February 09, 1998 12:00 PM

DIRECTOR ALAN RUDOLPH FIRST met Julie Christie almost 25 years ago, but when they sat down together last year to discuss her taking the lead rule in a movie called Afterglow, he was struck all over again by the 56-year-old actress’s incandescence: “I said to myself, ‘My God, that’s Julie Christie!’ Anybody working in films has a crush on her.” If so, it’s one of the great unrequited loves in Hollywood history.

At the height of her career, from the late ’60s through the late ’70s, the British actress was, according to movie critic Pauline Kael, ” ‘the sexiest woman in movies”—a unique beauty with an aristocratic profile, sensually pouting lips and blue eyes shaded with a hint of melancholy. After winning an Oscar for Best Actress as a downcast fashion model in 1965’s Darling, she became an international symbol of mod chic. That same year she also played Lara, the elusive love object who made Omar Sharif shiver with desire in the snowy epic Doctor Zhivago. She had the same effect on Warren Beatty, both onscreen (Heaven Can Wait, Shampoo) and off.

In the ’80s, though, she scaled back her career dramatically, happily relinquishing the celebrity she has called “a nonhuman status.” She settled into an old stone farmhouse outside the tiny Welsh village of Llandyssil, where, she said, “I’d rather talk to my ducks than some of the freaks I met in Hollywood.” She took on only small film and TV roles, the result being that a new generation scarcely knows her. Says one twentysomething neighbor in Llandyssil: “I wouldn’t know her if I ran over her with my bike.”

Now, Christie has returned in Afterglow, and young viewers who consider Gwyneth Paltrow the ultimate in blonde mystery will see what they’ve been missing. In the offbeat, low-budget comedy-drama, Christie, still gorgeous (helped, she admits, by a facelift), plays a has-been horror-film star living in morose retirement in Montreal. She strikes up a flirtation with a young executive after she learns that her husband (Nick Nolte) is having an affair with the executive’s wife. Having already won two critics’ awards for a soulful performance that some have called the finest of her career, Christie—who first resurfaced briefly in 1996, playing supporting roles in Dragonheart and Hamlet—may well get an Oscar nomination, her third.

Call it a comeback, then, but who knows if Christie plans on staying? This revival “will change nothing about her,” says Robert Altman, who directed Christie and Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). “She doesn’t have the conventional ambitions of movie actresses, wanting publicity, prizes and money.” Christie, says costar Nolte, who spent off-hours bicycling around Montreal with her, “has known for years all that stuff is poppycock.” She seldom discusses her old movies, claims she doesn’t actively seek out scripts and says her favorite form of acting is narrating audio books.

But when reporters at the San Sebastian film festival in Spain last fall asked why she has made herself so scarce, Christie answered, “I’ve been too busy.” And she wasn’t joking: She has campaigned against nuclear power, taken courses in politics and history and traveled the world from Nicaragua to Russia. “I have 85 numbers for her in my phone book,” says Rudolph, “and 84 are crossed out.” (Her Welsh farm is currently rented out.) Nor has she ever settled down with a husband, although her companion for the past 20 years has been British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell. “She doesn’t seem to need anyone,” says theater director Helena Kaut-Howson, who several years ago coaxed Christie into making a rare stage appearance in Harold Pinter’s Old Times in North Wales.

What drives Christie is “her burning curiosity,” says her friend, director Robert Towne, who cowrote Shampoo. “She wants to know everything.” When she visited Moscow on tour in Old Times, her inquisitiveness astounded costar Harriet Walter as they toured the city. “I think of Julie just spinning around,” she says, “asking questions.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that Hollywood regards Christie “as a little eccentric,” says film essayist David Thomson. She stuffs her purse with clippings and jottings on world events. In London, where she has an apartment, she has been spotted in a raincoat and glasses that make her look “like a librarian,” says Kaut-Howson. “She’s not showy.” Indeed, says Kaut-Howson, during the run of the play, “Julie would never take a separate curtain call or have her name above the others on the program. Never.”

Her face-lift is seemingly her sole concession to Hollywood. “It’s very hard going to America,” she recently told Premiere, “where people who are older than you appear to be younger. That is really, really undermining.”

Why, then, did Christie seek a life as a movie star? Because, she once said, “I’ve no qualifications to be anything else.” She and her brother Clive were born in Assam, India, where her father, Frank St. John Christie, managed a tea plantation. (He and Christie’s mother, Rosemary, are both deceased.) At 7, she was sent back to England to attend boarding school. She always wanted to act but as a girl considered herself too ugly until, she recalled in a 1997 interview, “I told a friend I wasn’t going to a party because I was so shy. And she said, ‘Oh, you must come. I’ve told everybody the prettiest girl in the world is going to come.’ ”

The moviegoing public swiftly agreed. Within two years of graduating from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, Christie became famous as a free-spirited small-town girl in Billy Liar (1963). Moving to L.A. in 1967 sealed her star status, but her chief interest in Hollywood, she always maintained, was romantic. “I was there because of a lot of American boyfriends,” Christie once said.

The most famous, certainly, was Warren Beatty, at the time Hollywood’s swingingest bachelor. They met in 1967, says Towne, while Christie, who kept a home in Malibu, was shooting Petulia. “Warren was crazy about her,” says Towne. But by the time they played ex-lovers in 1975’s Shampoo, she and Beatty—whose high-profile affairs with actresses went on to include Michelle Phillips and Diane Keaton—had split.

Christie has admitted that when she left Hollywood three years later, it was with a heart bruised by a string of affairs. She moved to her house outside Llandyssil, where her appearances were rare but warmly welcomed. When she would stop in at the Upper House Inn to throw darts or have a drink, “she was so relaxed,” says owner Roy Owen. “She’d come over the walking path to get here, come in with her boots and bib overalls.”

Christie began to raise her consciousness along with her farm animals. She championed environmental issues, narrated documentaries about Agent Orange and animal rights, and refused to install central heating, the better to fend off the cold naturally with sheep pelts. She also tailored her career to her convictions, starring in the ’80s in such uncommercial movies as The Gold Diggers, a film produced entirely by a crew of women.

“People would say to me, ‘Where did she go in the ’80s?’ ” says Australian actress and director Lindy Davies, an acting coach with whom Christie—an insecure performer long troubled by an inability to remember lines—has studied for a decade. “She has taken a very particular pathway. It hasn’t always been an easy one. But it has been an interesting one.” And unpredictable. Certainly no one was expecting Afterglow—let alone the wrenching final scene, in which Christie sobs with gale-force intensity. “When I said cut,” recalls director Rudolph, “she was instantly out of character. She got up and said, ‘That was rather silly, wasn’t it?’ ”

Not if she gets an Oscar. Though Christie hasn’t decided on an encore, director Kaut-Howson, at least, has great expectations. “Julie has only sharpened our appetite,” she says. “It’s time for her to take on a role in which she will really fly.” But to her friend Robert Towne, Christie’s passion for the world outside Hollywood is what really matters most. “John Huston used to say, ‘As long as you’ve got curiosity you’ve got everything,’ ” says Towne. “Julie, in that sense, will always have everything.”

TOM GLIATTO

BRYAN ALEXANDER in London, JEFFREY WELLS in Los Angeles and DENNIS PASSA in Melbourne

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