When Darling debuted in 1965, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times remarked that director John Schlesinger had “made a film that will set tongues to wagging and moralists wringing their hands.” There was plenty of tongue-wagging over this satirical study of the professional rise and personal fall of a young British fashion model, but it all had to do with the excellence of Frederic Raphael’s script, the brilliance of Schlesinger’s direction, and the fine performances of a cast headed by veterans Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey and a rising young newcomer named Julie Christie. As for the hand-wringing Crowther prophesied, there was none of that, for even the most dyed-in-the-wool moralists were finding themselves having too much fun with this only mildly cautionary tale of a beautiful, capricious and ambitious young woman who casually drifts her way up the social scale from cover girl to Italian princess. If this was moral turpitude, it did not look half-bad—especially as embodied by Julie Christie, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
One of the few films to look beneath the sleek veneer of London’s fabled “swinging sixties,” Darling reveals what made this scene tick. It may be just one woman’s story, but Schlesinger and Raphael make sure to underscore the fact that their heroine, Diana Scott (Julie Christie), is just one part of a larger picture highlighted through a series of brief, razor-sharp vignettes.
Diana is like so many young, middle-class Britons of that era—loose, free-spirited and adept at navigating a new social scene that found old class rubbing shoulders with new money. Lacking an elaborate education, she reaches for the next best thing—an affair with an educated man. Robert Gold (Dirk Bogarde), a BBC interviewer, seems to radiate with that sense of stability Diana claims she wants. He loves her freshness and vitality—so much so that he leaves his wife and children and moves in with her. But he is not so socially experimental as to accept her sexual promiscuity—her main ticket to success in the new British fast lane. The prime mover and shaker in this ever-growing arena is Miles Brand (Laurence Harvey). Smooth as the finish of a new car, this corporate go-getter is a reigning prince of this new class. He has nothing that he can call his own—everything he buys is at the expense of a company fittingly named “Glass.” Miles is perfectly willing to advance Diana’s career in exchange for sexual favors, but he is incapable of love or opening up to her personally (a telling scene in Chapter 6). Only Robert can give Diana emotional sustenance—but he cannot give her the excitement she craves.
As she gracefully ascends the ladder of London success, Diana brings to mind a distaff version of Budd Schulberg’s Sammy Glick, or a British cousin to Eve Harrington of All About Eve. But there is a major difference between those American schemers and this English one—Diana has no grand design in mind. She may be fascinated by the spectacle of money and power, but she does not go after it in an organized way. Improvising her every move, she takes advantage of whatever strikes her fancy at the moment—from living in a peasant’s hovel to taking up residence in a Palazzo across the bay. She is ideally equipped to living for the moment. But when the moment passes, she is lost. If she is reminiscent of anyone, it is Louise Brook’s Lulu in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box—the innocent destroyer unaware of her means and ends. Lulu ended up dead, a victim of Jack the Ripper, no less. Diana, on the other hand, faces that fate worse than death that every swinging Londoner of the sixties dreaded most– boredom. Married in the end—like Grace Kelly—to a wealthy Italian prince, she finally has every camera turned towards her. But Diana only wants to turn away, in boredom and despair.
Schlesinger and Raphael trace all the ins and outs of Diana’s world with a ruthless intensity that leaves no room for sentimentality. We get to peek at hypocrisy in action at a high class charity benefit (Chapter 5), get the lowdown on la dolce vita at a wild party (Chapter 10), and even see the doings behind closed boardroom doors (Chapter 12), where British entrepreneurs court German financiers by encouraging them to appreciate Diana’s modeling image for its “Aryan quality.” But we in the audience get to see other less superficial qualities in Diana, thanks to Julie Christie’s performance. Christie was just beginning to make a name for herself when Darling came along, her most important previous performance being in Schlesinger’s Billy Liar. There she played a free-living small-town girl called Liz, who, having had enough of that sort of life, had opted for taking off to the big city—leaving the film’s shy hero behind her. The big scene of the film was one of Christie simply walking through town—happy and carefree. She was quite obviously a natural creature of the cinema—someone the camera loved.
Years later, Christie confessed that Darling was a most difficult project. For the problems all actors encounter with making a film shot out of chronological sequence were compounded by the fact that the sequences were extremely short and constantly being revised during the course of the shooting. She did not know whether her character was coming or going from one moment to the next. Yet it is this same instability that keeps the character so alive on screen—for Christie’s uncertainty matches that of Diana.
She receives excellent support from Dirk Bogarde, who manages to make the ploddingly-honest Robert compelling, and Laurence Harvey at his sexy-slimiest as Miles. Both men had well-established careers by this time. John Schlesinger would go on to direct such films as Midnight Cowboy and Sunday, Bloody Sunday. And Christie would find the likes of Dr. Zhivago, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, and The Gold Diggers in her future. Wonderful, worthwhile projects all—and the first sparks of the excitement they were to bring can be seen right here in Darling.