While writing that review for Chéri there was one film that kept on popping up in my head. Being Julia. The similarities between these two films are not trivial. Both deal with aging women, both feature tour-de-force performances by their leading stars, both are about May – December romances and both were written off by the critics. The most common response I have heard about this movie is that it is a lesser All About Eve. First of all, All About Eve light doesn’t seem so bad – but more importantly this is based on a novella by Somerset Maugham which was written in the thirties…so obviously – it’s not an All About Eve redux.
The story is Julia Lambert’s. She is an accomplished actress in London’s West End. She has a tepid but amiable relationship with her husband Michael – her agent and producer. Julia has reached that point in her life when her very actions seem pointless. She tells Michael in the first scene. “I feel as though my life is coming to an end… I want something to happen.” Her husband asks her what. “I don’t know”, she replies. But something does happen. Something that first leads Julia’s life into pure bliss, sorrow then bliss again. It is the introduction of a young man – Thomas Fennel to her life. She begins an affair with him. The fact that she starts an affair with him is not a spoiler, neither is it a spoiler to find that he eventually grows tired of her. This story is not rooted in plot, but in the comedy of words and actions. Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night "is no less funny when we know what will happen and although this is NOT Shakespeare, it’s the same with Being Julia.
Annette Bening is the life of Being Julia. Just so you know she is my favourite living actress…so that means there’s that possibility of nepotism. This performance earned Bening her third Oscar nomination and a win at the NBR and Golden Globes. The common thread of criticism against her performance [having read the plentiful posts on IMDB] is that there is no chance for the audience to make any emotional connection to Julia. I’m all for the subjectivity of film…but I really can’t understand this argument. Did these people actually look at the movie? There’s a key scene late in the film where Julia has a heart to heart with her son. He tells her “You have a performance for everyone…” that sums up Julia’s character. She isn’t real. She is an actress through and through. She becomes the characters she plays and plays herself. You’re not supposed to like Julia to enjoy this film – you’re supposed to know your allegiances should lie with her. That’s enough. And although Annette commands the screen every second she is on, there are some beautiful supporting performances – notably Michael Gambon, Jeremy Irons, Tom Sturridge, Juliette Stevenson and a scene stealing Miriam Margolyes in a hilarious cameo.
One interesting thing about this movie is aforementioned tepid relationship between Michael and Julia Lambert. In one scene Julia tells her investor “Michael and I lead separate lives. That's why we're so happy.”. They’re best of friends but they’re not in love anymore...it seems. There doesn’t seem to be any sexual attraction between the two. He goes his way and she goes his. It’s a common mistake to think that this film is being unfair to men. Julia has an affair with Tom and Michael has his dalliance with Avice. And in the end Julia publicly debases Avice. But you’re missing the point. Julia couldn’t care less that Michael is sleeping with Avice. Julia is an aging startled. She fears age and this young woman insinuates herself into Julia’s circle. Julia’s final triumph has nothing to do with Avice really. It’s a beacon to the public. Julia is still as formidable. What’s even more fascinating about that dénouement is that at the end of it all we see Julia and Michael kiss for the first time. Has this all been some ludicrous form of foreplay for this delightful couple? Je ne sais pas. But it’s an interesting thought.
Being Julia may be a bauble. A beautiful, enjoyable and insignificant bauble…but I don’t think that the producers intended it to be anything more. It’s a wonderful delight for under towards…and a perfectly enjoyable comedy that is smarter than meets the eyes. This is not the type of film that you go home and lie in bed thinking about the intricacies of plot or the deception of characters. It’s the kind of film you look at and for a little below two hours, the type of film where you appreciate that there is a thing as justice, no matter how flawed. The type of film that makes you realise that Annette Bening is a powerful actress.