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Monday 18 March 2019

Julie Christie: the sixties siren queen of British film

Transcendent beauty: Julie Christie in Far from the Madding Crowd.
Transcendent beauty: Julie Christie in Far from the Madding Crowd.
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg has taken on a real beast of an adaptation in his new film, which opened here yesterday. Because although Far from the Madding Crowd is less epically gloomy than some of Thomas Hardy's novels, its complex themes and dour, harsh storyline hardly make for feel-good cinema.

Carey Mulligan takes on the plum role of Bathsheba Everdene, Hardy's wilful and infuriating heroine, who encounters sexism and suspicion when she takes over the management of her late uncle's Victorian farm.

Far from the Madding Crowd is a very solid and substantial film, but I find the casting of Carey Mulligan problematic. In Hardy's book, he describes Bathsheba as being so staggeringly handsome that "criticism checked itself as out of place, and looked at her proportions with a long consciousness of pleasure". Ms Mulligan, though a fine actress, doesn't really fit that description, and inevitably pales in comparison with the woman who played Everdene in the famous 1960s version.

John Schlesinger's bold and lyrical 1967 film co-starred Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp, but all those fine actors were cast into the shadows by the resplendence of Julie Christie's Bathsheba. Watching her walk across a country field bathed in buttery light, you don't wonder that half the county is after her: blonde and blue-eyed, button-nosed and firm-jawed, her beauty is almost transcendent.

Throughout her career, Julie Christie would be infuriated by the fact that so few people seemed to be able so see beyond her perfect face and, in fairness, there was an awful lot more to her acting than that.

In Far from the Madding Crowd, she managed to memorably convey Bathsheba's strength, wrong-headedness and nervous vulnerability. That vulnerability was real as well as affected, and after Christie shot to fame in the 1960s, she found it very hard to adjust to the reality that her private life was public property. And though she lived in Hollywood for a time and had a famously passionate relationship with Warren Beatty, she returned to Britain in the late 1970s to lead an increasingly reclusive life on a remote farm in Wales.

That, of course, only made her seem more interesting and exotic, and her rare public appearances have always attracted flocks of paparazzi. Julie Christie turned 75 last month, but doesn't look it and is still the idol of a whole generation of men.

Christie's childhood was privileged but austere. She was born in 1940 in Assam, India, where her father ran a tea plantation, and Julie spent her early years in the lush beauty of the Himalayan foothills. But at the age of six, this idyll ended when her parents sent her back to England to attend a convent school.

She hated the school, and was deeply upset by the separation from her mother. As she grew up, she became angry and rebellious, and though her mother returned to Britain after her marriage collapsed, Julie blithely ignored her disapproval when she decided to pursue the disreputable trade of acting.

Christie studied acting in Paris and at London's Central School of Speech and Drama before making her professional début as part of an Essex repertory company. She was never entirely comfortable on the stage, but from the moment she made her screen début in 1961 BBC TV series called A for Andromeda, it was obvious that the camera loved her.

There was her beauty, of course, but also a kind of angsty intensity, and an ability to silently convey suppressed emotions that would find its fullest expression in films like Doctor Zhivago and Far from the Madding Crowd.

Her appearance in A for Andromeda put her on the casting directors' radars, and Julie was apparently considered for the role of Honey Rider in Dr. No before Cubby Broccoli decided that the Christie chest was insufficiently heroic. And just as well, because the following year another film opportunity came along that was just up her street.

Topsy Jane had originally been cast in John Schlesinger and Keith Waterhouse's edgy kitchen sink drama Billy Liar (1963), but after she dropped out due to illness, Schlesinger chose Christie to replace her. She played Liz, a clever young woman who's unfortunate enough to get mixed up with the dreamy and indecisive Billy (Tom Courtenay).

For Christie, getting cast in the eye-catching role was a dream opportunity, because Billy Liar became part of the British new wave, the cinematic vanguard that attacked societal norms and helped usher in the Swinging Sixties. She looked so beautiful that you wondered did Billy need his head examined when he failed to follow her to London at the end, but Christie's turn was widely praised and earned her a BAFTA nomination.

After that, things happened pretty quickly. In 1965, she exploded onto Hollywood's radar with a string of remarkable performances, first of all as Daisy Battles, the kind-hearted prostitute, in Young Cassidy, John Ford's period drama based on Sean O'Casey's life and shot in Dublin. Then, John Schlesinger asked her to star in Darling, his daring drama about a sexually liberated London model.

The part was perfect for Christie, who brought defiance, vulnerability an a simmering sensuality to her portrayal of Diana Scott. The film captured the zeitgeist of mid-60s London, made Christie's face synonymous with the city's carefree hedonism, and earned her her first - and only - Oscar.

And as if all that wasn't enough, Julie rounded off 1965 by starring alongside Omar Sharif in David Lean's Russian epic Doctor Zhivago. Again, she was a siren, the wronged Moscow beauty Lara who wins the heart of Sharif's dreamy poet, Zhivago. Lean's film was full of extraordinary moments, and Christie was luminous, almost mystically gorgeous.

Hollywood, it seemed, was at her feet. When she moved there, in 1967, Christine was already a big star who commanded the sky-high fee of $400,000 a picture and seemed poised for greatness. Instead, she met and fell in love with Warren Beatty, an intelligent, charismatic and unconventional man whose contempt for Hollywood and movie stardom was infectious.

They stayed together for seven years, and during that time she became more politicised and less interested in meticulously clinging to her A-list status. At least her rare performances were worth waiting for. She was splendid as a kooky 60s tearaway in Richard Lester's underrated 1968 drama Petulia, and even better as a passionate early 20th-century countrywoman in Joseph Losey's Palme d'Or-winning drama The Go-Between.

And then, there were her two memorable collaborations with Warren Beatty on McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Shampoo (1975), the latter an ambitious, but rather dated, satire, the former a splendid anti-western by Robert Altman in which Christie played a brassy Cockney brothel-keeper. As usual, she made the part her own.

She and Beatty split up in 1974, but remained friends. Until the late 1970s, "love, a succession of men, boyfriends" kept her in America, but ultimately Christie had to get out of Hollywood.

"I thought I was going mad there," she later said. She retreated to the Welsh countryside and, in 1979, began a relationship with Guardian journalist Duncan Campbell: they're still together, and married in the mid-2000s.

Since the early 1980s, she's campaigned vocally on issues like animal rights, the environment and nuclear power, and has acted only sporadically. In the early 2000s, she revealed that she suffers from a rare form of amnesia that makes learning lines for big parts difficult. But there have been some very fine mature performances, from her sympathetic portrayal of a befuddled Gertrude in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996), to her Oscar-nominated turn in Sarah Polley's Away from Her (2007) as a woman with Alzheimer's who forgets she's married.

And there's something elusive and mysterious about Christie that makes her enduringly fascinating. "Even in the 60s," she had said, "especially then, I was always deeply anxious. I never felt that I was cool enough, or that I was dressed right. Silly things. I was fearful." It's hard to square that reality with the cool beauty one encounters in films like Billy Liar and Far from the Madding Crowd, but perhaps that uncertainty is what makes Julie Christie such a fascinating actress.

Christie's finest hour

There are a small number of what one might call adult horror films that, if watched in the wee small hours, will give you the creeps no matter what age you are. Nick Roeg's 1973 film Don't Look Now is definitely one such: a masterfully made Gothic thriller set in a wintry Venice and based on a story by Daphne du Maurier. It seemed an unlikely vehicle for Julie Christie, but she liked the script and implicitly trusted Nick Roeg, who'd worked with her as a cinematographer on both Far from the Madding Crowd and Francois Truffaut's Fahernheit 451.

Christie and Donald Sutherland play a couple who move to the watery city after their child is killed in a terrible accident. Initially, the change of scene seems to do them good, but when the wife meets a strange pair of elderly sisters and starts thinking she's seen her dead child in dark side streets, the couple's relationship begins to be strained.

Sutherland was uneasy with the story's supernatural element, but Christie plunged herself into the role and even attended a seance with Roeg in preparation. She's brilliant as a woman unhinged by grief, and her sex scene with Sutherland is one of tenderest and most memorable in film history.

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