Friday, May 19

Julie Christie

Anticipation was feverish when Rex Harrison took to the podium in 1966 to announce the best actress winner for 1965. There were two British Julies in contention and most expected the last name to be called would be Andrews for her world-famous performance as Maria in the mega-hit The Sound of Music.  But the surname he called out was Christie and for a little-known film (in the States) called Darling.  It seemed astonishing and even more so because she was not nominated for her own mega-hit the same year, Dr. Zhivago. The world would sit up and take notice of everything this beauty would do but stardom would never be her cup of tea.

She was born in 1940 in India to a father who ran a tea plantation and a mother, whom she adored, a painter.  Before she was 10 young Julie was traumatized when she was sent to England to be more formally educated and then to Paris.  When she was nine, she met an actor in the French capital and spent the day with him hearing about his profession.  She was so impressed that she determined then and there to be an actress. Along the way she studied speech and drama.

She began appearing on the stage, which she's claimed she never liked, and shortly thereafter on British television and films.  Her always-liberal bent saw her eschewing tradition and she was already drifting toward a bohemian lifestyle when she was offered the role of Liz, an independent girlfriend of Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar 1963).  She was equally independent in her pursuit of London's swinging lifestyle and would soon be regarded by some as its queen.  She became a muse of director John Schlesinger in this, the first of their three films together. He thought she was one of the most exciting actresses with whom he'd ever worked.

She plays a prostitute in the colorful Young Cassidy (1965), co-directors Jack Cardiff and John Ford's production of the early life of Irish playwright Sean O'Casey.  Rod Taylor, in the title role, chose Maggie Smith, however, as his love.

Darling (1965) reunited Christie with Schlesinger, not a difficult decision for her. She was eager to see what he was going to pull off this time.  A morality tale about an independent woman of the swinging 60s, it was something the actress thought she knew a bit about. It was the fully fleshed-out performance that allowed her to go from a bed-hopping, amoral hipster to a jaded socialite.  She proved a stimulating partner for both of her leading men, Laurence Harvey and Dirk Bogarde.  And of course, there was that Oscar.  Sit down, Miss Andrews.

Then came the film that would shoot her to fame of staggering proportions, Dr. Zhivago (1965), the movie for which she is best-remembered. She is radiant as Lara, for whom a married doctor would come under her spell and for whom a haunting theme was played throughout the lengthy film and throughout the world.

I thought her face was among the loveliest I had ever seen in the movies. Zhivago wouldn't have been as successful without that face.  Here she was this lovely, blonde, swinging 60s siren... and I'll be damned if she didn't prove to all in 1965 that she could really act.

She was to have made Fahrenheit 451 (1966) with her ex-boyfriend, Terrence Stamp, but he got a case of the jitters just thinking of playing opposite her, so Oskar Werner was signed. Christie was slated to play dual roles and, as a confirmed Francophile, was thrilled to be working for Fran├žois Truffaut in his version of Ray Bradbury's sci-fi tale of a world where books are not allowed.  It was not a happy occasion, however, as Truffaut and Werner hated one another with a passion.

Christie had enjoyed numerous romances but nothing clicked with her and that was about to change.  In London in 1966, at a benefit screening of the film, Born Free, Christie met Warren Beatty. By the following year she had moved to California and into Beatty's lair.  Their relationship would last the longest-- seven years-- that either of them had up to that time. She says he is largely responsible for giving her a political perspective. She apparently didn't get caught up in the turnstyle of his relationships and he has said he wanted to marry her.  It would also seem that she was his most serious relationship and the least actressy woman in his vast stable.  He likely also found appealing her penchant for not putting up with a lot of crap.  He fooled around on her, which, at first, she thought she could accept but their relationship cooled when she realized she couldn't.

During their time together, they would costar in three films and perhaps surprisingly she would turn down two with him... Bonnie and Clyde (for which she would have been so wrong) and Reds (which he dedicated to her... to Jules).  She claims to this day that she and Beatty are dear friends.

I first saw Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) about five years ago and found myself wondering what had taken me so long. Perhaps it was because the critics raked it over the coals and I bought into it. Christie glows as Thomas Hardy's heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, beautiful and sassy, who inherits a farm and teases three men who are in love with her.  Stamp must have quickly recovered from his itchiness in playing opposite his ex-love because he was on board along with Peter Finch and Alan Bates, who ultimately wins her hand.  It was her final outing with Schlesinger, who directed a gorgeous-looking movie.  

With former lover, Stamp, in Far from the Madding Crowd

Now that she was living in America, it was time to make some American movies and first up was Petulia (1968).  Playing an abused San Francisco wife, she is also a bit of a kook whose life brightens after she takes up with a recently-divorced doctor. One might assume co-star George C. Scott is the abusive husband (that is Richard Chamberlain) but he is the kindly doctor in one of his best roles. 

The Go-Between (1971) was not popular in all circles, but I was smitten with the period, English story of forbidden love.  Christie was reunited with Bates for the second of three times.

I was never crazy about the revisionist western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), the first of her three films with Beatty.  (Hmmm, I didn't like a western? Make a note.)  She plays a madame to Beatty's gambling man in a remote mining town where they become partners to become rich.  I didn't buy either one of them as old-time western folk.  Beatty and director Robert Altman didn't see eye-to-eye which made for some intense filming.

If you saw Don't Look Now (1973), you probably have strong feelings about it, one way or the other.  It's a horror film about a couple grieving the death of their child. Christie and Donald Sutherland were a good match and became good friends.  No one could ever forget their sex scene, filmed so graphically that there has long been speculation that they actually did it on camera.

By 1974 she and Beatty had split but he convinced her to accept one of the female roles in his new comedy, Shampoo (1975). He is hot as a randy hairdresser who seduces his customers while Christie plays the one who got away.  She leaves him because he can't remain faithful. Hmmm. She ultimately said that she didn't care much for the film because she didn't like how women were portrayed.  Wow.  Take that, Warren.

She stayed stateside to play herself in her pal Altman's heavily-populated Nashville (1975).

Returning to Europe in 1977 and to life on a Welsh sheep ranch, she loved the solitude. She said she disliked life in Hollywood and wanted to be far from the madding crowd. Celebrity rattled her and so did deal-making and most everything on the business side of the acting ledger.  She had been finding movie-making not as much to her liking as she once had.

There was always a new script at her door... clearly everyone wanted to work with her. She turned down most offers.  That included Dr. Zhivago, although it was one of the few where she ultimately changed her mind. Some of those she did not change her mind on were The Sand Pebbles; Valley of the Dolls; Rosemary's Baby; They Shoot Horses, Don't They; Nicholas and Alexandra; Anne of the Thousand Days; Ryan's Daughter; The Godfather; Cabaret; The Great Gatsby; The Wind and the Lion; Chinatown; American Gigolo and The Verdict. Pretty incredible list, isn't it?  It's also amazing how many of the actresses who took those roles were nominated for Oscars.

She got involved in campaigning for social, liberal or political causes which she said was far more important than being a movie star. Her long-time activism centered mainly on animal rights, environmental protection and nuclear disarmament but she lent her time, money and energy to a number of causes. She said she would do films that highlighted her social consciousness.  She wanted to do European art house films and she didn't much care whether anyone went to see them.

Hold on.  Put all that aside for a minute because Warren was paging her again for one of his vanity projects and she came running. Heaven Can Wait (1978) was their best pairing and I found the romantic-comedy-fantasy to be a total delight.  The wacky story concerns a star football quarterback whose soul is mistakenly removed from his body after a motorcycle accident.  His escort must then right the wrong and return the quarterback to Earth but the body has been cremated.  The escort must then find a suitable replacement body.

Christie plays a feisty environmental activist (right up her alley, as written by Beatty) who tangles with the new incarnation and ends up falling in love with him.  Perhaps knowing that the two were former partners, their scenes together seem rather poignant.  At the same time, Christie,  primarily a dramatic actress, shows a great aptitude for comedy. Still, most of the laughs come from Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin and Jack Warden. James Mason isn't given a lot to do as the escort but the man adds class to everything he's done.

In 1979 she began a relationship with liberal investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, someone who shares her many causes, and they married in 2008.

Mr. and Mrs. Campbell

She reunited with Bates for the third time in The Return of the Soldier (1982), a film I very much liked, despite its general dreariness.  In 1916 a shell-shocked soldier returns home to his wife (Christie) but doesn't remember her.  At the same time, he does remember a woman (Glenda Jackson) who had been writing to him.  It is a compelling story with a trio of the best of English actors and an equally bright turn by Ann Margret.

She returned to India, her birth country, for a piece of Merchant-Ivory poetry called Heat and Dust (1983).  I incredibly love the films of this producing-directing team and can watch them over again and again.  Here a young woman (Christie) becomes fascinated with the long-ago scandal of her great aunt (Greta Scacchi) and decides to look into it. The investigation takes her back to the 1920s.  Gorgeously filmed and acted, it remains one of my favorite Christie films.

She spent nearly a decade working little but rejoicing in her husband, solitude and life away from the cameras.  But she was intrigued with a script that would reunite her with her old pal, Sutherland.  She accepted The Railway Station Man (1992) which concerned a woman who tries to put her life back together after her husband dies tragically.  She is comforted by the title character but their pasts look to keep their relationship a bit edgy.  Not too many saw this film, a fact that never much bothered Christie for any of her films.

She says when Kenneth Branagh offered her the part of Gertrude among his large and impressive cast in Hamlet (1996), she could not resist because Branagh was an icon in England.  It was an ambitious project and done very well, but Shakespeare being Shakespeare, it wasn't a big draw in the States.  By now her glamour-girl days (she said she earned her wrinkles) were behind her and she began accepting mother roles. 

Afterglow (1997) got Christie an Oscar nomination as an ex-B movie actress unhappily married to a plumber who insinuates himself into the marriage of a woman whose plumbing he's checking out. It is a dark little pic and Christie brought her penchant for mystery and melancholy to the role.

In 2004 she appeared in some blockbusters... an unusual move for her. Were the sheep getting a bit boring?  New and younger audiences were given a chance to become acquainted with her in 
Troy, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and especially the utterly charming Finding Neverland, where she got a shot at a grandmother role.

She had her usual hesitation about accepting the role of an Alzheimer's victim in Away from Her (2006) but her fans are glad she accepted.  I believe this little gem of a film found her delivering one of her best-ever performances and she garnered another Oscar nomination.  And while she certainly no longer looked like Lara, without question, regardless of the decade, this was still and always a beautiful woman.

The last movie she made was Robert Redford's The Company You Keep (2012), about an activist who is brought out of hiding by a reporter.  Christie's part was too small and one wonders why she left the reverie of her life for this, a thriller that didn't really come together.

I don't want to be away from her and hopefully we haven't seen her final film.  She says that she suffers from something called autobiographic amnesia, a rare form of memory loss.  I'm not sure what the condition is, she says, but it makes learning my lines very difficult, so I am happy to stay away from films.  It's a bit sad. Now I can't remember any bad things, only the good things, if I can remember anything about my past at all.

No matter what, she will always be Lara to me.  When I hear that beautiful theme song, she floats into my memory and stays there for a spell.  Who could ever forget her?  Here are some comments from at least four who haven't:

Beatty offered that she was the most beautiful and at the same time the most nervous actress I have ever known.

Her Zhivago costar, Rod Steiger, offered that he regretted that she did not give more to her craft.

Robert Altman said of her... she's my incandescent, melancholy, strong, gold-hearted, sphinx-like, stainless steel little soldier.

Al Pacino, citing her as his favorite actress (although they've never worked together), said she is the most poetic of all actresses.

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