If you're ever having trouble determining whether a comment by Pauline Kael is intended as praise or condemnation, best to err on the side of the latter. Then again, Kael was such a devotee of the stray moment and the gleaming exception, it would be fully in character for her to lionize some isolated, marvelous element in a movie she otherwise couldn't stand. So, when she ends her withering denunciation of Richard Lester's Petulia with the remark that "Julie Christie is extraordinary just to look at," your guess is as good as mine whether she means, "Julie Christie dazzles even at the level of aesthetic appreciation" or "Julie Christie is marvelous until she opens her mouth or tries to act." I fear the latter, especially since it resonates with some other pugnacious zingers that Kael tossed in Christie's direction during the early part of her careeruntil, that is, she worked with Robert Altman, which comes as no surprise. But even if Kael means to be dismissive, I think she's onto something special when she adds that the actress comes across as "lewd and anxious, expressive and empty, brilliantly faceted but with something central missing, almost as if there's no woman inside."
I probably sound as though I'm lobbing my own backhanded compliment when I say that nearly everything I find interesting about Christie has to do with precisely this sense of there being "no woman inside," though the valences of that claim have changed over the respective phases of her career. I haven't seen either of her first two films, The Fast Lady or Crooks Anonymous, and nothing I have read suggests that I am missing much. But she managed to embody The Girl in Billy Liar in an especially fetching way, bowling over the audience and the protagonist with her image and demeanor without remotely suggesting that something so incongruous as a fleshed-out character persisted underneath. Doctor Zhivago certainly craves a glittering simulacrum of idealized beauty more than it does a multi-dimensional personality, and the dual alter egos Christie played in Fahrenheit 451, a narcotized citizen and a mysterious dissident, make even more literal that Christie's image in these early years worked precisely as an image, signifying some notion in the script and laminating it with her full-lipped, blue-eyed, yellow-eyed gorgeousness, but without suggesting the kind of individuated depth or personality that you easily glean from Faye Dunaway's perversely cool Bonnie Parker, or Vanessa Redgrave's restless ciphers in Blowup or Morgan!, or even in Catherine Deneuve's eerie blankness and restrained self-awareness in Repulsion or Belle de jour. Christie's Oscar-winning work in Darling, a movie I've seen many times but that always manages to wipe large stretches of itself from my memory, hinges on her success at being much more vivacious than she is in Zhivago or Fahrenheit, rifling through many more personas and alternating carapaces, while preserving that essential translucency, that sense of forever deferring a firm, stable insight into who she's playing. I think the degree of difficulty is much higher with Christie's character in Petulia, and the film certainly holds up to greater scrutiny. She even delves into some sadomasochistic dynamics in her bonds to a violent husband (a mean Richard Chamberlain) and a bullish new acquaintance (George C. Scott) that require some psychological risk-taking and some real sense of stakes, in both the performance and the film, that I don't otherwise see in her 60s work. But the fundamental translucency remains. Journalists and fans feted Christie all through this era as a new kind of woman, principally for her age and for her fashionability, right at the crest of the Mod movement. For some admirers, she'll always be the spunky goddess who wore a minidress to the Oscars, but for me, the sense of Christie as a "new" woman has more to do with the ongoing tension in her performances between colorfully sketched moods and gestures and the possibility of a fundamental vacuity, an encroaching problem of modernity by which we worry, or maybe we just realize, that we don't exist as individuals, just as objects of power, members of the swarm, outgrowths of the moment.
Christie thrives at playing anti-characters, women with no women inside, and savvy filmmakers have been thriving on that fact ever since, whether because it reflects a unique talent of hers, or it's a canny accommodation of certain boundaries in Christie's range or technique, or it's such an established benchmark of her screen persona after so many years of playing elusive, itinerant, frisky, and remote women that there's no percentage in swimming against that distinctive tide. Maybe all three. Some of Christie's best films, like Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now and David Gladwell's underseen, Children of Men-ish Memoirs of a Survivor, bet the whole house on abstract montage, suggestive linkages, confounding surfaces, and strong but unresolved intimations. Christie is an ideal muse for this sort of oblique, transversal storytelling. And who better, then, to play the radiant Alzheimer's victim in Sarah Polley's Away from Her, a character précis that would probably sound tasteless, desperate, or doomed in a lot of other actors' hands. No wonder Polley refused to make the film until Christie was locked in, and no wonder she opts for the kind of complex structure of flashbacks, flashforwards, and memory shards that have always brought out the best in Christie on screen. That stylistic mode is narrativized here as a literal character arc, the trajectory of inner dissolution by which Fiona, in her own words, "starts to disappear," turning quite literally into a woman with no woman inside.
Because Christie inhabits the screen as a kind of living abstraction, strung somewhere between existing and not existingbut without, thank God, most of the cutesy "dreamgirl" narcissism or stuntedness that a lot of actresses radiate when they're self-consciously playing the fantasy constructions of other charactersit's no wonder that she stands up so well as a centerpiece for movies built on intellectual montage. Something different happens in films like María Luisa Bemberg's Miss Mary, Pat O'Connor's Fools of Fortune, and Michael Whyte's The Railway Station Man, all of them clearly motivated by the sorts of leftist political investments for which Christie herself has become famous in her personal life. One is so used to responding to Christie as though she represents something, or as though her characters' images and fates offer a provisional lens by which we perceive the invisible forces that surround and propel them, that her presence only quickens our impulse to "read" these movies for broad themes and messages rather than getting too tied up in particulars. Frankly, these particulars haven't always been so interesting; see Sidney Lumet's Power for a perfect example of a film that wants badly to Say Something but gets embarrassingly tripped-up and stalled by any attempt to say it. In general, what makes Christie such a boon to her good films, the way she operates as a kind of human prism by which we see the deeper layers beneath and around her, can become a liability in her lesser films. Her own light-touch approach can play as a recurring symptom of the film's own weightlessness (as happens, I think, in The Go-Between and Heaven Can Wait). Her propensity toward playing evocative moods rather than honing the details and edges of her characters sometimes exacerbates what is already irritating in a film like Alan Rudolph's twee and unpersuasive Afterglow (reviewed here and here). In a vehicle like that, Nick Nolte's hardy sense of groundedness offers so much more alleviating texture than Christie's evasive, watercolor qualities do. Perhaps for related reasons, I tend to find her too diaphanous a performer to really flourish in roles as small as the ones she got in Hamlet or Finding Neverland. She works best through steady accumulation, not quick exposure, particularly since even in her largest roles, she often seems on the verge of drifting away.
But watercolors can work powerfully even on small canvases. Christie does a lovely job within the large ensemble of Warren Beatty and Robert Towne's Shampoo of telegraphing a floating melancholy that is instrumental to the rest of the film making any sense, or of its having any emotional claims outside the self-sabotaging, libidinal problems of some comely and hyper-privileged Californians. Christie's Jackie is by no means the smartest character in Shampoo but she radiates the strongest sense of knowing just how dead-ended and paltry their lives are. Happily, the actress holds back from editorializing this insight, or pushing it into the kind of dogmatic thesis about class and alienation that she and her writer-directors would opt for in several future projects. She embodies the mood, but she also takes some specific hits and lands some good jokes, whether begging for a haircut or betraying a friend or making a cynical but self-preserving choice against any notion of romance. It's a performance worth returning to, with a very funny drunk scene right in its middle. She achieves a comparable emotional directness in Merchant-Ivory's Heat and Dust, though this time the prevailing note is one of cautious optimism. I think of it as her Men Don't Leave or Music of the Heart, the movie where she plays someone you might actually meet in less than remarkable circumstances, and that's a wonderful discovery in a film that could easily have felt like highfalutin, bourgeois tourism for the arthouse set. Christie is hardly devoted to that bourgeois audience, who could so easily have been her bread and butter over the years if she'd yearned for a certain kind of career. She plainly hasn't, and I love that her fondness for the avant garde has made her equally sympathetic to the highbrow experiments of Sally Potter (The Gold Diggers, only recently made available on DVD) and the more disreputable, nutty, and monstrous visions of Donald Cammell (Demon Seed, about a woman who gets raped by her husband's supercomputer).
And then, of course, there's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, an unqualified triumph for virtually everyone involved, and a double apogee for Christie. On the one hand, the movie distills almost everything that is felicitous and noteworthy about this actress: an ingrained skepticism about national and political myths, a plangent mood, an elusive visual grammar overseen by a major film artist, the first of several on-screen pairings with her most recurrent co-star and longtime paramour, and a glancing, indirect approach to a character who finally exceeds our grasp. Constance Miller ends the movie looking in her opium haze at the glinting surfaces of a lacquered egg, playing with it in the Western light, and this is how I often look at Christie, wondering who she is, from where I should look, what in her surroundings she catches or reflects, what if anything is "inside." But it must be said, too, that Constance Miller is a complex and glorious creation, crabbed but generous, hard but sentimental, smart and often shrill, penetrable, capable of strong emotional, but always deeply pragmatic. For an actress who is often, for better and for worse, only as good as her movies, McCabe is a formidable masterpiece, but it isn't as though she's just riding the coattails of everyone else's artistry. She is extraordinary just to look at, in one of her least "beautiful" roles, but she is also, here, a thrilling actress. FAQs / Leave a Comment
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