Catching up with Julie Christie, starring now in `Away From Her'

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May 09, 2007|By Liz Smith | Liz Smith,Tribune Media Services

HOW DO I look?"

"As you always do ... direct and vague, sweet and ironic."

That is an exchange in the new film Away From Her. It happens between Julie Christie, as a woman succumbing to Alzheimer's, and Gordon Pinsent as her husband. It is an apt and heartbreaking observation, coming as her character prepares to be committed to a long-term care facility.

And though it is a line from Alice Munro's 1999 short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, upon which this movie is based, it is impossible to believe that description was written with anyone else but Miss Christie in mind.

Julie Christie, 66, began in a blaze of unconventional blond beauty, and sex appeal. She was a symbol of the swinging Mod scene in London, a reputation based mostly on her Oscar-winning turn in Darling -- unforgettable as a neurotic, amoral model, sleeping her way through high and low society. But even at the peak of her career, which included big hits and fascinating misses such as Doctor Zhivago, Fahrenheit 451, Don't Look Now and Far From the Madding Crowd, Christie remained an elusive personality -- direct, vague, sweet and ironic.

When I met this star in the lobby of New York's Mercer Hotel, Christie seemed bemused by notions of her mystery or iconic status. "Well, I became a film actor. And I had this `thing' onscreen, which really had nothing to do with me; it was just something the camera picked up. ... Actors are committed to their work, always wanting to improve, always looking for something better. ... I didn't have that, and perhaps that's why I've tended to avoid the attention that success in the cinema brings you." (Julie looks terrific, by the way, without seeming patched together or artificially maintained.)

Sarah Polley, who directed and wrote the screenplay for Away From Her, joined us. She said, "I think part of Julie's integral quality is that she lives a real life; there's something going on between films."

How does one account for the haunting, luminous expertise of Christie's work in Away From Her? She allows no flattery, "Oh, that's all in the writing. I couldn't veer much off track with that script. It's precise, it's all there."

This is Christie and Polley's third collaboration. The movie is tough going, watching Christie slip away, but Polley wisely leavens the melancholy with the wry, witty presence of Olympia Dukakis, playing a woman whose husband is in the same treatment facility. As Christie's mind closes, she forms a bond with Dukakis' mate, perceiving the devoted attentions of her own husband as unwelcome, intrusive. (Pinsent's quiet agony matches Christie every step of the way.)

There has been some sense of surprise that Polley, only 28, could have brought such power to this tale of middle-aged illness and a relationship of 30 years, but the true center of the film is not Alzheimer's, but the basic inevitability of relationships changing. It doesn't take Alzheimer's to have your partner look at you as if you were a stranger, or for one's memory to be cruelly selective.

What's next for Julie Christie?

"Oh, I'm heading back to my farm. All of this" -- she indicates the impersonal lobby, the hovering PR men, Miss Polley -- "made me miss a bit of spring in Wales."

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