In a nod to Bastille Day — marking the July 14, 1789, storming of the Paris prison of French Revolution fame — I popped into a small jewel of a photo show called “BB Forever,” 30 images of Brigitte Bardot in all her seductive Gallic glory, displayed at the swank Sofitel hotel just blocks from the White House.
From her 1952 teenage film debut in “Crazy for Love,” playing a coquettish tease possessed of great sass, until her 1973 showbiz retirement as she was turning 40, France’s answer to Marilyn Monroe rode the arc of a global goddess.
Known for her tousled hair, pouty lips, heavy eyeliner, deep cleavage, adorable overbite and joie de vivre, Bardot “has first and foremost an intense and extraordinary charisma,” writes French journalist Henry-Jean Servat in the fulsome exhibition catalogue. “With her phenomenal physique and sparkling personality, Brigitte illuminated the becalmed and dreary postwar landscape like a dazzling dream on a mid-summer night.”
But nowhere pictured or mentioned in this exhibition are the fines and criminal convictions Bardot racked up over the years for “inciting racial hatred” by railing against Islam, Muslims and what she considers lax French immigration laws.
Just as we see no images of Bardot in the Arctic or South Africa trying to save the seals, there are no references to her anti-Muslim writings and rants that start with ritual Islamic slaughter of sheep that segue into diatribes against what she calls the Muslim-ization of France.
Rather, this is a carefully curated homage to the aspiring young ballerina and occasional model who was lured onto the silver screen after being spotted on the cover of Elle magazine.
She made some 40 films in her career, many of them during the 1960s, when a young Mitt Romney was in France serving as a Mormon missionary. It’s unlikely he ever ducked into a local cinema to catch her in “Love on a Pillow” or “Agent 38-24-36.” The only Brigtte and Barack reference I found was a 2009 request for his help saving Canadian seals a month after he took office.
For a time, she became the very face of France itself, her features used in official busts of “Marianne,” the feminine embodiment of the Republic, an honor latter conferred on Catherine Deneuve, among others.
Now, 60 years later, some might ask after one too many a cognac or 'tini, is Bardot alive or dead?
Quite alive, actually: 77, and living in St. Tropez on the French Riviera where, back in 1956, she and her magnificently filled-out bikini were paparazzi catnip. “And God Created Woman,” about an enticing young orphan who wreaks exuberant sexual havoc on a series of small-town men, was not an instant hit that year in France.
But its U.S. release — banned or slammed by everyone from Southern governors to something called the League of Feminine Virtue — gave it newfound cachet back home, writes Servat, author of 35 cine-centric books.
The rest is history: Four husbands (the first, at 18, was writer/director Roger Vadim, who eight years later wed a very young Jane Fonda; the fourth and current, Bernard d’Ormale, is a strong backer of the ultra-right National Front party); countless affairs (BB once revealed her favorite time of day was night); and a second career as a fierce champion of animals (sheep, goats, pigs, horses, cats, dogs and a donkey have free rein in her living room, Servat reports, and much of her energy goes to her Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals). She is also a vegetarian and breast cancer survivor.
Bardot didn’t just act and dance. She was a singer, too, though she would not allow the release of heavy-breathing duet and worldwide mega-hit “J’Taime ... Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You … Me Neither”) she recorded with Serge Gainsbourg, who instead released it with his lover, Jane Birkin. BB finally said “oui” to their original version in 1986.
So why should we care about Brigitte Bardot, given her swing from goddess to demagogue?
Because during her earlier years, she pushed the envelope for women, whether showing them how to revel in their own sexuality — we are talking the repressed ’50s and free-wheeling ’60s, after all — or daring to arrive at a state occasion in trousers, writes Servat.
“Brigitte was asked to wear a little black dress and tie her hair in a chignon. Ignoring protocol in a palace where Madame de Gaulle still refused to receive anyone divorced, she showed up on the arm of her third husband, Gunter Sachs, in a hussar jacket and pant suit, loose hair flowing down her back. Conservatives went almost apoplectic.”
Because, says Roland Celette, cultural attache at the Embassy of France in Washington, “she was the only French actress to be so widely recognized in the United States,” while fascinating her own countrymen. Celette, who was born in 1955, recalls “so many girls around me were named Brigitte, my grandfather called a doll in his house Brigitte Bardot. She was a phenomenon.”
Why else should we care? Because, however distasteful her politics may be today, once upon a time, a radiant creature named Brigitte Bardot taught me, and legions of other young women, that every now and again, it’s okay to be a sex symbol, if only in our own boudoirs. And for that I say, Vive la France!
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post staffer who writes widely about politics, culture and design. Her work has appeared in Politics Daily, the New York Times, Town & Country and Washingtonian. She is at work on a memoir.