Actress Julie Christie seems to be on everyone's short-list as a possible Oscar winner this year for her role as a woman with Alzheimer's disease in the film "Away From Her."
But when she accepted the best actress prize at last month's Screen Actors Guild Awards show in L.A., Christie made a last-second quip on camera that some view as insensitivity about the disease.
After thanking her cast, the Canadian crew and writer-director Sarah Polley, Christie drew laughs when she concluded: "And if I've forgotten anybody, well, it's just that I'm still in character."
With two movies -- "Away From Her" and "The Savages" -- dealing with Alzheimer's and dementia, respectively, up for Oscars on Sunday, Alzheimer's experts hope emcee Jon Stewart and the celebrity presenters and winners will avoid any humor about the disease.
"It is no laughing matter," said Peter Braun, chief executive of the California Southland chapter of the Alzheimer's Assn. "People don't laugh about cancer; people don't laugh about AIDS. We call on the academy to use this moment for good, as it has done for so many other social causes."
Along with Christie, Laura Linney is up for best actress for "The Savages," in which she plays the daughter of an ailing parent. In addition, "The Savages" is vying for best original screenplay, while "Away From Her" is nominated for best adapted screenplay.
Braun's organization has praised both films for their sensitive treatment of the illnesses. He also saluted Lionsgate, which distributed "Away From Her," for its cooperation with his group, noting that the film's DVD release includes a special Alzheimer's public service announcement from costar Olympia Dukakis.
" 'Away From Her' is an exquisite film, and Julie Christie gives a remarkable performance," Braun said. As for her SAG remarks, he expressed disappointment. "I don't think it's so much Julie Christie. I just think it's part of society's response to an issue that makes people nervous. We would like to think that whether it's the SAG Awards or the Academy Awards, there is an opportunity for the entertainment industry to be champions in fighting Alzheimer's disease."
The national organization is urging people to host parties on Oscar night "to spread awareness about Alzheimer's and raise funds for the cause."
Alzheimer's is not merely memory loss, but a death sentence, Braun said. "People will live with that disease for five, 10 or 15 years depending on their biological clock. Ten percent of the people with Alzheimer's disease are now being diagnosed under age 65. They look fine. They are not in a wheelchair. They can carry on a conversation for a period of time."
He added that Alzheimer's is the nation's seventh leading cause of death and that more than 5 million suffer from it.
Christie could not be reached for comment.