Directed by István Szabó; Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel Theatre by Somerset Maugham
Starring Annette Bening, with Jeremy Irons, Shaun Evans, Miriam Margolyes, Bruce Greenwood, Juliet Stevenson, Lucy Punch and Michael Gambon
Rated R; 105 minutes
Audience members watching Being Julia are advised to take their eyes off of star Annette Bening at their own risk. This directive is not because she’s the kind of femme fatale she played beautifully in The Grifters, likely to purloin both your heart and your wallet if your attention drifts for even a few seconds; nor is it because she’ll give you the type of bitchy tongue-lashing she let fly in her terrific performance in American Beauty.
No, it’s because if your eyes wander when watching this film, you’re liable to miss the tiny glints of contradictory emotions at play in Bening’s extraordinarily expressive face — in other words, the performance of a really fine film actress having great fun playing the hell out of a good role.
Bening must have drooled at the chance to play Julia Lambert, a flamboyant, pampered, capital “S” star of the London stage in the late 1930s. It’s probably the same flavor of drool that Bette Davis produced when she read the script for All About Eve, which Being Julia resembles somewhat in plot and theme, though it lacks the pacing and rogues’ gallery of characters in that classic film. The similarities are that Julia, like Margo Channing, is on the brink of acknowledging that she’s getting close to approaching middle age, and that she has to use her wits, wiles and claws to regain her position despite the scheming of younger, prettier climbers and wannabes.
Julia splits the Eve-like character into two: Tom Fennel, a young, seemingly guileless male admirer who quickly becomes Julia’s revivifyingly horny boy toy (Shaun Evans), and Avice Chrichton (Lucy Punch), a pretty young blonde with theatrical ambitions of her own whom the busy Tom is also bedding.
This division adds to the plot-heaviness of Julia’s slow middle section but almost makes up for it in the film’s final scenes, as the experienced older actress wreaks her revenge simultaneously on the ingénue, their shared studmuffin and even Julia’s straying husband (Jeremy Irons). Wouldn’t you have loved to have seen Bette Davis and Anne Baxter act a scene from the play-within-a-movie in Eve, especially after Margo had discovered the depths of Eve’s betrayal?
Satisfying as this ending is, the film takes its sweet time getting to it, with a host of minor characters played by some wonderful character actors (notably Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson and Miriam Margolyes) slowing things down. One reason may be that screenwriter Ronald Harwood and director István Szabó love the theatrical milieu that allows a fabulous monster like Julia to thrive, but perhaps they love it a little too much.
Harwood as much as admits that Julia is little more than a star vehicle; he has one character comment early on that the public comes to the theater to see stars, not plays. Harwood wrote a sentimental but satisfying play about a male theatrical monster (The Dresser), and Szabó directed a chilling version of the actor who sells his soul to the Nazis in order to keep working (Klaus Maria Brandauer in Mephisto). But this film isn’t really strong enough to support the larger illusion vs. reality/theater vs. “real life” themes that it rather baldly states.
In addition, the literary source for Julia is Somerset Maugham, whose touch for light comedy is heavy-handed here. For Maugham’s characters, love and sex are humiliating crosses to bear; they take the shape of obsession whether the characters are ordinary (as in Of Human Bondage and Rain) or “sophisticated,” as they are here and in such vehicles as The Letter and Up at the Villa. Julia falls so hard for Tom that she lets herself be treated like dirt by the snobbish male golddigger, a forced development that’s at odds with the rest of her character. It’s Maugham’s “morality,” or his fear of sex, at work, not a consistent characterization.
Despite these burdens, Bening doesn’t disappoint: she gives us every shade of Julia’s vanity, manipulation, and humiliations. She gets the joke about herself; she knows she’s always playing roles, on stage and off, but instead of moaning about it she revels in her ability to cry on cue, wheedle a favor and act the diva. Bening also makes clear that just because Julia is aware of her technique doesn’t mean she doesn’t have real feelings; she’s just careful about which ones she shows — and also careful to be downstage center when she shows them.