One snowy Jerusalem night in 1966, I went with friends to see Doctor Zhivago. Though I wasn’t a movie buff and had no thoughts of becoming a film critic, the David Lean epic stirred in me the rudiments of a film sensibility, for that was the night I became dimly aware that even the cheesiest movie can be set on fire by a natural-born star. Whether tricked out like a tart for the lover who forces himself on her, or counterpointing Omar Sharif’s dark dreamboat looks with that thick, golden braid hanging down her back, or unknowingly crossing paths with him in her Soviet-worker drab while he died of a heart attack, Julie Christie’s Lara radiated off the screen, her enormous blue eyes, determined jaw and mobile mouth prefiguring the durable but breakable women (Hamlet’s mum notwithstanding) the actress would play for the rest of her on-again, off-again career.
Christie had recently broken into British cinema, first as Tom Courtenay’s one true love in John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, then as a calculating model in Darling, for which she won an Oscar and a not-undeserved offscreen reputation as a swinging ’60s dolly-bird hooked on drugs and men. But Zhivago made her a Hollywood star, and though her tenure barely outlasted her seven-year love affair with Warren Beatty, it set the tone for the passionate, remote yet achingly vulnerable women she went on to play: the luminous, doomed Bathsheba Everdene in Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd; George C. Scott’s married lover inRichard Lester’s Petulia; opposite Beatty, the shrewd but wistful hooker in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and a Beverly Hills hairdresser’s long-suffering girlfriend in Shampoo; and, opposite Donald Sutherland, the bereft mother in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, whose steamy bedroom scene holds its own in the more profligate sexual climate of today. Christie’s “chaps,” as she calls them — Beatty, Sutherland, her Madding Crowd co-star Terence Stamp and unspecified others with whom she had offscreen romances — kept her unwillingly tethered to Hollywood until the early 1970s. But she never much liked Los Angeles, and when all that was over, she couldn’t wait to break away and go home. Except for a few years living here recently in Venice with the Guardian journalist Duncan Campbell, she returns to L.A. only occasionally for small parts in mostly independent films.
That’s how she met the young actress Sarah Polley in 2001, when they co-starred in Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing. How, despite the difference in their ages, the two became fast friends. How Christie refused and refused, then reluctantly agreed to star in Polley’s lovely first feature as a director, Away From Her. And how she might just win her second Oscar come February, for playing a Canadian matron succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.
“I hope Sarah doesn’t mind me saying this,” Christie says over tea in the lounge of the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, “but I think you might say we developed a crush on each other. I was very flattered when she asked me to do it.” Still, she turned Polley down again and again. “I don’t like ‘sick’ films, and I didn’t want to put my life on hold yet again,” she says. When Polley threw up her hands and told Christie she was going to offer the part to someone else, she changed her mind. “I thought, ‘I cannot have someone else supplanting me in Sarah’s professional life,’ and I said yes.”
Spend half an hour with Christie, and you’ll experience her ambivalence about Hollywood and almost everything else. Plainly shy and gun-shy, the actress hates being interviewed as much as she hates speaking in public. But as luck would have it, we had met two weeks earlier at a panel discussion about Away From Her, with Christie, her genial co-star Gordon Pinsent and a preternaturally confident Polley. Only Christie looked as though she was expecting to be shot at dawn. Casual but classy in black pants, white top and an elegantly streaked mane of hair, she all but cringed when she got a standing ovation, then uneasily fielded questions while appearing poised to bolt at any moment.
One on one, she’s more relaxed and conversational, but guarded at first. Sixty-six years old and sporting no visible surgery, Christie remains a total fox in burnt-yellow cargo pants and a reddish scarf. She still has that lithe, lovely body, slim-hipped and small-breasted enough to lose her — way back in 1962 — the part of Honey Ryder in Dr. No to the more amply endowed Ursula Andress. But it’s that face, with its promise of sexual challenge, regret and despair, that directors have always loved to film in tight close-up. Watching her astonishingly ambiguous performance as Fiona, a practical homemaker and former faculty wife, a dignified woman subject to bursts of brutal honesty and quiet terror as the synapses fail to fire — and remembering her similar interpretation of a woman going mad over the loss of her child in Alan Rudolph’s Afterglow, and all her incandescent performances in between — I wonder how Christie ever got dismissed as a flibbertigibbet, even in her wild and woolly early years.
“Fiona’s about as different from me as anyone I’ve ever played,” says Christie, a committed feminist who argued with Polley “for hours” over whether such a dinosaur could have existed in the 1960s. She could, and did, and she’s a typical creation of writer Alice Munro, from whose short story Away From Her was adapted. Christie claims that Polley conceded the point, but having met this determined but savvy young director, I suspect that she knew exactly what it took to smooth the feathers of her highly politicized leading lady.
“I’m an ideologue,” says Christie proudly. To put it mildly. There seems to be a yawning gap between the primarily humanitarian causes she lends her name to — animal rights, nuclear disarmament and a British organization that helps torture victims — and her politics, which boil down to unreconstructed Marxism bolstered by a bilious, partly deserved and slightly smug view of America common among extremely privileged British leftists like her friends Vanessa Redgrave and Tilda Swinton. “Well, it’s the imperial culture, isn’t it?” she says. “For anyone who’s not keen on the workings of a massive, ruthless, greedy empire.” (Not unlike, perhaps, the one in Troy, in which Christie had a small part.) The night before our meeting, Christie had seen Rendition, which she calls fantastic and I call a blunt instrument, prompting her to call me back several days later and argue her case all over again. Though her taste in American filmmakers is bracing — she admires Hartley and Todd Solondz — she thinks we never have nor ever will see a politicized American New Wave, and holds firm to the rather astonishing belief that there have been no political films made by a studio since Beatty’s Bulworth. When I bring up the recent spate of Iraq movies, she waves them off as “masking their agendas.”
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Still, Christie is far from humorless. She has a big, appreciative laugh and readily lampoons herself. “That’s the thing,” she says about her activism, “you get labeled as something or other, when actually you’re just chuntering along thinking, ‘Oh my god, I must tell people about that because nobody seems to know, and then’?” — she roars — “?‘they’ll change their entire way of being.’??” Christie is unfailingly loyal and generous toward actors she admires, among them Redgrave, Swinton and Helen Mirren. And behind all her vehemence, one senses that the tremulous uncertainty that has served her well onscreen has also made it quite difficult sometimes for her to get through the day. When I suggest that maybe she will be remembered as an actor who embodied wistful sadness, she nods. “I can’t avoid the fact that vulnerability is something I seem to do. I think it’s part of my character and I fight it because it’s not a very empowering image.”
Listening to Christie talk about her early life makes you want to turn back the clock and give her the childhood she deserved instead of the one she got as the daughter of a tea-planting family in Assam, India, who was sent to England at age six and bounced from one boarding school to another. “It was so bad that I have actually erased it completely,” she says without a trace of self-pity. “And with it a whole lot of other stuff. I’m quite effective at lobotomizing.” When former schoolmates reminded her recently that she always wanted to act, she told them, “Now that’s a very peculiar thing to say to someone who spent their life in a boarding school and grew up in a jungle.”
Christie’s parents divorced when she was about 12. Her mother returned to England and moved with her children to a farm in Wales, where Christie put on plays in the barn. “I sent out absolutely proper invitations to the poor, long-suffering country folk, and they came,” she recalls. “It’s a mystery to me.” After that, Christie trod the statutory path of British actors of her generation: drama school, where she learned “absolutely nothing”; a stint in repertory theater (“how unfortunate people are now that they can’t do it”); then “a bit of telly,” meaning the hit sci-fi series A For Andromeda; and a partnership she failed to appreciate until long after it ended, with the great English comedians Leslie Phillips and Stanley Baxter in Ken Annakin’s 1962 Crooks Anonymous. And so to Billy Liar (her favorite role), and Hollywood, and back to Wales, where she mostly lives with friends but without Internet or e-mail, not far away from her brother, a historian, and his grandchildren.
Depending on how you look at it, Christie has either had a short, sharp career or a long one that keeps on going, despite her insistence that she’s done with movies. “People like Helen will go on and on, and Tilda will be ruling the world or whatever,” she says cheerfully. “But many actors my age prefer hanging out with the people they love just before they pop off. I’m not working on a film now, and I won’t be when you ask me next time either.” And off she goes to take a meeting, “as a favor to a friend.”