Rise to fame
Fox cast Bisset in her first lead part in The Cape Town Affair, opposite James Brolin, filmed in South Africa. She gained mainstream recognition in 1968 when she replaced Mia Farrow as Norma MacIver in The Detective, opposite Frank Sinatra. The film was made at Fox, whose executives had been impressed by Bisset’s performance in Two for the Road. The same year, she co-starred with Michael Sarrazin in Fox’s The Sweet Ride, which brought her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. She capped her year as Steve McQueen’s girlfriend in the police drama Bullitt, which was among the top five highest-grossing films of the year.
In 1969, Bisset had the starring role in the sex comedy The First Time. The same year, she appeared in Secret World. She was one of the many stars in the 1970 disaster film Airport; her role was that of a pregnant stewardess carrying Dean Martin’s love child. It was a huge hit. Bisset had another starring part in The Grasshopper (1970), which was little seen, and was in The Mephisto Waltz (1971) with Alan Alda. She had the lead in the comedy Stand Up and Be Counted (1972). More popular was The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), where she played the daughter of Paul Newman’s title character. She played the female lead in The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973) with Ryan O’Neal, stepping in for a pregnant Charlotte Rampling.
Bisset went to France to appear in François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), earning the respect of European critics and moviegoers as a serious actress. She stayed in France to make Le Magnifique (1973) with Jean-Paul Belmondo, a hit in France but little seen in English-speaking countries. Bisset was one of many stars in the British whodunnit Murder on the Orient Express (1974), an enormous success. In Britain she starred in the remake of The Spiral Staircase (1975). Bisset went to Germany for End of the Game (1975), co-starring Jon Voight and directed by Maximillian Schell. In Italy, she played opposite Marcello Mastroianni in Luigi Comencini’s The Sunday Woman (1975). She returned to Hollywood to support Charles Bronson in St. Ives (1976).
The Deep and career peak
In 1977, Bisset gained wide publicity in America with The Deep. A marketing strategy based around Bisset appearing in some scenes underwater wearing only a white T-shirt for a top helped make the film a box-office success. Producer Peter Guber allegedly quipped, “That T-shirt made me a rich man!” Many credit her with popularising wet T-shirt contests, but Bisset herself was disappointed that the marketing of her translucent costume detracted from the film’s technical achievements. At the time, Newsweek declared her “the most beautiful film actress of all time.” Shortly thereafter, a UK production, Secrets, that Bisset had made in 1971 was released in the United States. That movie featured the only extensive nude scenes of Bisset’s career and the producers cashed in on her fame. By 1978, Bisset was a household name. That year she earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress (Comedy) for her performance in Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, and starred opposite Anthony Quinn in The Greek Tycoon, playing a role based on Jackie Onassis. After making Together? (1979) in Italy, she appeared in some all-star films, When Time Ran Out (1980), with Newman and William Holden, and Inchon (1981), with Laurence Olivier. Her fee around this time was $1 million a movie. Both When Time Ran Out and Inchon were big flops. More popular was George Cukor’s Rich and Famous (1981) with Candice Bergen, where Bisset also served as co-producer. One of her best-known roles came in the coming-of-age comedy Class (1983), as a woman having an affair with her son’s (Rob Lowe) prep school roommate (Andrew McCarthy). Bisset was nominated for another Golden Globe for her role in John Huston’s Under the Volcano (1984), opposite Albert Finney. In 1984 Bisset made the wartime drama Forbidden. For cable she played the title role in Anna Karenina (1985), opposite Christopher Reeve, and did an abortion drama, Choices (1986). She also had the lead in some comedies: High Season (1987) and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989), playing a lascivious suburban widow in the latter. She was Carré Otis’s employer/educator in the controversial erotic thriller Wild Orchid (1990) with Mickey Rourke.
In 1996, Bisset was nominated for a César Award for her role in the French film La Cérémonie. She appeared in the 16th-century period drama Dangerous Beauty (1998) as a retired Venetian courtesan, and had the leading role in the 2001 independent feature The Sleepy Time Gal, which premiered on SundanceTV and was cited by the Village Voice in its annual survey of the year’s best undistributed films. For television, Bisset was in the Biblical epics Jesus (1999) and In the Beginning (2000), playing the Virgin Mary and Sarah, wife of Abraham, respectively. For her performance in the 1999 miniseries Joan of Arc, she earned a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. One of her later TV movies, in 2003, was America’s Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story, in which she portrayed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. In 2005, Bisset was seen in the Domino Harvey biographical film Domino with Keira Knightley, directed by Tony Scott, playing a fictionalized version of Paulene Stone (renamed “Sophie Wynn”), whom she actually knew from their time as models in London. In 2006, Bisset had a recurring role on the FX series Nip/Tuck as the ruthless extortionist James. She starred in the lead role of Boaz Yakin’s Death in Love, which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Later that year, she starred in the Hallmark Channel television film An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving. She finished filming The Last Film Festival in 2010, which was Dennis Hopper’s final screen appearance, though its release would be delayed until 2016. Also in 2010, Bisset was awarded the Legion of Honour insignia, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling her “a movie icon”. Following a recurring role on Rizzoli & Isles, Bisset returned to the UK to film Stephen Poliakoff’s 1930s jazz drama series Dancing on the Edge, which started on BBC2 in 2013. For her work, she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film. Next, she played Gérard Depardieu’s wife in Welcome to New York (2014) for controversial director Abel Ferrara. In 2015, she co-starred with Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette in Miss You Already. The same year, she received a Stanislavsky Award at the 37th Moscow International Film Festival. Bisset had a recurring role in the American TV series Counterpart in 2017. On the indie circuit, Bisset kept busy with roles in four features in 2018: Head Full of Honey, which reunited her with The Deep co-star Nick Nolte, Backstabbing for Beginners (opposite Ben Kingsley), Here and Now with Sarah Jessica Parker, and Asher with Famke Janssen and Ron Perlman. In 2019, she co-starred with Fabio Testi in the Lifetime movie Very Valentine.