SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Julie Christie jokes that she comes out of seclusion to do a movie about once a decade. And just about as often, the Academy Award-winning actress earns an Oscar nomination for the effort.
The same could happen with Christie's remarkable performance as a woman succumbing to Alzheimer's in "Away From Her." The Oscar buzz began more than a year ago when the movie debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, continued after the movie hit theaters last May, and remains as strong as ever on the eve of the Golden Globe nominations that kick off Hollywood's awards season. The movie is out on DVD.
A best-actress Oscar winner as a model who sleeps her way to the top in 1965's "Darling," Christie quickly became choosy about films. Yet she found plum roles that earned her two more nominations, for 1971's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and 1997's "Afterglow."
A homebody who prefers to stay on her small farm in Wales, the 67-year-old Christie dreads the thought of being back in Oscar contention.
"Deep anxiety. Huge anxiety," Christie said of the awards rigmarole, which drags on for months until the Oscars finally are handed out Feb. 24. Critics' groups have already singled her out; the New York Film Critics Circle this week gave Christie their best actress prize.
In an interview here, Christie described how out of place she feels when publicists and awards handlers plot strategy to keep her in the minds of voters for the Oscars and other film honors.
"It's like, 'You may have to go to Mars and pretend to be a Martian,' " Christie said. "I think, oh, I don't know any Martians. Can you give me some rules? And you're told, 'No, you've just got to make up how to be like a Martian, and you must not be discovered.' So the moment anyone says the word Oscar, the anxiety sets in."
The O-word was inevitable for Christie's performance in "Away From Her," the directing debut of actress Sarah Polley, who adapted the screenplay from Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain."
Christie plays Fiona, a woman whose long, sometimes shaky marriage to a once-adulterous but now steadfast husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), goes into decline as her memory fades from Alzheimer's.
To ease Grant's pain, Fiona checks herself into an institution while she still retains most of her faculties. But she deteriorates so quickly that she no longer recognizes Grant, who suffers through quiet jealousy as his wife transfers her affections in a flirtation with another aging patient.
Christie remains as luminous as in her "Darling" days, radiating the effervescence of the woman Fiona once was even amid her mental decline.
Did the role make Christie consider her own mortality?
"It might have, but I think a lot already about my own mortality. It made me think much more practically. Thinking about your mortality is an extremely practical thing to do," Christie said. "It made me think, I've got to get down to some really serious thinking when I write my will about what I want to happen and what not happen.
"I would never do what Fiona did, I'm pretty sure. I wouldn't have the guts. . . . I can't see many people having the fiber or the backbone to actually check themselves into an institution in order to save the pain of the person they love. I think I'd rather take pills, myself. Why bother with institutions? It costs money. Somebody's got to pay for it."
Christie already had firsthand experience with Alzheimer's. With people living longer nowadays, acquaintances and parents of many of her friends developed the disease, she said.
"A dear friend of mine in Wales, a farmer, she was about 80 years old. She was my neighbor. She taught me a lot about farming, like how you call a pig when you've lost the pig. The noise you make," Christie said. "Anyway, she eventually got ill in this way, and I spent some time with her. Quite intense time. She was in a home."
Convincing Christie to take the role was a challenge for Polley, who first read Munro's story flying home to Canada from Iceland, where she had just finished the 2002 film "No Such Thing," in which Christie had a small part.
Polley immediately imagined Christie as Fiona. But Christie has made as much of a career turning down films as she has acting.
After "Darling" and her follow-up, "Dr. Zhivago," Christie started declining high-profile offers in favor of smaller, less commercial films such as "Fahrenheit 451" and "Far From the Madding Crowd."
As the years passed, Christie became less and less inclined to work and found fewer parts that interested her.
"I knew it would be difficult, because she's not the most ambitious of actors in the world, and she's not that interested in working all the time," Polley said. "She really liked the script and spent about two months really agonizing over it, then gave a very definite, 'No.' "
It took months of arm-twisting before Christie finally agreed, "and once she did, it kind of became clear why it's so hard to get a yes out of her," Polley said. "Because she gives all of herself to what she does. Once she said yes, she was more committed than anybody."