Bardot appeared on the cover of Elle again in 1952, which landed her a movie offer for the comedy Crazy for Love (1952), starring Bourvil and directed by Jean Boyer. She was paid 200,000 francs (€4,700 in 2019 euros) for the small role portraying a cousin of the main character. Bardot had her second film role in Manina, the Girl in the Bikini (1953), directed by Willy Rozier. She also had roles in the films The Long Teeth and His Father’s Portrait (both 1953). Bardot had a small role in a Hollywood-financed film being shot in Paris, Act of Love (1953), starring Kirk Douglas. She received media attention when she attended the Cannes Film Festival in April 1953. Bardot had a leading role in an Italian melodrama, Concert of Intrigue (1954) and in a French adventure film, Caroline and the Rebels (1954). She had a good part as a flirtatious student in School for Love (1955), opposite Jean Marais, for director Marc Allégret. Bardot played her first sizeable English-language role in Doctor at Sea (1955), as the love interest for Dirk Bogarde. The film was the third-most popular movie at the British box-office that year. She had a small role in The Grand Maneuver (1955) for director René Clair, supporting Gérard Philipe and Michelle Morgan. The part was bigger in The Light Across the Street (1956) for director Georges Lacombe. She did another with Hollywood film, Helen of Troy, playing Helen’s handmaiden. For the Italian movie Mio figlio Nerone (1956) Bardot was asked by the director to appear as a blonde. Rather than wear a wig to hide her naturally brunette hair she decided to dye her hair. She was so pleased with the results that she decided to retain the hair colour.
Bardot then appeared in four movies that made her a star. First up was a musical, Naughty Girl (1956), where Bardot played a troublesome school girl. Directed by Michel Boisrond, it was co-written by Roger Vadim and was a big hit, the 12th most popular film of the year in France. It was followed by a comedy, Plucking the Daisy (1956), written by Vadim with the director Marc Allégret, and another success at France. So too was the comedy The Bride Is Much Too Beautiful (1956) with Louis Jourdan. Finally there was the melodrama And God Created Woman (1956), Vadim’s debut as director, with Bardot starring opposite Jean-Louis Trintignant and Curt Jurgens. The film, about an immoral teenager in a respectable small-town setting, was a huge success, not just in France but also around the world – it was among the ten most popular films in Britain in 1957. It turned Bardot into an international star. From at least 1956, she was being hailed as the “sex kitten”. The film scandalized the United States and theatre managers were arrested for screening it. During her early career, professional photographer Sam Lévin’s photos contributed to the image of Bardot’s sensuality. One showed Bardot from behind, dressed in a white corset. British photographer Cornel Lucas made images of Bardot in the 1950s and 1960s that have become representative of her public persona. Bardot followed And God Created Woman with La Parisienne (1957), a comedy co-starring Charles Boyer for director Boisrond. She was reunited with Vadim in another melodrama The Night Heaven Fell (1958) and played a criminal who seduced Jean Gabin in In Case of Adversity (1958). The latter was the 13th most seen movie of the year in France. The Female (1959) for director Julien Duvivier was popular, but Babette Goes to War (1959), a comedy set in World War II, was a huge hit, the fourth biggest movie of the year in France. Also widely seen was Come Dance with Me (1959) from Boisrond. Her next film was the courtroom drama The Truth (1960), from Henri-Georges Clouzot. It was a highly publicised production, which resulted in Bardot having an affair and attempting suicide. The film was Bardot’s biggest ever commercial success in France, the third biggest hit of the year, and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. Bardot was awarded a David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign actress for her role in the film. She made a comedy with Vadim, Please, Not Now! (1961) and had a role in the all-star anthology, Famous Love Affairs (1962). Bardot starred alongside Marcello Mastroianni in a film inspired by her life in A Very Private Affair (Vie privée, 1962), directed by Louis Malle. More popular in France was Love on a Pillow (1962), another for Vadim.
In the mid-1960s, Bardot made films which seemed to be more aimed at the international market. She starred in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mépris (1963), produced by Joseph E. Levine and starring Jack Palance. The following year she co-starred with Anthony Perkins in the comedy Une ravissante idiote (1964). Dear Brigitte (1965), Bardot’s first Hollywood film, was a comedy starring James Stewart as an academic whose son develops a crush on Bardot. Bardot’s appearance was relatively brief and the film was not a big hit. More successful was the Western buddy comedy Viva Maria! (1965) for director Louis Malle, appearing opposite Jeanne Moreau. It was a big hit in France and around the world although it did not break through in the US as much as it had been hoped. After a cameo in Godard’s Masculin Féminin (1966), she had her first outright flop for some years, Two Weeks in September (1968), a French–English co-production. She had a small role in the all-star Spirits of the Dead (1968), acting opposite Alain Delon, then tried a Hollywood film again: Shalako (1968), a Western starring Sean Connery, which was a box-office disappointment. She participated in several musical shows and recorded many popular songs in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly in collaboration with Serge Gainsbourg, Bob Zagury and Sacha Distel, including “Harley Davidson”; “Je Me Donne À Qui Me Plaît”; “Bubble gum”; “Contact”; “Je Reviendrai Toujours Vers Toi”; “L’Appareil À Sous”; “La Madrague”; “On Déménage”; “Sidonie”; “Tu Veux, Ou Tu Veux Pas?”; “Le Soleil De Ma Vie” (the cover of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”); and “Je t’aime… moi non-plus”. Bardot pleaded with Gainsbourg not to release this duet and he complied with her wishes; the following year, he rerecorded a version with British-born model and actress Jane Birkin that became a massive hit all over Europe. The version with Bardot was issued in 1986 and became a popular download hit in 2006 when Universal Music made its back catalogue available to purchase online, with this version of the song ranking as the third most popular download.
From 1969 to 1978, Bardot was the official face of Marianne (who had previously been anonymous) to represent the liberty of France. Les Femmes (1969) was a flop, although the screwball comedy The Bear and the Doll (1970) performed slightly better. Her last few films were mostly comedies: Les Novices (1970), Boulevard du Rhum (1971) (with Lino Ventura). The Legend of Frenchie King (1971) was more popular, helped by Bardot co-starring with Claudia Cardinale. She made one more with Vadim, Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman (1973), playing the title role. Vadim said the film marked “Underneath what people call ‘the Bardot myth’ was something interesting, even though she was never considered the most professional actress in the world. For years, since she has been growing older, and the Bardot myth has become just a souvenir… I was curious in her as a woman and I had to get to the end of something with her, to get out of her and express many things I felt were in her. Brigitte always gave the impression of sexual freedom – she is a completely open and free person, without any aggression. So I gave her the part of a man – that amused me”. “If Don Juan is not my last movie it will be my next to last”, said Bardot during filming. She kept her word and only made one more film, The Edifying and Joyous Story of Colinot (1973). In 1973, Bardot announced she was retiring from acting as “a way to get out elegantly”.