There are few moments in British cinema as iconic as Julie Christie’s first appearance in Billy Liar (1963). She hops down from the cab of a lorry in which she has hitched a ride and walks along a nondescript northern high street, swinging her handbag, humming a tune, tapping a railing and skipping over the cracks in the paving stones. (The scene was actually shot just off Tottenham Court Road in London, standing in for Bradford.) She pauses to contemplate her own reflection in the mirrored windows of a branch of C&A, but this is no moment of narcissism: she pulls a stupid face and then smiles.
Billy has already told us that Liz, the character Christie plays, is different from the crowd, that she’s “crazy” and “goes wherever she likes”, moving from job to job and city to city. And this opening sequence tells us everything else we need to know about this young woman who stands out so vividly from the workaday reality that surrounds her. The film links Liz’s urban odyssey to images of wrecking balls knocking down the semi-derelict townscape she marches through; both are harbingers of a new age, sweeping away the old certainties in favour of the modern and untried. Liz is not only different from the other girls in the film – characterised as frigid fiancee or hardboiled floozy – but is even one up on its daydreaming hero. She shares Billy’s capacity to inhabit the imagination yet is also a person of action, unafraid to have adventures rather than just to fantasise about them from the safety of a suburban bedroom.
No matter that Billy rejects her in the end: almost everyone else fell utterly for Julie Christie. The Times reviewer said she had “that rare quality of obliterating everything else from the screen whenever she moves across.” Andrew Sarris described her as “a poetic apparition professionally known as Julie Christie”. Both recognised a star quality and physical presence rare in British cinema, one that seemed to connect to the desires of those who saw her. As Stephen Frears said as he replayed the scene in his British cinema documentary Typically British, after that Christie was in his dreams forever. More recently the writer John Walsh has described how as an adolescent he spent long afternoons mooching about his local high street, hoping to see a Christie replica wandering by. To no avail, of course, since the artlessness of the image Christie presents – the plain belted jacket, pencil skirt, tousled hair – is transformed by her extraordinary charisma.
In Billy Liar Julie Christie set the tone for a new kind of British cinematic glamour that depended not on the trappings of jewels, furs and elaborate coiffure but appeared attainable and classless. In theory all you needed was a handbag and an attitude and you too could look like a star.
The reality, though, was less democratic. According to author Willis Hall, the real-life girl on whom the character of Liz is based spent the rest of the 19960s trying to live up to her screen incarnation and falling short. In fact, Christie herself landed the role only after an actress named Topsy Jane fell ill; yet her performance feels so much like a persona-shaping debut that it’s a shock to see her in earlier, more conventional British comedies such as Crooks Anonymous and The Fast Lady (both 1962), on the receiving end of Leslie Phillips’s saucy “hell-o”.
Christie was born in 1941 in Assam, India, attending various boarding schools and studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London before corning to public attention as a beautiful genetic clone in the BBC science-fiction serial A for Andromeda (1961). Billy Liar was followed by a brief appearance in John Ford’s Sean O’Casey biopic Young Cassidy (finished by Jack Cardiff, 1965), in which she is photographed in gorgeous colour (a prevision of 1965’s Doctor Zhivago) as the devastatingly sexy Daisy, who persuades the hero away from a riot for some love in the afternoon. Then the starring role in Darling (1965) fixed her in the public imagination as the acme of contemporary femininity and won her the Best Actress Oscar at the age of only 24.
The suddenness of her rise to fame made her vulnerable to the full impact of its strangeness. Stardom meant being stared at on the street as though, in her words, she were “Lassie the wonder dog”. “I would cringe if I saw my picture on the cover of a magazine staring out at people who didn’t know me,” she said later. “And if I saw somebody reading about me it would be the most horrible experience, because I knew they’d be reading a fantasy that would be far removed from anything to do with me.”
Beneath her discomfort lurked a layer of doubt about what she’d done to deserve such acclaim other than possess a pretty face. “I was so bee-ootiful,” she said in 1995 of her 1960s self. “I looked like somebody who wasn’t anything to do with me. That person on the screen was beautiful and not an awful lot else.”
Pauline Kael commented that the young Christie “had the profile of a Cocteau drawing – tawdry – classical – and that seemed enough. Who could expect her to act?” It wasn’t a very encouraging review for an aspirant actor, though Kael would later hail Christie’s performance as the politician’s mistress in Shampoo (1975) as “magical… with a moody ruthlessness I find uncanny.”
Darling (the favourite film of both director Sofia Coppola and [ex] Tory leader Michael Howard) anatomises the rise and fall of model and girl-about-town Diana Scott, in a society where, as Dirk Bogarde’s BBC reporter puts it, “a certain flinty integrity has gone, perhaps forever” to be replaced by shallow narcissism and novelty-chasing. Director John Schlesinger suggests the contrast between beguiling surface and ugly reality throughout, opening with a gigantic poster of Diana’s face being pasted over a hoarding for famine relief and later juxtaposing the images of her as “the honeyglow girl” with the unsettling truth of a woman on the brink of breakdown. Diana samples all kinds of activities in pursuit of fulfilment – party-going, modelling, social climbing, shoplifting, acting, foreign travel, illicit sex, Catholicism, primitivism and even marrying into the Italian aristocracy – but nothing satisfies her cravings. Schlesinger and writer Frederic Raphael seem to want to blame her for being so vapid, superficial and impossible to please, but Christie’s charisma turns a silly dilettante into something more complex and sympathetic.
This is perhaps a result of her inherent niceness, which as Kenneth Tynan argued is “blazingly evident” even when she’s supposed to be playing a bitch. François Truffaut, who directed her in Fahrenheit 451 (1966), tells a story that suggests this quality is not just an on-screen projection: “Everyone on the set liked Julie – as opposed to her co-partner [Oskar Werner]. She has many friends who often came to watch us shooting and every time she first asked my permission. The last time, I told her it was marvellous to have so many friends, and I added: ‘It’s a funny thing – one never sees any of Oskar’s friends on the set…’ She replied with a sweet smile: ‘That’s because we’re not shooting in Austria.’”
Christie’s “sweet smile”, of course, is her trademark expression: not an open-mouthed, toothy grin à la Julia Roberts but a wide smile with closed lips that crinkles her eyes and chin and emphasises her square jaw-line. The smile is radiant and serene and suggests empathy with whoever it’s aimed at. But it’s also almost similar to a ‘being brave’ face, smiling in spite of adversity in a slightly more upbeat version of the British stiff upper lip.
Darling’s Diana gave expression to an emergent female identity that could not be contained within the film’s moralising framework and became instead the object of aspiration for young women such as the future author Sara Maitland, for whom Christie was “the symbol of all my yearning adolescent hopes”. Like Liz before her, seducing Billy but telling him “there have been others”, Diana brought something new to British cinema. Unlike the New Wave films – which Christie describes as “all about boys who wanted to be free and to screw lots of women despite this person they were expected to be faithful to, who was characterised as a whiner and a nag and a restriction on them’’ – Darling showed “a woman who didn’t want to get married, didn’t want to have children like those other kitchen-sink heroines. No, Darling wanted to have everything. Of course at the time this was seen as greedy promiscuity and she had to be punished. But there was an element of possibility there for women, of a new way of living, which is why the film was such a success.’’
Credit: BFI National Archive
This new way of living went beyond sexual behaviour to embrace an unconventional lifestyle with which Christie became strongly associated, as suggested by this publicity puff for Fahrenheit 415: “Primarily attached to her independence; she likes dancing until the early hours, living in her kitchen, reading lying on the floor, dressing as she pleases – sweater, short Courreges-style skirt, white socks, flat-heeled shoes and absolutely no make-up – going to see old films in the London art cinemas, disappearing when she feels like it and with whom she wants – in short, living the way she likes.” Cliched as it might be (and exactly the kind of thing that would make Christie cringe, though by her own admission she did lead an itinerant existence at the time, often dossing down on friends’ floors), the image of youthful independent femininity this presents was entirely different from the ideal of even a few years before, when the sole goals were a ring on the finger and domestic contentment.
Christie tried in vain to resist her status as the incarnation of the zeitgeist: “Dozens of girls look like me, dress like me and think like me… If I’m supposed to typify 1966, then I’m only one of the many who do.” Yet her contemporaneity often played strangely within the period films she appeared in (Robert Bolt said of Doctor Zhivago that “once or twice I thought the Kings Road Chelsea nearer than the Nevsky Prospect”). And was it customary for 19th-century Dorset chatelaines to display quite the swathes of Biba-esque purple eyeshadow Christie wears in Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)? But something is also gained by placing her up-to-the-minute persona in such period fare, in that it brings the timelessness of the heroines’ dilemmas to the forefront – which man to marry, how to cope with love, how to build a life in the face of uncontrollable events.
Just as Darling probed swinging London, so Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) would deconstruct the San Franciscan summer of love, with Christie once more at the centre of events, this time as a desperate girl whose studied kookiness only partially veils a life blighted by domestic violence from her handsome patrician husband. Petulia demonstrates the development of Christie as an actor, closing on a heartbreaking close-up of her face as she’s about to give birth to her first child and yearns for the touch of her former lover Archie rather than the impersonal anaesthetist who brings a gas mask to her mouth.
According to Dilys Powell, Christie was at her best when, as in Petulia, “a romantic instinct struggles against a protective covering of smart absurdity.” Even as she was the epitome of the 1960s – “the embodiment of the independent, swinging, short-skirted, knee-booted young English female” in the estimation of historian Arthur Marwick – her performances also contained a critique of the decade, in particular of the emotional confusion created for young women in a world where, to use Philip Larkin’s phrase, “beauty is accepted slang for yes”.
It’s arguable that Christie actually did her best work in the early 1970s, going from Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1970) to Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). By the time of The Go-Between her appearance in a costume drama no longer seemed anachronistic and she is completely convincing as the manipulative Marian, as beautiful and poisonous as the belladonna that grows in the grounds of her stately home; she would later essay an older version of the spoilt Edwardian lady in the underrated Return of the Soldier (1982).
In Don’t Look Now she opposes her husband’s cynicism with a mixture of wifely empathy (that lovely sympathetic smile) and instinctive belief in the afterlife whose existence he vehemently denies. She, of course, is vindicated by the course of events, and her gasp of “Christine!”, the name of her dead daughter, when the blind medium first identifies a little girl who meets her description seems to burst unbidden from a place deep within her, an expression of shock commingled with relief that her beloved child is still present in some form. The two participants in the fractious marriage finally come together in one of the most famous love scenes in cinema, notable for its candour and for the fact that it seems to communicate love and not just sexual attraction.
Christie’s Cockney brothel-keeper in McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a woman from another time, another place and another class. Constance Miller is tough, pragmatic and entrepreneurial – shovelling down platefuls of food and noisily blowing her nose but still sensitive and vulnerable enough to fall in love with Warren Beatty’s doomed McCabe.
Two scenes in particular deserve attention. First, the final sequence of the film, which has Constance slipping into an opium trance, losing herself in addiction to assuage the pain of loving and losing. The camera tracks nearer and nearer to her face until it closes in on her dilated eye before cutting away to show her perspective: a smooth ceramic object she holds in her hand transformed into an abstract vision of dancing colours, the brightest we’ve seen in the whole film. Altman’s brilliance must be credited, but Christie’s mute, helpless face contributes to making this such a memorable conclusion.
Second, the short scene where we see how Constance spends her time when she’s not whoring and before the opium really takes hold: listening to the pretty tune played by her music box while reading a book slowly (using a finger to track the words) but excitedly (she clasps her sock-clad foot as she follows the story). McCabe hammers relentlessly on the door but she refuses to open it. Here we see the prostitute looking after herself rather than men in a scene similar in tone to the one in Klute (also 1971) where Jane Fonda’s call girl puts her feet up and enjoys a joint and a glass of wine, pleasing herself after a long day of pleasing others, fearing any encroachment on her hard-won independence. Both Christie and Fonda have combined acting careers with an interest in social issues; the Daily Mirror once called Christie “even more boringly committed than Jane Fonda.”
Throughout the 1980s Christie’s film choices were indeed mainly politically motivated, including the post-nuclear nightmare Memoirs of a Survivor (1981) and her voiceover for the animal experimentation expose The Animals Film (1981). She also returned to her Anglo-Indian roots in Heat and Dust (1982) and played the archetypal screen goddess in Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983). Following her role as Gertrude in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) and her Oscar-nominated performance as a faded B-movie actress in Afterglow (1997) she has moved between cameos in indie projects like Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing (2001) and big-budget epics like Troy (2004), as well as serving her time in the British character-actor display case that is the Harry Potter series.
But one could argue that she’s now more famous for her off-screen actions than for her film performances: for her decision to have a face lift in the late 1990s after getting fed up with looking older than women she knew were her seniors and for the wonderful Herb Ritts pictures taken of her in 2002 in which she looks considerably less than her 60 years. If it’s difficult to see the twinkle of Liz in the grande dame she plays in Finding Neverland (2004), that perhaps says less about Christie’s decline than about the scarcity of exciting roles for older women, even those as enduringly beautiful as Julie Christie.
Asked in 1986 about her own favourite actresses, she listed Delphine Seyrig and Hanna Schygulla, stating her admiration for their ability to “force us into thinking about definitions of women. They present more than images; they give us a psychology of a type of woman and continue to develop that throughout a career.”
It could be said that Julie Christie, at her best, has fulfilled a similar function, furnishing us with a vivid image of the independent woman who is, as Frederic Raphael notes, “contemptuous of convention and wary of commitments” but still struggles with “a problem she has never solved: that of how to live at peace with herself.”