(the 415th of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)
JULIE CHRISTIE IN AFTERGLOW (1997)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets
Helena Bonham Carter in Wings of the Dove
Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown
Kate Winslet in Titanic
It is the true superpower of a movie star to elevate the material she is given. Amusingly, in one scene in Afterglow, Julie’s character, a former B-movie actress describes, to an amused dinner table, being stranded on set with a clueless director and a catastrophically inept cast. Unfortunately, that unintentional insight could be the most profound that the film has to offer. Afterglow is a preposterous morass of 1990s angst, centering on a pair of unhappily married couples, one old and long-ruined (Julie & Nick Nolte), the other young and straining at the breaking point (Jonny Lee Miller & Lara Flynn Boyle, unfortunately). Yes, the four individuals are drawn into affairs with each other, opening up a heavy-handed exploration of ponderous themes like paralysis, isolation, and Montreal. If actresses are measured by their worst films as well as by their best, and beset by wildly inconsistent performances and drastically clumsy symbolism, it is Julie’s task to salvage her quadrant of the story with a graceful and humble performance.
The story picks up decades after the main action, with Julie’s character poring over reruns of the 1960s British horror films in which she starred, and otherwise living with the still-smoking ruins of a past infidelity that resulted in a runaway daughter and the ruination of her marriage to Nick Nolte. Julie takes this complicated, oblique personal narrative and makes sense of it through her character’s central humiliation: lamenting her former career, her past mistakes, and inevitable aging, she conducts herself as gracefully as possible. In her dignified, reserved acquiescence to Jonny Lee Miller’s advances (she is that last of the four characters to yield to any shenanigans), she remains the only character who seems fully aware of herself and above the petty circuit of jealousy that surges through the other characters. Only the phantom of her daughter, which appears in scenes bookending the film, has the power to shatter her poise. One of four British women nominated in 1997, she lost to the sole American in the mix, Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets, whereas I would cast my vote for a breakout Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown. That said, I am glad that Julie was still doing her very best under the worst of circumstances.