Sometimes extreme physical beauty grows more complex, more satisfying with age; it’s rare, but it happens. Such is certainly the case with Julie Christie, a blond, British Helen of Troy with the most frankly carnal lower lip in film history. Her eyes and brows rival Garbo in their velveteen symmetry, and her nose is a poem, a genetic triumph of heart-shaped, concealed nostrils.
When she first made her lush impact in the 1960’s, with a brief part in Billy Liar (1963) and then an Oscar win for her empty model in Darling (1965), Christie seemed slightly abashed by her resplendent looks, much as Paul Newman did as a young man. Her voice was chesty and strained, as if she was trying to be a good sport, and she moved awkwardly, as if she wasn’t quite sure what was expected of her. In other words, there was a disconnect between Christie’s appearance and who she seemed to be as a person: she looked made for mystery and renunciation, but when she talked, it was clear she was ready to go out to the discotheque with her mates.
Christie had a run of good roles up to about 1975, and she gained in assurance and lusciousness as each went by. Her high-born beauty in The Go-Between (1971) stands as an archetypal boy’s crush and ruiner of hopes. And she shed her Mod image completely for her finest film, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), where her real scrappiness was finally utilized. Christie worked seldom in the ’80s, usually in obscure films with some left-wing political content. The special glamour of her name and looks was in danger of being forgotten when she was reclaimed by Alan Rudolph for Afterglow (1997), a sexy, crazy movie where she commanded the camera with long speeches in lengthy takes: all her skittish self-consciousness melted away, and in its place was the moving spectacle of a still gorgeous, once-inhibited woman who has decided to relax and toy with our affections.
On April 27, the Museum of the Moving Image presented two very different Christies back to back, the young girl from Darling, and the new Christie, piercingly lovely at 66, in Sarah Polley’s debut feature Away From Her. The contrast was intriguing, and not for the usual reasons. Such a set-up inevitably tends to detract from the more recent film, but not in this case. Darling is a drab movie, meandering and confused, torn between Frederic Raphael’s bitchy screenplay and John Schlesinger’s more humanist, but visually clumsy impulses. It sets Christie off with two coldly ungiving leading men (Laurence Harvey and Dirk Bogarde), and scrutinizes her monotonously for signs of “the decay of our times.” The script tells us to condemn and feel sorry for Christie’s Diana, a peripatetic playgirl, but the film is so aimless that we’re reduced to “oohing” and “ahhing” over her stylish hats and coats and lingerie, topped by Christie’s bewildered pout. There’s another movie lurking here, too, which Schlesinger finds in the long section where Diana spends a holiday with her gay photographer friend, but this film would probably be a bisexual sex comedy, and it couldn’t have been made in 1965.
In Away From Her, Christie is beautifully dressed in her first scenes: there’s one coat that might almost have come from Darling (did Christie poach some duds and keep them in her closet?). But the pretty coats and sweaters are here in this film to make a point. As Christie’s character Fiona gradually succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, her clothes get lost and mixed up with other resident’s clothes at her nursing home; this signals the helpless gravity and stripped-down simplicity that the passage of time has given to this actress. Away From Her is based on an Alice Munro story (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”) that first appeared in The New Yorker. It’s a modestly touching tale told in the standard New Yorker style, all quivering, palpable restraint, pitched from the point of view of Fiona’s bereaved husband. Polley has fleshed out parts of the story with unerring sensitivity, as if she was performing a delicate operation.
Like nearly all movies directed by actors, Away From Her features lots of careful thesping in close-up, and this is particularly freeing for Olympia Dukakis. Unlike Christie, Dukakis was not a beauty as a young woman, and she often had trouble finding work. Her Oscar for Moonstruck (1987) was her real beginning on film, but since then she has appeared in movie garbage by the yard while still remaining loyal to the theater. Polley has expanded the role of Marian, the wife of a man who Fiona falls in love with at the home, so that Dukakis can create a detailed, earthy character. When Gordon Pinsent’s husband falls into bed with her, we don’t question it in the least, for Dukakis has grown magnetically sexy with age.
In the first scenes of Away From Her, Polley quietly creates a portrait of what seems a blissfully contented marriage. In bed with his wife, Pinsent strokes those iconically ripe lips, as any older man lucky enough to be married to Julie Christie would do, every hour on the hour. It’s a big point in the story and the film that Fiona was always a little vague, so that the start of her Alzheimer’s doesn’t seem too different from her natural behavior at first. Christie’s acting in Away From Her is translucent: she stands very still in her close-ups and opens her face up for us, allowing the camera to see Fiona’s confusion, her humor, and the mystery that begins to cloak her eyes as her mind goes. The uneasy darling is gone. In her place is a woman who has held onto her beauty by letting go of her fears, and an accomplished actress who steers well clear of “Disease of the Week” television and puts together a deeply imaginative portrait of a self-aware woman lyrically falling into unawareness. The film stresses that there might be something pleasurable about forgetfulness. Faced with oblivion, Christie’s Fiona chooses to treat it as an adventure; we really feel her pain and panic only because she rarely shows it to us.
Towards the end of the film, when Fiona has begun to fade, Christie does not take the easy way out into pathos. As she lies in her bed, Fiona’s face seems ravaged by time and grievance, her white hair framing a look of passionate disappointment (Fiona’s hair is cut in the story, but Polley wisely lets Christie keep her wounded lioness mane). When she is wheeled to the second floor, where the hopeless cases are housed, Christie lies collapsed in her wheelchair, her head to the side, her face completely walled up in ecstatic contemplation. This image is both scary (Fiona is simply not there anymore) and exciting (what could she be looking at, feeling?). It’s moments like this that justify Al Pacino’s comment that Julie Christie is the most “poetic” of actresses.
The political Christie of the ’80s hasn’t been lost, either: watching television news of the war in Iraq, a still-somewhat-lucid Fiona says, “How could they forget Vietnam?” This might have struck a sour note, but Christie delivers the line with just the right amount of “where have all the flowers gone?” romance. Otherwise, Away From Her is content to be a small film about genuine love, and it is a heartening gesture of empathy from Polley, who surely has some fine films ahead of her (she was impressively articulate and modest in the Q & A that followed the screening). As for the justly fabled Christie, we can only hope she has a few more performances like this in her. In a New York Times interview, she said that she took small roles in things like Troy and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to “pay to fix my roof.” May I suggest that Steven Soderbergh might redeem himself by paying for a whole new wing on Christie’s house and offering her a poignant, highly erotic screenplay in which she can tussle with her old Mod boyfriend Terence Stamp. A bold, haughty love scene today between sexy ’60s Stamp and Christie might put old-ageism to bed for good and all.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.