Ambivalent by nature
September 28, 2007
Björk made the jump from music sensation to actress with her starring appearance in the 2000 film “Dancer in the Dark.” The Icelandic singer made the transition far more gracefully than, say, Britney Spears. Playing a single mother who is losing her eyesight in Lars von Trier’s acclaimed film, Björk earned several Best Actress honors, including one at the Cannes Film Festival.Björk essentially ended her high-profile screen presence with “Dancer in the Dark.” Her next film came six years later, in the barely seen Japanese fantasy film, “Drawing Restraint 9.” Apparently, doing good work and earning vast praise were not enough to keep her in the movies and away from her other interests.Julie Christie knows what was behind Björk’s career decision.”She did the film thing to find out what this celebrity thing is all about. This film celebrity, which is something unreal and mythical – not based on what you’ve done. People who do the worst work become celebrities,” said Christie, speaking on the deck of Aspen’s Little Nell hotel, on a storybook autumn afternoon. “[Björk] wanted to find out what is that peculiar place that everyone wants to go to. “She found it dirty, like a used person, like a commodity.”Christie, who was born in India and educated in the U.K., has spent far more time in that strange bubble of movie-star celebrity. She arrived as a big-screen presence with 1965’s “Darling,” for which she earned the Academy Award for Best Actress, and the early phase of her career included the blockbuster “Doctor Zhivago,” John Schlesinger’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” and Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” The work earned her a dual status – as an icon of the ’60s and early ’70s, and as a daring actress who would take part in such experimental fare as François Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451,” a film in which Christie played dual roles. Her more recent work includes 1997’s “Afterglow,” with her portrayal of a sorrowful housewife earning her another Oscar nomination, and a featured role in the 2004 hit “Finding Neverland.”But like Björk, success and attention have not translated into satisfaction. Christie is being honored with Aspen Film’s Independent by Nature Award at Aspen Filmfest 2007. (The event, featuring a reel of Christie’s film clips and an onstage interview by director and Aspen resident Bob Rafelson, is set for Saturday, Sept. 29, at 6 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.) The award, which in past years has gone to such mavericks as Michael Douglas, William H. Macy, Anjelica Huston and Rafelson himself, is meant to recognize those who bring an independent spirit to the movies. But in Christie’s case, there is a stance closer to ambivalence than to independence.
Christie’s most recent film appearance is in this year’s “Away from Her,” the feature directorial debut by her pal, Sarah Polley. (The film had a free screening this week at Filmfest.) Christie’s performance is a stunner, a complex portrayal of a woman with Alzheimer’s and, like the film, she has earned overwhelmingly positive reviews.Christie is planning to build on that performance with … nothing. She has no other projects in the works. This isn’t the familiar case of an older actress complaining of the shortage of available roles; with Christie, the subject of fading demand never came up. The 66-year-old, who shows up in ordinary clothes and with an approachable demeanor, says that lining up future projects has never been her way. Most of her screen appearances, especially of late, are the result of a director’s persistent requests.Of her film career, Christie said, “It’s not something I’m wedded to. I found myself in it, and I’ve pursued it. But it’s not the most important thing in my life.” That point is made in various ways. Christie, who has lived in London and California, now resides in rural Wales, which makes it difficult not only to have an acting career, but even to see her movies. Bring up the films she has made, and she doesn’t exhibit any direct reluctance to speak about them – but the conversation inevitably, and quickly, turns to something other than her role.Regarding whether her Fiona in “Away from Her” was a scary part to embody – it had my wife crying and my 43-year-old self contemplating my eventual decay – Christie redirected the personal to the universal. “That’s where this film’s good – it could present you with something that could well be a reality,” she said. “And it’s taboo, and I don’t see why. A lot of us are going to have to look after someone who’s not equipped to get along in the real world.”I imagine it’s pretty dreadful here, with your health-care insurance business. Or your non-health-care insurance business. It’s amazing that ill people are not looked after. It’s tough – nobody can afford these places that they’d want their parents to live in.”
For all her criticism of the celebrity phenomenon and the U.S. health-care system – both of which pale next to her shredding of the Bush administration’s practice of covertly incarcerating people – she is no crank. A friend of mine, a woman the same age as Christie, recalls the actress as “a real hippie,” and Christie retains the persona of a counterculture activist.If you want to see Christie brighten up, get her talking about movies. Not her wary participation in them, but the movies themselves, and her favorite directors. She is casually dismissive of the current state of filmmaking, but not so much that she can’t pinpoint recent examples of extraordinary work. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” last year’s fantasy-horror gem by Guillermo del Toro, is a favorite, as is the late Robert Altman’s final work, “A Prairie Home Companion.” (Even if she can’t recall the title of either. “I’m feeble-minded,” she said.)”What I do love is film,” said Christie, “and the honor of being asked to be in films by great artists. That thrilled me. I’ve found it very difficult to say no to that. I’m terribly sorry about the deaths of Fellini, Antonioni, Altman. The point isn’t that I won’t be in their films; it’s that I won’t be able to see them.”I think it’s a beautiful medium. But it rarely is now. There’s so little opportunity for the good stuff to be distributed. But as long as we’ve got Hal Hartley, Michael Winterbottom, Michael Leigh, we’re going to be OK. That’s what we desperately need, an independent and original course. Dreadful, this received thinking.”Particularly horrible in Christie’s view are the conventional thoughts on modern-day celebrity – “all that dreadful celebrity stuff, and all that goes with it,” as she called it. “It’s another world altogether and not a world I’ve liked at all.”Still, Christie expresses gratitude for having had her taste of fame, and the option of rejecting it to the extent that she has.”Oh, I don’t sniff at it. I’m very aware that I’m lucky, that I’ve experienced something that everybody thinks would be the ideal experience,” she said. “People dream of and want celebrity so much now. It’s a huge privilege to experience it, to know what it is.”
After Christie sidestepped questions about her role in “Away from Her,” I returned to the subject. Didn’t playing a woman who was losing her mind, her husband, her home to a disease that is affecting huge numbers of people right around her age scare the daylights out of her?No. What affected Christie most was the scene when her onscreen husband (played memorably by Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent) kept visiting her in the adult-care home and would not let Christie’s Fiona simply be in her own, isolated world.”I was most scared by the bit when she wants him to go away, she wants him to stop asking questions,” she said. “I think I understood that business of being battered with a question, or a reprimand. I felt the feeling you feel when someone keeps on at you about something, what you’re asked to be, expected to be. That was terrifying for me – but more important is what it’s about for the audience.”
Aspen Filmfest 2007 runs through Sunday, Sept. 30, with events in Aspen and Carbondale. For a full schedule of Aspen Filmfest events, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org