Hollywood has long struggled with giving female characters their due (the Bechdel test exists for a reason, after all).
And while Jacqueline Bisset is grateful for her experiences making Bullitt, she doesn’t find her character, Bullitt’s (Steve McQueen) girlfriend Cathy, particularly relevant to the plot.
“I didn’t think my role was necessary for that film,” she told TCM host Eddie Muller during a TCM Classic Film Festival screening. “If Kathy hadn’t been there, I don’t think it would’ve made much difference. But I was representing the female in his life and the feminine side of his existence rather than being a fully-fleshed character.”
However, when EW pressed Bisset further on the issue, wondering if Hollywood might do better today, she answered frankly, “No.”
“I don’t think so,” she continued. “It’s a man’s story… I thought it was a valid role from my point of view. I was thrilled to be doing it and people scoffed and said, ‘Oh it’s a girlfriend role.’ I thought, ‘How rude! So what if it is a girlfriend role? Sometimes women are girlfriends, sometimes they don’t have a massive role in the lives of the men they’re with.’ I was always treated well and I don’t know what we could have added to because it was about Steve. It was his character and the police story.”
TCM host Alicia Malone jumped into champion Bisset and the work she does in the film, making more of the role that is on the page.
“When I watch the film now, I see how much she was able to suggest a bigger life for this character than what we just see on the screen,” Malone tells EW. “When we first see her in the office, we’re so curious about her, what she does, why she needs to know all those particular figures that she gets him to look up for it… She had this whole three-dimensional world going on outside of the scenes that we saw her in.”
Malone also agreed that she hoped if it were made today, there would be at least more thoughtful conversations around the part — though she agrees it fits with Steve McQueen’s character and the thrust of the film.
“I would hope that if something like this was made today, there would just be more conversation about having more of that character,” she reflected. “It’s a masculine film and Steve McQueen is the main character and you get to see his life and that’s what the film is about, but I wanted to know more about her and I wanted to see more about her and what she was doing with her job and modern art.”
Muller also echoed the film’s essential nature playing a core role in sidelining Bisset’s role. “The movie is about a very closed-off man,” he tells EW. “He’s a professional cop and he shuts himself off from intimacy and closeness because he sees that’s his job.”
Regardless of the role’s size or importance to the plot, it marked a major milestone in Bisset’s career as part of a string of roles that introduced her to American audiences as an intriguing screen presence.
It also granted Bisset the opportunity to work with screen icon Steve McQueen in one of his most iconic roles. For many, McQueen’s role in Bullitt is the epitome of his image as the coolest star that ever lived — but Bissett was struck by how much he was disinterested in fame.
“I got to see the fame of Steve McQueen because he was at his flourishing height,” she said in her TCM segment. “He was sort of alley cat-ish. He didn’t like being followed around, and he would come on his scooter, his motorbike, and he’s there one minute, he’s gone the next.”
Speaking with EW, Bisset elaborates on how much that nonchalance and aloofness played into his perceived coolness. “The word ‘cool’ means different things to different people,” she quips. “I didn’t know what ‘cool’ was, it wasn’t a word that was in my world. I would’ve used the word ‘hot’ personally.”
“He had that mysterious smoldering thing,” she adds. “Not a lot of guys do that; not a lot of the American audience, men — most of them are exteriorizing their physique and stuff. He didn’t seem to be someone who was showing his body off. He wasn’t narcissistic looking. He was low-key, that was the way I saw him… He was a good, regular, handsome man. That’s how I would describe him. Rather how I feel about Brad Pitt, the regular quality in a good way.”
The TCM Classic Film Festival is airing on TCM and streaming on HBO Max through Sunday, May 9.