Audiences remember her forever young and mod, as the miniskirted, Carnaby Street icon of Darling (1965), as the throbbing love, Lara, of Doctor Zhivago (1965), as the opium-den harlot of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), as the Wilshire Boulevard brassy of Shampoo (1975). The latter two films starred Julie Christie with her off-screen amour, Warren Beatty. After a glamorous relationship, they split; and Christie retreated also from her "beautiful people" repertoire. When she appeared after on screen, quite rarely, she chose serious and often feminist-informed roles in small-budgeted independent pictures. Several times, she was directed by women, including by Sally Potter for The Gold Diggers (1983), a theoretical-experimental work for the British Film Insititute.
Christie explained: "I worked with many, many male directors who were really excellent, such as Dick Lester and John Schlesinger, but, purely selfishly, I like now working with women better than men, I see it as a treat, though it should be normal." We talk at the 1986 Toronto Festival of Festivals, the North American premiere of Miss Mary, by the Argentian director, Maria Louisa Bemberg, whose Camilla was a 1984 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. In the newer film, Christie plays the title role, an upright-and uptight-British governess imported to Argentina in 1938 to educate the children of a conservative, upper-class Spanish family.
Miss Mary is starched clean, but she's plainer than plain. That's fine with the actress portraying her. "Usually I was utilized because I have 'a certain face' that works well in cinema, and I'm used to making myself look as good as possible. In Miss Mary, I wasn't asked to make myself up or down." Christie prepared for the role with more than a makeup kit, by studying letters and diaries of "Miss Mary-like nannies around the world," British governesses who chose to serve abroad. Disappointingly, they had little to report. "The syndrome was that these women had very little passionate involvement in other countries. They looked at everything in terms of Britain.
"Miss Mary thinks she's a compassionate person, but she believes the retention of the class system is most important, and she would support whomever she sees who supports that system. In Argentina, she wouldn't recognize fascism for what it was. Her attitude would be much the same as a North American who believes all the trouble in Chile is left-wing troublemaking. If she lived in Britain, she would support Margaret Thatcher. She's not a very intelligent person, so she would accept the negative description of the coalminers's strike given in the pro-Thatcher media."
Christie, on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Miss Mary, confessed to a problem sympathizing with her character. "Maria Louisa loves this woman, but I can't say I'm very enamored of Mary, though there's a self-confidence in her job and nationality which give her a strength I kind of like. She is strong and courageous, and I don't think she gossips, and there are other little somethings that keep her from being hateful. She's warm to the children, never cruel or sadistic to them. And she has a certain sympathy for the mother. It's not an identification but a sympathy for a lesser creature.
"Mary is a tragic character. She has only one life, and she denies herself. Her biggest problem is fear of sex. Being very religious, she thinks sex outside marriage is wrong, unclean. Quite consciously, she has squashed and suppressed everything that is physical, and she's passing these thoughts to the children: 'Kissing is unhealthy.'
"So many people seeing Miss Mary have said their nanny was just like that.'"
Did she have any trouble with Miss Mary's perfect manners? Christie, sitting with her bare feet up on the couch of her Toronto hotel room, laughed at the question. "I'm very unsocialized and unmannered. I went to a lot of boarding schools in England, but I didn't learn socialization. There's a scene still in the movie in which the little girl is sitting with her legs apart. I should have noticed. I should have been hip to that.
"My own family was colonial middle-class, My father managed a trea plantation for a British company in India. The real upper-class had land, posh family titles. I have no idea that we were connected to anything higher than shopkeepers. So whenever I didn't know something, I'd go ask the director, Maria Louisa. She's a connoisseur of good manners."