Imaginary Lover

For better or worse, the 1960s was a time when commercial and experimental cinema occasionally collided, producing innovative, financially successful films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), but more often high profile failures such as Tony Richardson’s The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) and the unfortunate 1969 screen adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. In Search of Gregory (1969), which was designed as a star vehicle for Julie Christie by producer Joseph Janni and followed her critically acclaimed performance in Petulia (1968), falls into the latter category. 

The French film poster for IN SEARCH OF GREGORY (1969)

Written for the screen by Lucile Laks (Black Belly of the Tarantula, 1971) and Tonino Guerra, who worked with Antonioni on such masterpieces as L’avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and Eclipse (1962), In Search of Gregory is pure gossamer, an abstract meditation on identity and human yearning. It needed a master filmmaker like Antonioni to visualize such an ethereal existential conceit but Janni, who was also managing Christie at the time along with actresses Carol White and Prunella Ransome, hired Peter Wood to direct.

Director Peter Wood and Julie Christie during the making of IN SEARCH OF GREGORY (1969).

Wood was a promising director in the London theatre world at the time and had never made a feature film, though he had directed some plays for television in the early sixties (He was nominated for an Emmy for his 1970 TV adaptation of Hamlet). The result was almost universally savaged by critics everywhere and the film was held up for release for more than a year. Yet, the film was obviously a labor of love for Janni who showcases Christie in almost every scene. At the time, Janni explained in an interview, “I would spend hours just thinking what sort of film would be right for her. Think, think, think. When I felt I had the right story which is our raw material I would spend thousands of pounds developing it. If it did not seem one hundred per cent right it would be scrapped.”

Catherine (Julie Christie) and her brother Daniel (John Hurt) in an introspective moment from the psychological drama IN SEARCH OF GREGORY (1969), directed by Peter Wood.

Janni probably should have scrapped In Search of Gregory but here is the ethereal premise he built his movie upon: Catherine Morelli (Christie), a wealthy heiress living in Rome with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, agrees to attend her father’s wedding – his fifth marriage – in Geneva after being intrigued by his description of a mysterious houseguest from America named Gregory. Upon arrival, Daniel (John Hurt), Catherine’s agoraphobic brother, further enhances Gregory’s mystique by confessing some of their wild exploits together, one involving Daniel’s first attempt at driving a stick-shift convertible while Gregory straddled the hood at top speed. Yet, Gregory remains elusive during Catherine’s stay, despite constant sightings of him by other family members and friends. This only increases Catherine’s curiosity about him until it becomes a romantic obsession…but it remains one that will be forever unconsummated.

With colorful scenes filmed in Geneva and Rome and Christie’s constantly changing wardrobe of short skirts and floppy hats, In Search of Gregory is often pleasing to the eye but vacuous. The presentation of Gregory, played by an uncharismatic Michael Sarrazin, is the film’s biggest flaw since he is unable to live up to the dynamic and exciting legend he seems to be in the lives of others. Attempts to dramatize his creative genius, such as a scene where he conducts an avant-garde symphony of his own design involving a bicycle, bottles, a trash can, a balloon and two guitarists, are laughable and only make Catherine’s longing for him more absurd.

The elusive Gregory (Michael Sarrazin) is a fantasy figure in the life of Catherine and possessed of numerous talents and skills such as being a renowned chef in the 1969 film IN SEARCH OF GREGORY.

In addition, the syrupy music score by Ron Grainer only accents the misbegotten nature of the film and includes two excruciatingly bad ballads, “Dreams” and “Close,” both sung by Georgie Fame, who enjoyed some top forty success in the early ’60s with the hits “Yeh Yeh” (1965) and “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” (1967).

A promotional still from IN SEARCH OF GREGORY (1969), made at the end of the swinging sixties and starring Julie Christie.

During the making of In Search of Gregory, Christie was in the process of breaking up with her current fiancé Don Bessett and dating Warren Beatty, who would visit her in Geneva in between breaks on the filming of his movie, The Only Game in Town (1970, it was shot in Paris but set in Las Vegas). Beatty and Christie had first met at the royal premiere of Born Free (1966) in London when he was filming Kaleidoscope there in 1966 but they wouldn’t be linked romantically until 1967. Even then, due to their discretion, their affair remained under the radar of most tabloid reporters until they appeared together in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).

The Spanish film poster for IN SEARCH OF GREGORY (1969).

As for Michael Sarrazin, he was on the cusp of stardom as a Universal Studios contract player at the time of the film. His next picture was the critically acclaimed drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), directed by Sydney Pollack, which was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Unfortunately, one of Sarrazin’s big scenes, in which he explains his motives for shooting the Jane Fonda character, was cut due to length and pacing and he was overlooked in the Oscar race that year. Even worse, he was in the running for the Jon Voight role in Midnight Cowboy (1969) but his agent demanded too much for his services without telling him and the studio offered the role to Voight. When he was informed about what had happened, he allegedly torn the phone out of the wall.

Is Gregory (Michael Sarrazin, center) a figment of Catherine’s imagination or a real person? You can’t be sure in Peter Wood’s IN SEARCH OF GREGORY starring Julie Christie.

Whatever high hopes Joseph Janni, Peter Wood and Julie Christie may have had for In Search of Gregory were soon dashed by the critics. Patrick Gibbs of the Daily Telegraph wrote, “If In Search of Gregory comes out as a silly film it is no doubt because the central character (Christie), who is seldom off the screen, is a stupendously silly girl. This need not have counted against the film…[but] those concerned don’t seem to realize what a silly girl they have on their hands: they take her quite seriously.”

Daniel (John Hurt) has an irrational fear of open or crowded places in the 1969 psychological drama IN SEARCH OF GREGORY.

Roger Greenspan of The New York Times said, “In Search of Gregory fails not so much from the stupidity of its plot as from the dim timidity of its inventions. From the fantasy Gregory’s demonstrations of personal uniqueness to…[a] climactic game of “Autoball” (a form of soccer-field pollution that looks like lacrosse played out of the back seats of little cars) every crucial incident dulls and strains, and does not excite, the imagination. It turns out, for example, that the real Gregory has a business, a garage-factory where he cans a little nothing that he labels “Air des Alpes.” One might grant the symbolism if the cans weren’t vacuum sealed – so that the only reasonable interpretation is consumer fraud.”

Not everyone panned the film and, surprisingly enough, Variety actually praised it, calling it, “A superbly-wrought gem about the romantic illusions people, especially would-be lovers, search for in one another, with Julie Christie ideally cast as the seeker and Michael Sarrazin as her fantasy.” Even Molly Haskell in her review for The Village Voice admired some aspects of it, writing “What is wrong with “In Search of Gregory” is so much simpler and more obvious than what is right with it that its merit – directorial audacity, an oil-and-water mix narrative – is likely to go unappreciated…It is a fairly routine psychological suspense story – stylish, sunny – within which director Peter Wood unabashedly confounds fantasy and reality and points of view without ever returning to GO or referring to an objective truth…Nevertheless, Wood has a flair for visual clues, for self-inventing cryptography.”

A promotional still from the 1969 film IN SEARCH OF GREGORY starring Michael Sarrazin & Julie Christie.

Unfortunately, In Search of Gregory marked the end of Christie’s association with producer/agent Joseph Janni. Peter Wood would return to stage and theatre productions and never direct another theatrical feature and Christie would move on to better things, following this with the critically acclaimed The Go-Between (1970), directed by Joseph Losey. After that came Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1973) – her second Best Actress Oscar nomination – followed by Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Shampoo (1975) with Warren Beatty again and a cameo appearance in Nashville (1975). And she finished the 1970s opposite Beatty in Heaven Can Wait (1978), which was nominated for 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Not a bad run.

Catherine (Julie Christie) creates a fantasy lover out of someone she has never really met in the 1969 film IN SEARCH OF GREGORY.

If you are a Julie Christie completist or a connoisseur of sixties oddball cinema, then In Search of Gregory is a must-see. Unfortunately, it appears to be missing in action in terms of availability on DVD and Blu-ray but it has been aired on Turner Classic Movies and other venues so it may turn up again someday.

Other links of interest:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/feb/18/peter-wood-obituary

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-joseph-janni-1419866.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/actor-michael-sarrazin-dies-at-70/2011/04/18/AF2C9H7D_story.html

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