The brilliance of being Bening

A diva’s story divinely acted

Nov 17, 2004 at 12:00 am

Lately, it seems there’s been a bumper crop of actors outshining the films they star in. Ray, Sideways and The Machinist all boast masterful performances in less than masterful vehicles. In each case, the leads were so good they elevated the film around them.

Add to this list the frothy and, ultimately, middlebrow period piece Being Julia. The movie boasts an intelligent and wonderfully vivacious performance by Annette Bening as Julia Lambert, a theatrical diva caught in a midlife crisis.

It’s easy to forget just how good an actress Bening can be. She seems to have relegated her career to one film per year, and the projects have been pretty hit or miss. For every American Beauty there’s been an Open Range.

This time, however, Bening has picked a role with Oscar written all over it.

Based on a novella by W. Somerset Maugham and handsomely directed by Istvan Szabs (Sunshine, Mephisto), Being Julia is a perfectly respectful bit of cinema that struggles against a poorly constructed script.

Set in 1930s London, in the rarefied world of professional theater, Julia Lambert is a self-involved actress who has reached the peak of her career. With nowhere to go but down, she phones in her performances on stage while saving the real drama for friends, family and lovers. Her producer-husband (the always charming Jeremy Irons) is far more concerned with her thespian chops than her extramarital dalliances. Accordingly, Julia traipses through life with a wry mixture of hysteria and boredom. Faking grandiose emotions when she feels ambivalent and offering casual indifference when distraught, Julia has made the entire world her stage.

When she meets a fresh-faced young fan named Tom Fennell (the stiff Shaun Evans in an underwritten role), she quickly and surprisingly falls in love. Suddenly, Julia’s passion for the stage returns as she rides an emotional roller coaster of giddy schoolgirl lust and self-doubting jealousy.

Predictably, selfish young Tom leaves her for an ambitious young ingenue who wants to take Julia’s place in bed and on stage.

Bening is terrific as she carefully portrays Julia’s sharp ache and simmering rage on discovering the betrayal. Her face becomes a flurry of impish smiles, wounded looks and tears beaten back by laughter. She’s a woman whose pride and beauty will not be defeated by age or heartbreak. It’s an impressive balancing act that never crosses the line into self-pity or self-indulgence.

Like the far superior All About Eve, Being Julia wants to be a witty comedy about backstage backstabbing. Unfortunately, screenwriter Ron Harwood can’t seem to corral the story. The script takes far too many awkward detours before finally arriving at Julia’s delightfully wicked revenge. Luckily, Bening is so luminously good that we revel in Julia’s triumph even if we don’t quite understand how we got there.

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].