Your first film was Billy Liar in 1963. It was about a woman, Liz, who wanted to challenge conventions and live her own life. Were you aware in your own life about women’s changing expectations at that time?
I had absolutely no understanding of the social historical meaning of anything then, let alone of the part I was playing. She was a beatnik, not yet of the 1960s. It’s just after the war. Billy represented the fears and repression of post-war Britain and Liz the very beginning of a new culture which youth called “freedom”.
My recognition of the women’s movement started with Germaine Greer and all the American feminists, but that was quite a bit later. Then it was like scales falling from my eyes. Suddenly you saw how things were as opposed to how you thought they were.
In a later film, Darling, in 1965, you played a young woman who behaves like a traditional male and assumes the right to make her own sexual choices. People had a mild sense of indignation when they saw that. Were you more aware by that stage?
No. But when you’re given a part you just become that person, without all these social overtones. She was a rebel but her aspirations were actually very conservative – basically money and success. But you hadn’t seen that sort of sexual behaviour much in cinema and it was great to show it because it was a popular film and it presented an alternative. But even she was punished, which I thought was a great shame in retrospect, but then that was the time.
The writer, Frederic Raphael, and director, John Schlesinger, probably felt that she had to be punished for her selfishness because she was aspiring to success, recognition and money, and she wasn’t the nicest person on earth. If she had been allowed to be happily sexually free then that would have been a real shock. But things change by tiny degrees and her sexual freedom was ring-fenced to fit in with the time.
When you were at the Oscars for the first time, for Darling in 1966, it caused controversy in the press when you didn’t conform.
I wasn’t aware of any controversy. But I think I might have been the first woman to wear trousers at the Oscars. I didn’t think of it at the time. I just thought of what I’d like to wear according to the fashions of the time, which was quite a geometric cut and wide trousers.
Because I won the Oscar I had to go back to present to the best male actor the following year. This time I saw a very pretty dress and thought, “I’ll wear that.” Of course it barely covered your bum, but again I didn’t think, “You don’t wear a short skirt to the Oscars.” The Oscars are very conservative and old fashioned, so I was slagged off a bit because I didn’t wear a long dress.
Last year when I was at the Oscars, some tabloids criticised me for not wearing a long designer dress. Everyone is always criticised. It’s as if somehow we offend these arbiters of taste writing for the newspapers and they think they have the right to be rude.
I think I’ve decoded it a bit now – you have to dress up for the Oscars because it needs to be as special as they’re saying it is. We can’t have it as a less special, more ordinary, thing because then they won’t be able to sell it.
Today there’s still quite a judgmental view of women, particularly women in the public eye, who are sexually free and make different choices.
It’s much better now. But, yes, things do change by tiny degrees. Part of one of the modern characteristics of an attractive woman is to be a strong woman – in fact it’s almost demanded that you are not a wimpish woman.
On the other hand there is always dreadful celebrity stuff that is basically adoration and praise as well as slandering of women. You don’t get one without the other. There is this new aspiration to be famous. This role has appeared in which people don’t have to work very hard except on their image. That’s a terrible thing.
You’ve got magazines that point to different parts of women’s anatomy, a pimple or cellulite or whatever, with a big arrow pointing at it. What they’re doing is almost criminal – to young people, but actually to women in general. The most liberated people are subject to that oppressive image consciousness because it’s everywhere. It’s really cruel, and so damaging to people’s psyches.
You’d think there was enough unhappiness in the world already without adding to it and, you know, most of these writers slagging off women are women.
Have you been able to avoid the celebrity culture that you detest?
I haven’t. The papers have to fill themselves up, every single day. Even people like me, who you would have thought are well past it in terms of interest to the public, can’t avoid it. I’m just an actress, and an older actress, but no, they’ll pick on anyone. But every time you read about someone you can be sure that person (not in this case!) is selling their film or something; it’s part of the commercial strategy which the newspapers take part in. They participate in the advertising of the film using the celebrity as a conduit. People love reading celebrity gossip, so the papers sell more.
It amazed me how much I appeared in the papers last year over the Oscars. I haven’t avoided it, but obviously I don’t court it, but I don’t think many actors do court it.
Celebrities court it, of course: that’s their job. Their job is to go to the parties and be photographed and sometimes they get paid for that part of the job too. They get paid for being at such and such a corner on Oxford Street, where you can take your apparently casual snaps, but it’s all been paid for and set up. I’m not talking about actors here, only professional celebrities.
Is it harder for actresses who are in it because they want to act, in a world of paparazzi and the internet?
I wouldn’t want to be a young star for anything. When they make their career decisions young people now have to think: let me weigh this up; shall I go ahead with it? I’m going to be hounded and my life’s going to be made hell.
You become a commodity. You complain and then the papers get terribly cross and say, “You’ve courted it, and now you don’t like it.” Nobody courts being abused.
A lot of older actresses complain of the paucity of decent roles, that the obsession with women’s looks means they are almost not allowed to age.
Ideal images are being created, in so many more forms of the media now, so the ideal becomes overpowering. The media concentrates on that, perpetuating one thin image.
In the 1930s and 1940s we tend to think that women had good roles. There were certainly stronger roles. But even then, when you see a stronger type of woman, she is always young. When you look back at how women like Bette Davies and Joan Crawford were used when they were older it was macabre and horrible.
There was a point when I didn’t want to go into films because I thought women in films were so daft in the 1950s. They were always waiting for some airman to come back and that’s all they were there for, and they really were stupid or they were a whore or a madonna figure. After that there was just this stream of prettiness of which I was kind of a part, although I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had very good roles and not only been a pretty addition.
There was absolutely nothing for older women in the 1960s or 1970s, except for Simone Signoret, and Jeanne Moreau, who were French, so we made concessions in their cases! But I think there’s been such a fuss about it over such a long time that writers realised they had to address this problem. They couldn’t be respected for just producing roles for women as subsidiaries to men. Women too are now writing more for women.
So it’s got better, but we’ve got a very long way to go. I don’t know why the US and Britain are so un-embracing of age. Sometimes I think it’s just because of the cosmetics industry, because if you harp on and on about youth and it’s completely unobtainable for everybody to be young, you’ve got a fantastic amount of work for the surgeons and the enormous cosmetics industry. Men can have their craggy looks. People talk about “collapsed beauty” in women but I certainly never hear about Terence Stamp’s “collapsed handsomeness” and hope never to do so.
You were portrayed in the press as the glamorous It-girl of the 1960s, but there is a photograph of you handcuffed to black actor Cy Grant on a protest on Human Rights Day in 1961.
It was simply, “These things are wrong. This isn’t just.” I was very conscious of this thing, injustice, and like most people I thought I’d been treated very unjustly at school. From that I sort of evolved a self-made socialism, that the powerless needed more attention than the powerful, it seemed a quite simple thing. Marx’s “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” was so obviously correct. Actually, thinking about it, it was my early interest in the environment, nutrition and the “spiritual path” that led me to the whole recognition of the power struggle.
Doing that thing with Cy Grant quite simply made sense – to make sure people know that there are political prisoners, people put away for absolutely no reason at all, and they need support and attention.
Is that why you got involved in the campaign to free Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli former nuclear technician whistleblower, from prison?
Ah, by then I’d become a person for whom politics meant more than absolutely anything else at all – much more than my work – because I saw it as the arbiter of our lives. So you had to know what it was, how it worked, and you had to do endless research to find out what is actually being said because everything is lies. So that is the way I suppose that I became political, endlessly trying to find out the truth behind the lies.
The Vanunu story was just so shocking. If everybody had sat down and read the facts and asked, “What is going on here?” they would see a ghastly injustice to an individual who is trying to do the best for the world; you would have to join up.
Similarly, with Gaza, the Israeli government seems curiously intent on presenting a particularly ghastly image of itself to the world.
Did you receive any criticism for your role as an artist in political campaigns?
Not at all. You get a sort of general patronising attitude: “Silly billy with her silly billy ideas.” I remember when Saddam Hussein was a “good boy” and on good terms with the US, and we were selling arms to Iraq at the time. I did as much publicity as I could for some film I was doing, in order to try to get this fact out. I said there’s no point in talking about the film – it’s so boring, just a waste of ink. One guy wrote about me as someone who was trying to be intellectual and talking about things I knew nothing about. So that’s what I mean by patronising. But to me what was interesting was that this journalist didn’t know about Saddam Hussein’s crimes – because they were not meant to be known.
Now we know all about him, and go, “Oh yes, you were right.” But they’re so backward sometimes, so ill-informed about the real horror of things. When you try and draw attention to them they can actually write you off. Not, I hasten to add, all papers. We still, thank god, have one or two which try and tell the truth.
Do you think that high profile people who have made a significant contribution to the arts have a contribution to make to these various political campaigns?
There’s no doubt about it, because it’s all the media responds to. If perhaps it takes a celebrity to draw attention to issues, even though at first they look as though they’re just ranting, then it’s worth doing.
I’m reading this book at the moment about India and there’s a conversation in it with a political activist who is appalled at the fact that every press conference has to have a famous person there. It must be very galling for people who are actually on the ground doing the work to have to have this pointless famous person there.
To what extent does social and political significance influence the type of roles you choose?
That’s not the way I go about it. I start with the director and the director’s viewpoint. I don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t have a similar view of the world as I have. I know that would be reflected in the film and I wouldn’t want to make that film, which is quite unusual, as you can see. Lots of very big stars, who don’t need to do things for money, do things that are very silly and regressive. The main thing I look at is, is this going to do any harm at all? If you get on with your director, you don’t even have to think about that. But sometimes you have to do things for money. Life goes on and has to be paid for, so you sometimes have to compromise.
Is there anyone out there you haven’t worked with but would like to?
There are a lot of directors who I admire enormously, and who I wouldn’t say no to, but they’d never ask me to work with them because they have a different work format. I admire Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki and I love an American director called Todd Solondz who makes independent films. Another one is Hal Hartley, a wonderful filmmaker, who comes at things completely sideways. It’s marvellous to have something presented in a non-linear seditious fashion. It’s just so exciting, utterly creative and original. Originality is not appreciated.
You said that your politics now means more to you than your work. Is that how you feel in the sense of the balance in your life?
I still think that we have to fight injustice wherever we are touched by it.
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