Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Birthday Girls: Julie Christie

Several readers recently aired the perfectly sensible opinion that a blog entry occasioned by an actress's birthday ought to err on the side of celebration. So here, in lieu of reviewing a particular performance, I offer one of my occasional mini-essays about an Oscar touchstone and/or a personal favorite, this time for the newly 69-year-old Julie Christie. I'll be back soon with more star-ratings and glosses for some nominated performances from the 1960s, but let's pause here to think about an enduring and fascinating performer who emerged as an icon of that decade but has held our attention in markedly different ways ever since.

Here's a link to her filmography to have handy while you read. Hopefully something more substantial than the reputedly risible Glorious 39 or her small contribution to New York, I Love You will be coming down the pipeline sometime soon. But if not, as I hope I make clear in this short piece, we've already got plenty to cherish from Christie's career.

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Blogger Y Kant Goran Rite said...


Just wow. You only ever seem to outdo yourself.

Meantime, would you care to say anything further on the subject of Petulia (beyond Christie's performance)? I found it such an unwieldy, riveting experience, with all the tiny (if plentiful) stylistic tics and flaws rendered completely irrelevant by the scope, the boldness, the exhilarating lunacy. It's a film I could return to endlessly (as well as imitate/rip off in my own writing), and no one ever seems to ever talk about it.

As for Christie herself - beyond Mrs. Miller - as an actress for me she actually peaked in Afterglow. I had the opposite reaction to you. She evoked (elegantly, beguilingly) a life of gradually learning how to disguise pain and disappointment with less and less effort yet more and more pain. Nolte on the other hand seemed too busy – Meryl-Streep-busy. Maybe over-compensating for the younger co-stars' blankness.

5:58 AM, April 14, 2010  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

Are you bored yet of my praise and admiration? By this point, does it mean anything if I say this is honestly one of my favourite things you've ever written? Can I say so anyway?

I have read the essay three times now, and there's so much I want to single out for further rumination, but in haste, I particularly appreciate the virtue you make of her absent quality -- few actors can make "distracted" such a precise state, yet without the requisite fussiness. In her very best performances, she appears to me almost bored by her own actorliness, so she amuses herself by seeing how much she can express with a lean quota of gestures. When she's ACTUALLY bored by her performance -- "Finding Neverland" being a perfect example -- she becomes much more effortfully animated. (I'm not sure if that makes as much sense as it did in my head.)

Anyway, thank you for this -- as much as I still enjoy being educated about the Betty Compsons with whom I am minimally acquainted, it's when you take on someone/something that I already love, and persuade me to love them afresh in ways I didn't know I did, that my breath is taken away. You're astonishing.

7:23 AM, April 14, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

Not that I don't love your analysing specific performances but this piece shows how amazing you are at understanding an actor in general and articulating that understanding. I must admit (I do that a lot lately) that I am not familiar with Christie's body of work but that didn't make it hard for me to appreciate the piece.

Could you say anything about which 60's performances you are going to examine?

8:07 AM, April 14, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Goran: Thanks! Re: Petulia, I actually didn't care for the movie the first time I saw it, though I have trouble remembering exactly why. I think the "exhilarating lunacy" just played like lunacy to me, and Richard Lester has never been a love of mine. The slicing and dicing of chronology was too much at first, but I absolutely agree with you that the boldness of the conception and the colors really win the day, and the starkness of the emotions by the end really underscore that there's been a submerged gravity to everything that's come before. In a dark way, one's tendency to dismiss the distress signals from earlier in the movie start to feel complicitous with Chamberlain's disavowals of his own violence, and Petulia's refusals to admit them. The George C. Scott/Shirley Knight scene is a real keeper. As for Afterglow, I've seen it three or four times in an attempt to have the reaction you're describing, but it just never "clicks" that way for me.

@Guy: You can't possibly think I will ever become bored or immune to enthusiastic responses. I so, so appreciate them. And I totally agree that Christie seems happiest on screen when she's doing the least, or doing the least like what an Actor would be doing. The more "theatrical" she gets, the more diminishing the returns, most of the time - though I was surprised how well she did by the TV remake of Separate Tables, where she plays both the Deborah Kerr and the Rita Hayworth characters from the '58 film version (as Rattigan's original play script requires). Still, I can't imagine enjoying her much on a stage, which is no knock. She's just not that kind of actress.

@James: Probably not the ones you're hoping. I'm sticking for the moment with what I've seen since I passed the mile-marker of having 40 left to go, so that means MacLaine in Irma La Douce and Simmons in The Happy Ending.

12:04 PM, April 14, 2010  
Blogger Javier Aldabalde said...

This was just too lovely an article. Measured but full of detailed appreciation for Ms Christie's work.

I don't think the movies ever had an actress so constantly on the verge of disappearing all the time. The magic of watching her comes maybe from not wanting her to drift off, even though you know it's going to happen.

I am fascinated by what you say about there being "no woman" inside her characters. I don't know whether there is no woman, or if she is in a state of permanent incompleteness. There is very often the sense of something out of reach in her performances, but she manifests a curiosity about what that missing thing may be that she comes across as someone who is incredibly alive. Alive, but not really ever fully materialized.

Perhaps that is too what makes her so interesting. Film by nature feels more concrete and more possessed by "reality" than most other artforms, but she may just be the least concrete human presence filling the screens there is. I don't think it's any mere coincidence that while luminaries like Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are most likely going down in history as great actresses of the theatre (mostly theatre, anyway), Julie's legacy and legend are almost totally cinematic. It's as if she belonged in the movies without them fully being able to contain what she is expressing in them (or one's fantasies of what that is).

I'd like to make a point of the cohesiveness in her entire work. She is different things in McCabe, Don't Look Now, Afterglow, no doubt, but there is something wonderful going on there linking most of her work. I'm sure some would call it a limitation or a case of an actor "playing herself" but I think there is an unusually strong sign of a human being in an ongoing process of discovery especially in her post-60s work.

To be more specific, I think her performance in Away From Her stands alone just wonderfully as it is, but it becomes richer and more beguiling if you've seen her previous work. Personally, what happened to me watching it is that while I knew Christie had threatened to drift off a thousand times in her past films, now you got the sense that this time, she really meant it. It was quite a ride made all the more interesting by her transfixed state and almost childlike wonder about total disappearance. She hints at something resonant spiritually, that the capacity of "losing" herself (with which she both struggles with and welcomes) may be what makes her free. (Quite the antithesis to the reverse emptiness of her 60s characters). There's a grand human gesture in what she evokes in bits of that film that I can't quite put into words.

And though what you say about her characters not being the most detailed rings true, I love that she doesn't seem to "act out" abstract feeling but that she really seems to embody the experience, and there is new detail in the way she goes about it every time.

Yes, we are always aware we're watching Julie Christie during a Julie Christie performance, but what's the loss in that where we're always trying to sort out the pieces in what "Julie Christie" is in the first place. I don't think we can ever completely know.

Once again thank you for that beautiful piece of yours. I know I'm going to read it a number of times in the future and go back to it as soon as I discover more films from her. I'm a bit of a fan if you can't tell ;)

1:15 AM, April 15, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Javier: Sounds like we admire lots of the same qualities in Christie. Thanks for taking the time to post such a long comment!

12:55 PM, April 15, 2010  
Blogger varykino said...

I truly enjoyed your essay on Christie, and appreciate the detail and insight concerning her other worldliness. I've followed her passionately since 1966. At the age of 16, in 1975, I wrote to her of my admiration and sent a portrait I had painted of her image. In return she mailed the most thoughtful,three page letter, her rueful nature revealed between every word.
There are "Christie" moments in her films, I can only guess she created. In the "Mod" motel room in "Petulia", she manually flicks on the bathroom light after it comes on automatically,in "Shampoo", she blows out the offered cigarette light, then lights her own. She always insist on her own way, and hesitates when faced with worshipful admiration.
Again, your blog is insightful and intelligent, and I look forward to future insights. Danny

5:10 PM, May 10, 2010  

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