Julie and Me

Christie Helps One Fan Define a Decade

Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in "Billy Liar," in which Christie made a big impression in a mere 11 minutes.
by Alton Miller.
September 12, 1991

We met in a movie house. I was 20 years old, a struggling writer, my brains a mishmash of plot notions for the novels I would write. She was an actress, my age, just getting started. I was sitting in the back row. She was up on the screen.

Somebody who didn`t even know me had made a movie about my life, and Julie Christie was playing my muse. Julie Christie! Even her name whistled with happy, uninhibited little sibilants, as zesty as her smile.

The year was 1963, but the `60s hadn`t started; Kennedy was still president, the Beatles were still a rumor, and Hollywood, just beginning to peek out from under the tarpaulin of the McCarthy period, was still making beach blanket B-movies.

Apprentice novelists like me went to the repertory cinema houses and looked for Truth in black and white, in the films of Alan Resnais, Tony Richardson, Francois Truffaut. And this one, by young John Schlesinger, called "Billy Liar." In the film that launched her career, she was on the screen only 11 minutes. She was introduced in the famous "walk sequence": jaunty but delicate, sassy, sensual not in any anatomical particular but in the whole; a healthy young woman in love with life, lighting up smiles on the vendors and truck drivers she passed.

Unconventional without being abrasive, her look was casually unkempt but not sloppy. No pouting Bardot here, certainly no smoldering Loren – British and therefore first intelligent, then sexy. I suppose I should mention that Tom Courtenay was in the movie, too. In fairness, I should say he was terrific – it was his film, after all. He played the almost-writer, forever planning to plan his first book. She appeared long enough to offer him liberation and adventure, if only he`d take a chance.

I was first smitten almost 30 years ago. Throughout the 20 films she has made since then, the feeling has never worn off. Eighteen of them are in video, and cumulatively they portray a woman who has become richer and deeper with the years, in her maturity an even more luminously penetrating seeker after meaning. But for all that, it`s her early films I like, even considering the heavy hitters from her Warren Beatty years: "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Shampoo," "Heaven Can Wait" (all on video). My favorites are the ones that helped me define a decade.

After "Billy Liar" came "Darling," another Schlesinger product, in which the self-assured innocent had become a tough cookie. The film was shot on a shoestring, and she was exhausted by its killing work schedule. Maybe that gave her some of her edge, in the role of a scheming model who scratches her way to the top and then wonders what it`s worth.

"Darling" made her a star in 1965, and won her an Oscar. For those who had fallen in love with her, it carried us through the winter of "Dr. Zhivago," released late the same year. The epic film based on Boris Pasternak`s novel, as one critic put it, did for snow what "Lawrence of Arabia" did for sand. David Lean, who directed both films, created a spectacle of scenery and costumery and panoramic vistas. And Julie Christie looked great in silver fox, back when she would still wear fur. Her scenes with Tom Courtenay were poignant, but there didn`t seem to be much chemistry happening with Omar Sharif.

In "Fahrenheit 451," released the following year, she was back where she belonged, working now with Francois Truffaut in his first English-language film. Based on Ray Bradbury`s themes of censorship and literacy, the movie paired her with Oskar Werner. Some thought it plodded; I loved it.

"Far From the Madding Crowd," another brilliant John Schlesinger piece, matched her with Alan Bates and Peter Finch. The 1967 film of the Thomas Hardy novel was a softer sort of epic, one suited to her subtleties, and took the curse off "Zhivago."

The next year she became "Petulia," the flower child gone to seed, in Richard Lester`s only slightly premature requiem for the `60s. Lester`s first Hollywood effort was almost as jumpy as his Beatles films, "A Hard Day`s Night" and "Help," but it worked for me.

The `60s ended, Julie Christie went her way and I went mine. She kept busy. There`s a wealth of Julie Christie available in videocassettes: "The Go-Between," "Don`t Look Now," "The Return of the Soldier," "Heat and Dust," "Separate Tables," "Power," "Miss Mary," "Secret Obsessions."

I never did finish that novel, or the next one either. The most important thing I did that decade was have a daughter. She was born in 1967, and my wife wanted to name her Jennifer. Jennifer`s a nice name, but we finally agreed on Julie.

PHOTO: Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in "Billy Liar," in which Christie made a big impression in a mere 11 minutes. Copyright 1991, 2004, Chicago Tribune