1 Hr., 44 Mins.
Being Julia May 28, 2020
ithout Annette Bening playing the lead, Being Julia (2004) is a nothing of a movie. Statically directed by István Szabó and blandly written by Ronald Harwood, it’s reminiscent of star vehicles for actresses like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford once they moved past 40 — think along the lines of All About Eve (1950) or Humoresque
(1946), which gave a semi-tragic glamour to midlife crises. Even
then, it’s still less akin to those films and more so to the forgettable vehicles made in between masterpieces — the place-holding time-killers that were serviceable but also tired.
Being Julia, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1937 novel Theatre, is set in 1938. Bening plays the title character, a London stage actress in her mid-40s who, while at the height of her popularity (she dependably attracts lines), is getting progressively anxious about her professional longevity. She’s a diva clearly molded after stage stars like Tallulah Bankhead. Every moment in Julia's life she lives through as if it were a scene. Julia’s teenage son, portrayed by Tom Sturridge, tells her, late in the movie, that he can’t be sure when she’s “real." And she has such a bad habit of regurgitating lines from past plays in her everyday life that, in one scene, as she’s getting ready and chatting with someone, her maid (Juliet Stevenson) lip-syncs along with her.
Being Julia could also be called How Julia Got Her Groove Back. The funk she’s in at the start of the film will die down in the course of the movie, then give way for triumph. Most of the de-funking is brought on by Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), a gee-whiz-espousing, 20-something American who after a show one night introduces himself and announces himself Julia’s biggest fan. He’s aggressive about getting to know her. Julia is first repelled, then charmed, by his interest (he keeps showing up at random places). After she impulsively stops by his tiny apartment the afternoon before a performance, they embark on an affair.
We eventually learn that Fennel’s neither her biggest fan nor a naif — he’s a manipulative gigolo type. (Evans makes no sense for this trapdoored part — he has the swagger of a 17-year-old track star who can’t drive, not a secret villain.) But by the time we get to that discovery, something has shifted in Julia; a fire’s in her belly now. She feels sort of renewed. The finale of the movie — Julia
rebelliously, maliciously improvising a pivotal scene opposite a co-star (Lucy Punch) who has meddled in her relationships with both Fennel and her husband (Jeremy Irons) — is a house for that fire to burn. (The movie does have an effective epilogue in which Julia is at a restaurant, alone, drinking a beer; revenge is best served cold, but after you've served it it can be lonely.)
Bening acts in italics in Being Julia. When she moves a limb, she isn’t just moving a limb — she’s making a grand gesture. When she speaks, her vowels are so rounded that, if they were to become tangible objects, we could spin them around on our finger like a freshly pumped basketball. And when Bening cries, she does it so deliberately beautifully that, in one moment in the film, where Julia is all misty-eyed as part of an act but then a genuine choke slips through, we feel a bit of a shock. Bening was nominated for an Oscar for the movie. Watching Being Julia, it’s obvious that that breakthrough in the Oscar race was always the end goal. Service the star first, the movie second. Bening gives a fun, ostentatious performance, but there isn’t much going on around it.
Being Julia is a flat imitation of a Hollywood Golden Era melodrama. It’s prettily but not memorably dressed up. It doesn’t say anything particularly interesting or new by way of the midlife-crisis comic soap opera. The movie reeks of the preordained — like it’s hitting plot beats not because a character has earned it but because that’s where stories like this are supposed to go. Bening takes pleasure in being Julia Lambert, but the movie can't get us interested in finding out why. To be Julia Lambert is to be a person second, a glamorous conduit for awards chatter first. C