Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.
Writing in praise of an actress’s beauty can’t help but feel terribly shallow. To reduce a performer to her appearance is, in some ways, to offer a backhanded compliment: Our level of attractiveness is something we’re born with, so it’s not as if the actress had to expend any skill or soul to achieve the desired effect.
But when evaluating Julie Christie, it’s very difficult not to discuss her gorgeous features as part of her lasting appeal. But her looks aren’t where her talent ends: Few contemporary actors have been so able to harness their impossible, enigmatic beauty to create such melancholy, complicated characters. We’re initially drawn to her because she’s so heavenly, but then we’re seduced because of the mystery behind her eyes.
Born in India in 1941 to a father who ran a tea plantation, Christie was shipped to an English convent school at six. (She was expelled from several such schools over the next few years. “It would be shocking for you to know how little it took to get expelled in those days,” she said in 2007. “Once it was because I had my school dress tucked in my knickers and was accused of enticing village boys.”) Eventually, she studied in Paris and London, beginning her acting career on stage at the age of 16. This would have been a shock to one of her former nuns, who chastised Christie as a girl when she was horsing around with her friends, “Stop making faces—you’re ugly enough as it is.”
Television work in the early ’60s soon segued into a film career, her first major role coming in director John Schlesinger’s 1963 Billy Liar, where she plays a free spirit who entrances the title daydreamer, played by Tom Courtenay. But it was her next film with Schlesinger that cemented her stardom. Darling hasn’t aged well—its depiction of modern-day ennui is better realized in peers like La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura—but Christie played Diana, a rudderless model who longs for the good life, with the sort of touching, fragile looseness that made her character’s self-absorption somehow tragic.
A few months later, she’d appear in Doctor Zhivago, a movie that’s even prettier than Christie is. Neither Doctor Zhivago nor Darling is heralded as a classic, but they battled it out for Best Picture—they lost to The Sound of Music—and Christie won the Best Actress Oscar for Darling. She had just turned 25 a few days before the Academy Awards ceremony, and she was clearly overwhelmed by the honor, her acceptance speech mostly consisting of plunging into presenter Rex Harrison’s arms in shock.
Later in the night, a journalist asked her, “How does an actress top an award like this?”
“I don’t think you can top it,” she said, with a giddy laugh.
But her career provided the better answer: by growing as a performer. She was lovable in Richard Lester’s Petulia and arresting in Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between. And yet it was understandable that film critic Pauline Kael wrote at the time of Christie, “She had the profile of a Cocteau drawing—tawdry, classical—and that seemed enough: who could expect her to act?” Such opinions changed after McCabe & Mrs. Miller, her brilliant 1971 collaboration with director Robert Altman and actor (and boyfriend) Warren Beatty. She’s Mrs. Miller, a confident madam who journeys to the sleepy community of Presbyterian Church and strikes up a business relationship with McCabe (Beatty), which soon becomes a romantic one. A melancholy Western about thwarted dreams, McCabe & Mrs. Miller goes a long way on Christie’s faraway look, on her character’s resigned recognition that this McCabe fellow is actually all talk, not capable of the grand aspirations he sees for himself or this town. Perhaps the movie’s most iconic image is of Mrs. Miller smoking her opium and staring off into the distance, as if she’s about to fade away along with the smoke from her pipe. Christie is beautiful, but she had long since learned how to make beauty something heartbreaking—as if she was cluing us in to the fact that being attractive was merely a mask (and not a very good one) for hiding all the pain inside.
If Christie was a pinup for “Swinging London” in the 1960s, she became a talented performer in the following decade. After McCabe, she conveyed fragile terror in the chilling Don’t Look Now and then became a symbol for unrequited love in Shampoo, again paired with her boyfriend Beatty. Either by design or accident, she has been incredibly successful playing women whom her costars cannot possess. She’s always just out of reach, this goddess we’re lucky to have in our orbit but not for keeping or quite understanding. But Christie doesn’t flaunt this fact: Her characters seem tortured by their inability to make the right choice or find the happy ending.
By the end of the decade, she’d had enough of Hollywood movies. “I thought I was going mad there,” she recalled to The Observer. “You do fall into L.A., you slip into it.” She still acted, but she also became a fierce political advocate. “I was not political” in [my] early career, she told The Telegraph. “I was in that state where you know you should be out on the frontline, but I hadn’t started to do the work; it takes a fantastic amount of work. … I knew that as a famous person you’re meant to be heard. But I was much too shy and unsure of myself to get into that. Warren was very political, and I appreciated that very much indeed.” Nowadays, she speaks out about global warming and torture, among other topics. And she doesn’t do a lot of interviews, eschewing celebrity as much as she can. “Even in the ’60s, especially then, I was always deeply anxious,” Christie admitted. “I never felt that I was cool enough, or that I was dressed right.”
And yet, her absence has only made our heart grow fonder of her. In the last few decades, she’s comfortably shifted to “grande dame” status. Filmmakers will cast her to give their productions an extra dose of class or regal elegance: Troy, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Red Riding Hood, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. (In a New York Times interview, she admitted that she took on some parts “to pay for my roof to be fixed.”) But she also could deliver a superb performance when the material called for it. 1997’s Afterglow saw her playing a former horror movie star, clinging to her old fame while pursuing a relationship with a much younger man (Jonny Lee Miller). She received an Oscar nomination for the part, as she would about a decade later for Away From Her, about a woman losing her battle to Alzheimer’s. That sadness and beauty are still wrapped together poignantly in her performances—it’s poetic that, for an actress who so often played women out of reach, her Away From Her character is quite literally a character whose mind is slipping away.
After being out of the public eye for so long, she was back in the spotlight with the Oscar nominations. She didn’t seem to be any more comfortable with the attention than when she was much younger. “It’s funny, it’s silly, the ridiculousness of having asked so much of celebrity,” she said in 2007, looking back at her life. “Then it becomes really interesting and very much part of the excitement of the life you’re living now, knowing you’re approaching the end of it.”
“If I don’t make films, no one is going to write about me,” she declared later in the same interview. “And most people have forgotten who I am anyway. My life is not interrupted because I am more or less anonymous.” Anonymous, maybe. But hardly forgotten.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.