– Julie Christie
One of cinema’s most elegant and intelligent leading ladies, Julie Christie has appeared in over 45 films since her 1962 debut in the romantic comedy The Fast Lady. It was her third film, however, that garnered her sufficient critical praise and popular notice to take her fledgling film career to the next level. She played the small but pivotal role of the carefree Liz in the 1963 comedy Billy Liar under the direction of John Schlesinger. For this role, Christie received the first of several BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nominations for Best British Actress.
Her dazzling performance in Darling (1965) became her breakthrough role for which she won the Best Actress Oscar and BAFTA Best British Actress awards. Her performance in this film is currently ranked number 75 on Premiere magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. Working again under the direction of the gifted John Schlesinger, Christie played an amoral and fiercely ambitious London model who goes from relative obscurity to public fame virtually overnight. Inhabiting the central role of Diana Scott, Christie excelled in projecting an insouciant, wide-eyed innocence coupled with a voracious appetite for attention and validation. Her iconic performance was considered by many as symbolic of the hedonistic attitudes that permeated the “swinging London” of the mid-1960’s. Looking at the film now, it can be viewed as a cautionary tale and a timeless allegory for the irreversible spoils of fame. Julie Christie deserves tremendous credit for making the character achingly sympathetic in spite of the deep corruption at her core.
ON FAME: “All that concentrated adulation is terribly corroding.”
Immediately following her award-winning performance in Darling she starred as the tragic heroine Lara in David Lean’s critically acclaimed and popular adaptation of the Boris Pasternak epic novel Doctor Zhivago (1965). She received her third Best Actress BAFTA nomination for her performance. This role, along with her work in other films of the period including Young Cassidy (1965), Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Schlesinger’s under-appreciated Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) solidified her reputation as a versatile and lustrous leading lady. In all of these films, Christie projected a smoldering sensuality framed by a strikingly present nature. She could be determined and resolute yet heartbreakingly tender when the role called for it. Her somewhat masculine face telegraphed a deep well of emotion. She also had a beguiling way of revealing the character to the audience versus “acting” the character. Whatever technique or training she may have called upon is transparent to the viewer. It is no wonder that Al Pacino once called her “the most poetic of all actresses.
One of her most incandescent performances was the title character in Richard Lester’s winningly offbeat Petulia (1968) opposite George C. Scott. The film, based on the novel Me and the Arch Kook Petulia by John Hasse, was a time capsule of the mind-tripping San Francisco culture during the height of the Haight-Ashbury era. Christie was the only actress Richard Lester wanted to play the title role and he saw a close resemblance between her and the free-spirited character. Lester described Christie as “a person who demands 100% of life.” It is difficult to imagine anyone else in this role. Christie was simply unique in her ability to play complex, conflicted women who reflected the staggering social upheaval of the 1960s.
During the 1970s, her work demonstrated a growing social conscience in such films as Robert Altman’s post-modernist western McCabe And Mrs. Miller (1971) and a memorable cameo as herself in Altman’s critically lauded satire of country music, Nashville (1975). It was during this period that she fell in love with Warren Beatty and moved to Los Angeles. She starred opposite Beatty in Hal Ashby’s biting social satire Shampoo (1975), and Beatty cast her as his leading lady in his critically and commercially successful remake of Heaven Can Wait (1978). For the most part, however, Christie preferred relatively low profile films that had something to say versus commercially driven projects.
She also seemed disinclined to pursue a major film career and became highly selective about accepting roles in Hollywood productions. She reportedly turned down leading roles in several top tier films including They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Anne of The Thousand Days (1969) and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971). In 1980, she was cast opposite Richard Gere in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo but dropped out after Gere left the film and John Travolta replaced him. Apparently, the prospect of working with a highly commercial Hollywood actor like Travolta did not appeal to Christie and she resigned. Ironically, Gere subsequently reconsidered and returned to the film but Lauren Hutton had already been signed to take over for Christie. Some time later, Christie declined the role of Louise Bryant in Beatty’s epic 1981 film Reds, which focused on the volatile relationship between turn-of-the-century political activists John Reed and Louise Bryant. Although Beatty crafted the role of Louise Bryant specifically for Christie, she eventually passed and the part went to another one of Beatty’s significant romantic interests, Diane Keaton. Quite fittingly, Beatty included a brief yet telling dedication to “Jules” at the end of the film.
One of her most notable starring roles during the early 1970’s was with Donald Sutherland in the contemporary thriller Don’t Look Now (1973) directed by Nicolas Roeg. Roeg, who was an accomplished cinematographer on earlier Christie films Petulia and Fahrenheit 451, made his directing debut in this cinematic jigsaw puzzle, which played out as a complicated mystery and an intense dissection of a marriage in crisis. Roeg capitalized on the inventive visual style that he brought to Petulia, and at the same time, achieved new levels of atmospheric menace. Shot on location in Venice, the film employed effective use of bold colors, jump-cuts, flashbacks and flash-forwards that suited the fantastically ambiguous nature of the story. Probably the most sensational aspect was the graphic love scene between the two principles. Much speculation has been put forth to suggest that the two actors made love on camera; however, both have dismissed the speculation as pure nonsense. Regardless, Christie and Sutherland bring a deeply troubled couple vividly to life in the film. Don’t Look Now remains one of those rare movies that stay with you long after the film is over.
Christie continued to pick her roles carefully throughout the 80s and 90s. Appearing in about 17 films during this period, her most notable performances were opposite Nick Nolte in Alan Rudolph’s well received Afterglow (1997), which brought her a third Best Actress Oscar nomination, and as Gertrude in Kenneth Branagh’s impressive version of Hamlet (1996). Christie also managed to find interesting roles that were worth her time and attention well into the millennium, including featured parts in such popular films as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Troy (2004) and Finding Neverland (2004).
Her most notable performance in recent years was in Sarah Polley’s quietly devastating drama Away From Her (2006), which gave Christie one of her richest roles to date. Christie is at the absolute peak of her powers in this understated yet powerful film. There is nothing showy or calculated about her portrayal of Fiona Shaw, a dignified woman who is succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. Nor is there the faintest hint of any Movie of the Week melodrama or manipulation in her performance. Christie makes you feel the unavoidable sense of loss in a very real and honorable way. It is important to note what Christie says about her approach to the role on the DVD commentary. She says she deliberately avoided playing anything as primary. She did not feel the disease was any more primary than the love story or the impact the disease had on her husband and their marriage. Instead, Christie chose to emphasize the inescapable reality of facing obstacles in life and that we have no other choice except to get through them as best we can.
ON life and her portrayal of Fiona: “Life is a tough ride and it’s got magical things in it. And it’s got things that are almost too much for us to deal with. But we all have to deal with them. Happens to us all.”
On Hollywood: “‘It’s been a kind of greed and a kind of egotism, but it’s not necessarily wanting to avoid the Hollywood thing, but in fact, it incorporates wanting to avoid the Hollywood thing, because the Hollywood thing is so inevitably not original. It’s avoiding non-originality, so that means you’re really down to a very small choice.”
SOURCES: IMDB, Wikipedia, the Away From Her DVD commentary and an article written by David Germain for the Associated Press
See also film review: “Don’t Look Now” (1973) directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.