Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Birthday Take: Julie Christie in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971)

Julie Chritie
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Julie Christie
Born: April 14, 1941 (74 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress - McCabe & Mrs. Miller (nominated) as Constance Miller

The Take

There is something special to the lo-fi production values that populate director Robert Altman's foray into westerns. Along with naturalism that includes people talking over each other and hallucinogenic imagery that he would later perfect in 3 Women, the film is unlike most in the genre before or since. Yes, there's a story of a gambler as well as Mrs. Miller, who runs a brothel. It is a study of gender politics along with a stark soundtrack that is upbeat and helps to paint the growth of the small town as something subversively majestic.

What makes Mrs. Miller worthy of top billing is likely that she isn't just another woman in another western. She is a hard working, tough as nails type who stands up for her beliefs and actually tries to make a difference. If McCabe is worthy of being recognized, so is she. There's not too much to refute that and her performance is very memorable as a result. While the western is an odd turn for Altman, choosing to focus on two people instead of the predominant community, it reflects a societal shift that was also going on in the 70's upon the film's release. It may be hard for those who like their westerns shiny and heroic, but it still serves as a unique tale.

A lot of it can be thanked to Julie Christie's performance, which initially just feels like another tough woman story a'la My Darling Clementine. However, the film is a lot grittier than any of the old John Fords. Even the snow has a strange feel to it, feeling grainy and disproportionate. In the fray is Christie, whose ability to convince women to pull themselves up and be more than brothel workers is something inspiring in the story and shows that women could use their sexuality to make a difference in a community that has largely been populate by men.

It could also be that the relationship between its titular characters isn't all that conventional. While Warren Beatty turns in a top notch performance as a gambler, she manages to get under his skin in impeccable ways. It is a western of dour circumstances but humorous idiosyncrasy. It has layers and the best part is that there isn't that much hint of romance between the two. They are simply two people competing against each other in an attempt to make the west their own personal landscape.

While Christie has gone on to have four total nominations, including a win in 1965 for Darling, there is still something that remains striking about McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It could just be that Altman was an inherently different filmmaker. It could be that she possessed confidence in a scenario that usually called for male dominance. No matter what, she was able to capture interest away from her supporting players and made for one of the finest western duos of the 70's that weren't actually partners or lovers. They just enjoyed working together.

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