Oscar 2007: Julie Christie in Away from Her

As of September 2007, Julie Christie is a top contender for this year's Best Actress Oscar nomination for her subtle, understated, multi-layered turn in “Away from Her,” in which she plays a long-time married woman diagnosed with Alzheimer.

If Christie is nominated by the Actors Branch comes January 2008, the nod will be her fourth Oscar nomination, having won Best Actress Oscar for her very first nomination, “Darling,” in 1965, at age 25, and then following up with two more nominations, for Robert Altman's “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” in 1971, and then 26 years later for Alan Rudolph's “Afterglow,” in 1997.

No doubt, Christie benefits from the sensitive direction of the gifted Canadian actress-turned helmer Sarah Polley, who makes an impressive debut with her poignant, touching tale of a long marriage and the problems it faces when one partner suffers from Alzheimer. An adaptation of the author Alice Munro's short story “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” the film is a beautifully acted love story about memory and its circuitous, enigmatic paths over the course of one durable union.

It took Polley months of persuasion before Christie finally accepted the role, which was written with her in mind. “Away from Her” received a warm reception at its world premiere at the 2006 Toronto Film Fest, and then played to great acclaim at the 2007 Sundance Film Fest. Commercially speaking, distributor Lionsgate did well in the theatrical release of the film, which is now available on DVD.

Will the Academy members remember Christie's magnificent performance in a film that was released in the spring, rather than fall or winter, which are prime Oscar seasons. Voters are often charged with having short memories.

Yet, Christie has a number of advantages. First and foremost, she is a known quantity in Hollywood, a vet star and respected actress, who has appeared in some of the most high-profile pictures of the 1960s and 1970s, including “Doctor Zhivago,” “Shampoo” and “Heaven Can Wait,” the last two opposite Warren Beatty, her companion at the time.

Second, Christie has been nominated before, and has won one Oscar, which always helps. The Academy loves comeback performances, as was evident in 1997, when Christie received a nod for a small indie, Alan Rudolph's “Afterglow,” which I had the pleasure of giving the first review in Variety (out of the market at the Cannes Film Festival).

Third, Christie is respected and cherished by actors, directors–and film critics. In 1997, she received the actress award for “Afterglow” from the prestigious New York Film Critics circle, which certainly helped elevate the visibility of a picture not many saw (before or after the nomination).

The Role's Thing

But ultimately, Christie should be honored with Oscar nomination as a direct result of her utterly compelling performance, playing a woman who's her age (Christie is 66). Still stunningly beautiful (how can you not look at those gorgeous blue eyes), Christie commands the screen in a tough and demanding role, without resorting to any clichs about mental illness as typically (or stereotypically) portrayed in Hollywood pictures.

Remarkably, while “Away from Her” exhibits a uniquely female POV, it's not burdened by any overtly feminist or academic perspective. Polley's humanistic touch as writer and director is evident in every frame. She adds a wonderful panel to a growing body of films about marriage on the verge of destruction or disintegration, led by Bergman's seminal works, “Cries and Whispers,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” and recently “Saraband,” as well as John Cassavetes, specifically, “A Woman Under the Influence,” about the effects of a wife's mental problems on a working-class marriage. “Away from Her” avoids so many melodramatic pitfalls that it merits praise for steering clear of the conventions of “Disease Movie of the Week.” There have been quite a few telepics about Alzheimer (and other illnesses), mostly mediocre.

Married for over 40 years, the commitment of Fiona (Christie) and hubby Grant (Gordon Pinsent) to each other appears unwavering–their life is full of tenderness and humor. This is conveyed in the film's establishing shots, which depict the couple skiing in different positions: parallel to each other, pursuing different routes, and then again next to each other side-by-side.

The serenity is broken by the occasional, carefully restrained reference to the past, suggesting this marriage may not always have been rosy. Fionas tendency to make such references, along with her alarming memory loss, creates tension that at first is brushed off casually by both spouses. Nonetheless, when it's no longer possible for either Grant or Fiona to ignore the fact that she is inflicted with the nasty and crippling Alzheimers disease, the limits of their love and loyalty are wrenchingly contested and redefined.

The love story is moving because we look at it from our own perspective, bringing our own experiences of problematic, long-standing relationships. It confirms that life is cyclical–we all go through challenges of love, marriage, and commitment. Polley explores how a long marriage survives without falling back on remembrances of a romantic past, real or imagined.

“Away from Her” focuses on the emotional scars of Grant and Fionas relationship, and how it continues to be a factor in their marriage. Unlike most love stories about older people, which tend to be sentimental or replete with flashbacks to better and happier youthful years. “Away from Her” depicts in a realistic mode a relationship thats been through tumultuous emotions and sexual transgressions and come out the other side. A story of abiding commitment in uncommon situation, “Away from Her” offers a non-traditional look at love, and how life continues to reinvent itself.

Cast in what's her best role in a decade, Christie excels as Fiona, the charming, vulnerable woman, described in Munros story as ethereal, light and sly. Magnetic and still gorgeous, Christies stresses Fiona's sharp mind, her piercing gaze into other people, her sense of wonder and curiosity even when she deteriorates. Both very present and ephemeral, Christie shifts from one state of body and mind to another without appearing the least forced.

Christie doe not act in a void, and she receives tremendous support from Gordon Pinsent, a Canadian icon, who plays Grant, a former university professor of mythology. Grant still possesses the considerable charm that helped him seduce young co-eds years ago, yet age has led him to fully appreciate his wife's beauty and intelligence. After flighty years, defined by other women, students, drugshe eventually realizes that Fiona always was the true love of his life.

Oscar Context

If my reading is valid, Christie may compete for the Best Actress Oscar with French thespian Marion Cotillard, who plays (no, embodies) the legendary singer-celeb Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose,” also released in the unusual time, during the summer.

It may not be a coincidence that in both films, the female protagonist is a suffering artist. As I pointed out in my book, “All About Oscar,” the most prevalent attributes for female Oscar-winning roles are showbiz and suffering. Hence, if Christie and Cotillard are nominated, they will join a long list of honored and nominated actresses, including:

*Greta Garbo, as opera singer conflicted between the love of a wealthy “patron” and a young clergyman, in Romance;

*Eleanor Parker, as the crippled singer Marjorie Lawrence in Interrupted Melody;

*Susan Hayward, as the alcoholic singer Lillian Roth in I'll Cry Tomorrow;

*Vanessa Redgrave as Isadora Duncan, a dancer who dies prematurely in an accident, in Isadora

*Diana Ross, as the heroin-addicted, racially oppressed singer Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues;

*Bette Midler, as the drug-addicted rock star (loosely based on Janis Joplin's life) in The Rose;

*Jessica Lange, as the doomed, anti-establishment actress Frances Framer in Frances, who, tormented by an overbearing mother, turns to the bottle and is put in an asylum;

*Jessica Lange as country singer Patsy Kline who finds her untimely death in a plane crash in Sweet Dreams;

*Mary McDonnell, as the selfish paralyzed soap opera star in Passion Fish;

*Debra Winger, as Joy Gresham, an American divorcee who falls for Oxford literary critic, C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), only to die of cancer, in Shadowlands

*Angela Bassett, as the abused singer Tina Turner in the biopicture, What's Love Got to Do With It;

*Meryl Streep, as a pill-popping actress caught in a problematic relationship with her mother-celeb, in Postcards from the Edge;

*Judi Dench, as Altzheimer-afflicted writer-philosopher Iris Murdoch, in Iris;

*Nicole Kidman as the Camille-like courtesan-actress, dying of tuberculosis, in Moulin Rouge.

Julie Christie's Filmography

Billy Liar (1963)
Darling (1965)
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967)
Petulia (1968)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
The Go-Between (1971)
Don't Look Now (1973)
Shampoo (1975)
Nashville (1975)
Demon Seed (1977)
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
The Return of the Soldier (1982)
Heat and Dust (1983)
Hamlet (1996)
Afterglow (1997)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Finding Neverland (2004)
Troy (2004)
Away From Her (2006)