France knew, Juliette, the wanton gamine of "And God Created Woman," was Bardot herself, not a figment of fiction.

With the birthday, France is being reminded of those pre-Pill years, when happiness was a white convertible speeding to Saint-Trop' down the Route Nationale 7. A younger generation, saturated with the vulgarities of Madonna and the sexless B.B. mimicry of Claudia Schiffer, is being offered a glimpse of a seemingly sweeter age.

In old black-and-white newsreels, B.B. dazzles along with those other marvels of Gallic superiority, the DS Citroen, the Caravelle jet and the haughty silhouette of Charles de Gaulle. The documentaries and the rebroadcasting of some of her four dozen films are reminding the country of the way a single Frenchwoman held the world in thrall.

B.B., we are reminded, achieved her initial glory thanks to America, where Vadim's film, with its nudity and lovemaking, was a scandalous sensation after it flopped initially at home. No French product since then has managed to grip the American imagination in the way that Bardot did, and she never even worked in Hollywood.

As an export industry, De Beauvoir said, she had become more powerful than Renault cars. In 1960 France, an age before pop stars or sportsmen had scaled the celebrity heights, a poll showed that B.B. was the main topic of conversation in 47% of all households.

Yet, watching those old newsreels, you can see the torment that was being inflicted on a woman whom France would not allow to grow up and lead her own life. "She only pleased us on condition that she was not allowed to exist," Le Figaro remarked recently.

You can see the pain already there in the newsreels as she faces walls of reporters whose questions seem as archaic in 1994 as their trilby hats and big box cameras.

"What do you think of free love, Miss Bardot?" they asked her in New York on her first American trip, in 1965. "I don't think when I am making love," she replied. "Will you still be like this at 60?" another man asked. "I'll never be 60 because, between then and now, I'm certain science will make a lot of progress," she answered.

In a way, she was right, because the Bardot who turned 60 on Wednesday considers herself to be entering the third decade of another life, the one she began when she abandoned acting in 1973.

"You have to understand that everything before my work with animals has nothing to do with me," she told Jeffrey Robinson, her latest biographer, earlier this year. "The woman who made those movies, that's not me."

For France this month, she is two people. There is the B.B. of the cinema, brought down by the trail of broken marriages and self-indulgence, but fondly remembered as the icon of France's postwar rebirth. And there is Mme. Bardot--the embittered animal activist, scourge of horse butchers, nuisance to politicians, wife of a far-right political figure and butt of jokes at the corner bistro. This is the one that Globe magazine described the other day as "ridiculously eternal."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World