I got an e-mail the other day with the subject line: “Julia Roberts: not a top 5 movie hooker…” Curious, I opened it and found a list of the “Top Five Working Girls (and Boy) in Movies” as compiled by Spout.com.
(Note to eager publicists or enterprising ladies of the night: Please don't take this as an invitation to litter my mailbox with like-minded subject lines.)
As advertised, Roberts’ sanitized hooker in Garry Marshall’s glossy fairy tale Pretty Woman was nowhere to be found. What I did find was a pretty solid list topped by none other than Julie Christie as brothel mistress Constance Miller in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Well, not only does M&M contain the best “working girl” in movie history, but it’s also my favorite Altman creation, which means it’s one the best movies ever made.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is so unfathomably singular it’s a wonder it exists — a fact all the more remarkable given the reported behind-the-scenes tumult between its mondo-egoed star Warren Beatty and its gonzo director.
Yet Beatty has never been better as John McCabe, an ambitious but endearingly inept small-time gambler trying to make his way in a burgeoning, 19th-century frontier town. Tender and remarkably unguarded, his performance is a testament to Altman’s nurturing, anything-goes creative atmosphere and, no doubt, the presence of Christie, Beatty’s then-lover on screen and off.
In fact, Christie seems more at home amid the scuzzy surroundings (so effectively rendered by Altman and his bold cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) than Beatty. Her introduction into the picture — a sequence in which she charms McCabe while devouring a plate of eggs — is a tour-de-force of naturalistic acting and ballsy character choices, rarities for an actress of Christie’s glamorous public persona.
The Spout write-up is spot-on in its summation of what makes Christie’s concoction so unique: “In fact, it’s Warren Beatty’s dream chaser John McCabe who is the bimbo to Miller’s sly fox. Sex-positive feminism at its finest.”
For the uninitiated (or those who have forgotten the film's poetic charms), here's a video clip of Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy" set to images from M&M; Cohen provided the film's haunting music.
And here's the old-school trailer.