My current Top 5

My current Top 5

7/16/2010

Best Actress 1971: Julie Christie in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"

Constance Miller and Alma Brown – two women from different times, but both trapped in a traditional world of men. And both characters in movies that impressively and unforgettably destroy the illusions of this traditional world. And because both are the only women of importance in this world they had to find a way to cope with the men around them and try to hide their tender characteristics behind a trough and strong exterior.

Eight years after Patricia Neal received an Oscar for bringing Alma Brown to live, Julie Christie received her second Best Actress nomination for playing Constance Miller in Robert Altman’s classic anti-Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Constance is a tough and experienced ‘dame’, or as she puts it, a whore who travels to the frontier lines to help John McCabe set up a brothel. While McCabe has already established an average brothel that serves its function, Mrs. Miller takes a different approach – she emphasizes the importance of comfort and sanitary conditions. She knows that success will come if the men get something different (and better) than everywhere else. And it surely doesn’t take long before their establishment brings in a lot of Dollars.

Constance Miller is a rare ray of light in an otherwise dark and dirty world. While she is actually a part of this world, there is also something in Julie Christie’s looks and acting that sets her apart from her surroundings and creates a fascinating characters that both denies and symbolizes the world she lives in. Perhaps more than in any other of Julie Christie’s performances, her work here depends on the images that she and Altman project. She has created some wonderful images in her career from the loneliness of Fiona Anderson sitting in a chair in an empty room to the bored desperation of Diana Scott walking through an empty castle – but never again will she be as unforgettable as at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller when Constance is lying in a Chinese opium den, starring at a glass egg which she is slowly rolling around in her hand. It’s a thrilling sight of a woman who is still as mysterious as she was in the beginning. The character of Mrs. Miller seemed to have become accessible for the viewer during the run of the story but at the end we have to realize that she is still an enigma, a woman who appeared out of nowhere and changed a certain way of life. If Marry Poppins had been a whore, too, she might have teamed up with her – together they could have cleaned a lot of brothels.

Julie Christie excelled in these images of characters, being alone in a world that doesn’t seem to understand them. The wonderful shot of Mrs. Miller, walking alone at night outside her brothel, is another one of those thrilling images that beautifully flows along with the story and style of the picture. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller, she constantly shows a woman who seems to be alone even when she is interacting with other characters.

Just as captivating as this final shot is her introduction, the image of Mrs. Miller as she arrives for the first time in Presbyterian Church, a sudden sight of sophistication and elegance in an unlikely place. Never before has Julie Christie’s unique voice and her distinct accent been more fascinating – her wonderful English pronunciations certainly don’t fit into her environment but it again serves to set her character apart.

But Julie Christie and Robert Altman don’t reduce Constance Miller to an arrangement of images. Instead, Julie gives a wonderfully crafted, passionate and almost lyrical performance that brings this complex character to a glorious life – a mystic creation with many shades and edges.

Constance Miller is a whore. She is very frank about that but she couldn’t be more different from all the girls who work at the brothel. She is charming, graceful – and most of all, smart. She certainly doesn’t have the manners of a real lady (the way she eats her foot is definitely proof for that), instead she is very practical about everything. She may run the show but she is also willing to work just like the other girls do – the only difference is that she is charging more. In her approach to the part Julie Christie shows that Constance, even though she is not old, already has a lifetime of experience behind her. But it seems that some day in her past she realized that she had much more to offer than just her body.

And that’s why Constance Miller is mostly a business woman. She knows how to run the show and how to turn an average brothel into a gold mine. She knows that it takes money to make money and she is also able to convince McCabe of her plans without having to use her charm or her looks. She never tries to charm anyone or use flirting to get what she wants, instead, her tough and no-nonsense character lives according to her own rules. When she meets McCabe for the first time and makes her proposition, Julie Christie perfectly uses Constance’s experience and intelligence, her slight arrogance and feeling of superiority and her attraction to McCabe to show a woman who knows that she wants but also what’s best for those who work with her. Right at the beginning, when she looks out the window, she seems like a woman who actually has enough but she keeps going with a strong, practical spirit. For a woman to be taken seriously in this time and place it takes a lot of work – for a whore it seems impossible but Julie Christie makes it understandable and realistic.

When she has started to run the brothel, Mrs. Miller also becomes a mother for the girls. There aren’t many scenes that highlight this aspect but her thoughtful and caring acting in a few moments shows that Mrs. Miller knows how to handle her business and how to take care of her girls. In a different scene she helps a young post-order bride to prepare for her wedding and gives her the kind of advices that can only come from a woman who has had the life of Mrs. Miller. Julie Christie always finds exactly the right way to demonstrate the warmth and love in her character while also showing the strong and dominant side.

Mrs. Miller is also a lover. It doesn’t take long, of course, that McCabe and Mrs. Miller began a relationship together and it’s thanks to Julie Christie’s and Warren Beatty’s wonderful chemistry that these scenes are the heart and soul of the picture. Right from the beginning, Mrs. Miller not only appears like a business partner but also like a jealous wife, even shrill and unpleasant but later, she almost appears like a little girl – insecure, frightened but then loving and glad to lie beside this man. With him, she can be herself and with him, she is everything – when she is arguing with him about him getting out of a gunfight, she begins worried and frightened, then suddenly becomes the business woman again before she turns into a housewife in just a few seconds. Julie Christie wonderfully uses her expressive face under her dominant hairdo to show a woman who has spent all her life thinking about sex but wants to find closeness and love. When she displays a more weak side and shows tears coming out of her loving eyes, it’s an incredibly moving moment. In these scenes, she is the complete opposite of the business woman she was at the beginning. Both Mrs. Miller and McCabe seem ‘real’ in this world, they don’t represent the myth of the Old West, they aren’t Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon even though they resemble them in some points. McCabe and Mrs. Miller both see the realities of life and think how they can get an advantage out of them. There is something trivial about their relationship but at the same time they appear like soul mates. Mrs. Miller rather wants to see her guy alive than a dead hero. She doesn’t mind if McCabe would run away in the dark or hide in a horse carriage because she sees no sense in fighting for a piece of land.

In this role, Julie Christie combines her wonderful talents for subtle acting with her equally wonderful talent for loud and shrill scenes. But Constance Miller isn’t Diana Scott – she knows when to hold back, when to stop and how to adjust herself to her environment. Julie’s Constance is a very controlled but also passionate character. Thanks to her delicate appearance, there is also a delicacy in her performance that wonderfully brings Mrs. Miller to live and makes her the emotional center of the story even though she is a rather secondary character. Mrs. Miller appears like a woman who would collapse if one touches her but the strength that Julie Christie projects defies every doubt about her. She wonderfully adds a dignity, loneliness, sadness and passion to the atmosphere of the movie but always keeps a mystery in and around her character.

The character is coming to a full circle at the final shot that shows that Constance Miller is also an opium addict. In an earlier scene, she has already taken opium and suddenly showed a big smile on her face and very childlike relaxedness after it. The image at the end is certainly not childlike – at this moment, she is a woman who is losing everything that seems important to her. It’s a picture of an almost unconscious woman who could have been so much more. It’s a swan sang to an era. The reflection on the glass egg resemble the reflection in her eyes – it’s not clear what is happening behind, how much of her experiences stay on the surface and one can’t help but wonder who this woman really is.

Constance Miller is the sort of character a poet would write about and Julie Christie’s performance knows exactly how to add a certain amount of mystery to her character without over- or under doing it. Everything she does, every movement of her body, her hands, her face adds to the enigma but the result feels never controlled. Julie Christie is an actress who seems to work both from within and outside, a perfect combination of technical and emotional method. It’s a wonderful and unforgettable portrayal of a character that could have easily been lost in the proceedings and for this she gets

3 comments:

hey deanie said...

Oh my gosh, I love this performance so much (haha see my write-up) and I'm so glad you love it too. You pinpointed exactly what I love about this characterization.

Fritz said...

Hello deanie, thanks for commenting! I just checked out your blog - great reviews and I've noticed that we both practially admire the same things about her performance!

Anonymous said...

It's really a great performance. Watch "Don't look now" with Julie if you haven't, its fabulous movie.