It is one of the great entrances in movies: Halfway through Dr. No, the first James Bond film, Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) strides out of the Caribbean wearing a white bikini, a knife at her hip. She has a swimmer’s shoulders (she would not get stranded on an archvillain’s island) and an implacable gaze. A jet-age Venus.
“What are you doing here?” she asks Bond (Sean Connery). “Looking for shells?”
“No, I’m just looking,” he replies, as the 1960s clicked into gear.
Like Living in the Middle Ages
Andress was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1936, one of six siblings. Growing up in nearby Ostermundigen, where her disciplinarian grandfather (who maintained order with a pellet rifle) ran a horticultural business, was, she said, like living in the Middle Ages.
At 17, her life was thrown off course by the arrival of a French film crew at the Neue Mädchenschule, in Bern, where she was studying. The movie was Julien Duvivier’s L’Affaire Maurizius, its star the heartthrob Daniel Gélin. A teenage crush became a fully fledged affair when Andress, in an “all for love” gesture that would become a leitmotif, followed him to Paris when filming wrapped. Gélin was in his early 30s and married to the actress Danièle Delorme. To reassure Andress’s fretful mother, he drew up a sham contract with Studios de Billancourt with the promise of getting her “into movies.”
For Andress, there would be no going back to the farm. From Paris, the couple went to Rome, where the affair broke up, due in no small part to Gélin’s prodigious drug-taking. By now, Andress’s family, suspicions aroused, had reportedly alerted Interpol. She dodged them by hiding out in Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim’s suite at the Hotel de la Ville. (In his memoir, Vadim claimed that they slept innocently naked, three to a bed.)
Andress hid out in Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim’s suite at the Hotel de la Ville. Vadim claimed that they slept innocently naked, three to a bed.
It was the era of “Hollywood on the Tiber,” and in that febrile atmosphere Andress’s striking looks led her, almost inevitably, to the great Roman film studio Cinecittà. She made fleeting appearances in three movies, modeled, and embraced the balmy-dusk-to-rosy-dawn rhythm of the city with enthusiasm. “In a few months I had gone from an atmosphere where everything was prohibited to one where absolutely everything was permitted,” she recalled.
Marlon Brando, a friend of Gélin’s, set up a screen test with Paramount, and on the strength of it Andress was offered a seven-year contract. With no burning desire to act, but still less to return home, she flew to Hollywood in January 1955. There she was fed a diet of Garbo and Dietrich movies and sent to Audrey Hepburn’s mother to learn English. “They locked me up in a glass cage,” she said. “I got scared. I couldn’t begin to follow that image and I rebelled.”
A tempestuous affair with James Dean (despite Brando’s warnings) was compensation, but it was John Derek, the handsome star of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, who got under her skin. Derek was married. Dean had split up with his girlfriend, Pier Angeli. Andress would later describe herself and Dean as “orphans of love.”
Paramount dropped her. She signed a contract with Columbia but bought it back when she married Derek in 1957. For the next four years, the couple toured the world on an extended honeymoon. Baffled by a beauty seemingly without ambition, Hollywood continued to make overtures. “She’s a Swiss Mercenary at heart,” noted Derek. “Money is important to her, but she won’t work for it. Scripts are sent to her, but she won’t read them. They offer her parts anyhow. If she really wanted a career she’d have had it years ago.”
Baffled by a beauty seemingly without ambition, Hollywood continued to make overtures.
Back in America, Andress finally committed to Dr. No, when Kirk Douglas read the script out loud to her at a party and found it amusing. Location shooting in Jamaica, in winter, sealed the deal.
Tightly plotted, sadistically funny, and imbued with a Sunday-supplement splash, Dr. No, released in 1962, established Sean Connery as the ultimate saturnine super-spy and Andress as the prototypical Bond girl. Her look was startling; unlike Marilyn Monroe (who had died that year), whose quicksilver luminescence came from within, Andress glowed with health and with attitude. The first super sex goddess, she was a forerunner of the Amazons who would dominate the 1960s, from Veruschka’s Vogue adventuress to Julie Newmar’s prime-time Catwoman.
Following the movie’s runaway success (Dr. No would eventually make almost $60 million against its $1.1 million budget), Andress was bemused to find herself an “overnight sensation” after almost a decade on the periphery of movies. She was persuaded to film Fun in Acapulco with Elvis Presley, more or less against her will (though she and Presley would remain lifelong friends), and replaced Gina Lollobrigida in 4 for Texas, a Sinatra-Martin clan western. In 1964, she won a Golden Globe as New Star of the Year.
But it was in Europe that her career took flight. A run of movies, all released in 1965, deftly exploited her erotic athleticism. In What’s New, Pussycat? she was a parachuting nymphomaniac who drops into Peter O’Toole’s speeding, open-top car before stripping down to a python-skin catsuit. In Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine, she matched Jean-Paul Belmondo stunt for stunt throughout Southeast Asia. In La Decima Vittima, an op-art fantasy set in a future in which wars are banned and violence is channeled into an international dance of death called the Big Hunt, she claims one victim with a bullet-firing bra (30 years before Austin Powers) and lures her ultimate quarry, played by Marcello Mastroianni, to the Temple of Venus for a live killing, sponsored by a tea company.
By now Andress was being touted as the most beautiful woman in the world and “the most awesome piece of Swiss architecture since the Alps,” according to one magazine. “Today I’m it,” she told a reporter, “tomorrow it will be someone else and in five years maybe everyone will have forgotten my name.”
Andress and Belmondo had begun an affair—un amour fou—on location that would end both their marriages. They set up home together in Paris in 1966, and Andress, never committed to her career, happily assumed the role of “bonne femme.” During their seven years together, she made only five movies. (Raquel Welch made nearly 20 in the same period; Claudia Cardinale, 16.) “Fame is like chagrin, it gives you wrinkles,” said Andress.
After she and Belmondo broke up in 1972 (they never married), Andress moved briefly back to Hollywood, where she was comforted by Ryan O’Neal, before returning to Rome and another great passion, the actor Fabio Testi.
But the movies had changed and, in the 70s, beauty was no longer its own reward. Karen Black, Ellen Burstyn, and Glenda Jackson, actresses of idiosyncratic looks and singular talent, were chronicling “real” women’s lives (and winning Oscar nominations and awards). Barbarella cut her hair and became an activist. Bardot retired in 1973. It was the twilight of the Goddess. Andress, who admitted she had never met a director whom she trusted enough to let her guard down, made a series of thrillers, sex comedies, and jungle adventures, little seen outside Europe, nudity required. In 1979, she was still obvious casting as Aphrodite (to Laurence Olivier’s Zeus and Maggie Smith’s Thetis) in Clash of the Titans.
The following year, Andress made headlines by giving birth to her first and only child, Dimitri, at 44. (His father was her Clash of the Titans co-star Harry Hamlin, who would go on to find fame in L.A. Law.) Thereafter, she worked sporadically. She played Mabel Dodge in Mexico in Flames (1982), and Marie-Antoinette in Liberté, Égalité, Choucroute (1985), but a year on Dallas in 1985 was too much of a commitment (despite a $1 million paycheck), and she passed. Swifty Lazar offered her another million to write her memoirs, but that too she declined. Deciding to “do something for art before I get too old,” she played a grieving opera diva in Matthew Barney’s avant-garde Cremaster 5 (1997). It was her last significant appearance.
Andress retired in style and without regret to the countryside outside Rome. “I have had an extraordinary life,” she said. “I’ve seen the world, I’ve known love, friendship, I had a little success, I earned a little money, the press didn’t treat me too badly. I think I’ve been very lucky … ”
Almost six decades on, her Bond-girl image remains indelible. Although she sold the famous bikini at Christie’s in 2001 (for around $59,800), to a certain generation, she is on a beach somewhere still, tiger-eyed and tawny-limbed, ready to bring out the James Bond in a man.
David Downton is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL