Best Actress: Perennials Julie Christie
4 Nominations (65, 71, 97, 07)
1 Win (65)
click boldfaced years for profiles of those races
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 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, even further literalize how 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-haired gorgeousness. She offers up this gleaming façade without suggesting the kind of individuated depth or personality that one gleans from Faye Dunaway's coolly perverse
Bonnie Parker or Vanessa Redgrave's restless ciphers in Blowup or Morgan!, or even from Catherine Deneuve's eerie blankness and restrained self-awareness in Repulsion and Belle de jour. Christie's Oscar-winning work in Darling, a movie I've seen many times but which always manages to wipe large swaths of itself from my memory, hinges on her success at being much more vivacious than she is in Zhivago or Fahrenheit, but just as surface-bound. As the spoiled Diana, insouciant but sad, she rifles through several personas and alternating carapaces, while still preserving that essential translucency, that sense of forever deferring a firm, stable insight into whomever she's playing.
I think the degree of difficulty is much higher with Christie's character in Petulia, and the film, pace Kael, holds up to greater scrutiny. She delves into the sadomasochistic dynamics in her bonds to a violent husband (a mean Richard Chamberlain) and a bullish new acquaintance (George C. Scott) in ways that require from both the performance and the film some psychological risk-taking and some real sense of stakes, which I don't otherwise see in her 60s work. Yet the fundamental translucency remains. Journalists and fans fêted 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. For me, though, the sense of Christie as a "new" woman has more to do with the ongoing tension in her performances between, on the one hand, colorfully sketched moods and gestures and, on the other, the possibility of an essential vacuity. She embodies but, at her best, self-consciously explores an encroaching problem of modernity: our anxiety or else our realization that we don't exist as individuals, but rather as objects of power, targets of marketing, interchangeable members of the superabundant swarm.
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 because it's a canny accommodation of certain boundaries in Christie's range or technique. Maybe it's such an established benchmark of her screen persona after so many years of playing elusive, frisky, itinerant 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, and confounding surfaces. Christie is an ideal muse for this sort of oblique, transversal storytelling. Who better, then, to play the radiant Alzheimer's victim in Sarah Polley's Away from Her? That character précis would probably sound tasteless and 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, a trajectory of inner dissolution by which Fiona, in her own words, "starts to disappear," turning quite literally into a woman with no woman inside.
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" mannerisms that a lot of actresses radiate when playing fantasy constructions. It's no wonder, then, 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 accustomed by now to responding to Christie as though she represents something inchoate, or as if her characters provisionally illumination the invisible
social forces that surround and propel them. As such, the very connotations of her presence even in dogmatic projects quicken our impulse to "read" these movies for subtler themes and messages, rather than taking them simply at face value (which isn't always too rewarding). Sometimes even Christie can't make a movie seem more interesting than it is, or isn't; 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, stranding the actress in the process.
In general, what makes Christie such a boon to her good films, the way she operates as a prismatic lens into the deeper layers beneath and around her, can become a liability in her lesser films. Her own light-touch approach can come across as symptomatic of a 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 edges of her characters can exacerbate what is already irritating in a film like Alan Rudolph's 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, because 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 cohering. It is through her, and her alone, that Shampoo makes 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 boldfacing this insight. She embodies the mood of Shampoo without making a placard of it, and meanwhile she lands some specific points and good jokes. 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. 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 Warren Beatty; 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 Northwestern 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 connection, but always deeply pragmatic. For a performer 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, even in one of her least "beautiful" roles, but she is also, here, a thrilling actress. FAQs /
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