“B-E-N. Ben!”With those three letters, Annette gives my favourite line reading of a singular name since Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond.
Few moments of this decade of cinema bring me as much unbridled delight as Annette Bening's final triumph in the denouement of Being Julia. The role, already one of unbridled "much-ness" is leading up to that grandiose on-stage showdown which allows Julia, and by extension, Annette to use every single trick in her arsenal as an an ac-TOR and it's, easily, the most lively moment of a film with its share of lively moments.
I rewatched Being Julia, the somewhat forgotten theatre farce, this past week on a whim. I wondered if my fond memories of it were just nostalgic. Luckily, I I found it possibly more delightful than the first time I saw it almost a decade ago. Sure, it gets accused of being lightweight, and indeed it is perhaps not a particularly substantial foray into the farcical word of theatre, and yet I treasure. Especially for the performance at the centre.
A few months ago at The Film Experience we contributors had to submit our ten favourite Best Actress nominated (non-winning) performances. This was my list which was especially heavy on Kate the Great:
#1: Geraldine Page in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH
#2: Katharine Hepburn in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
#3: Glenn Close in DANGEROUS LIAISONS
#4: Brenda Blethyn in SECRETS AND LIES
#5: Katharine Hepburn in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
#6: Helena Bonham Carter in THE WINGS OF THE DOVE
#7: Katharine Hepburn in ALICE ADAMS
#8: Judy Garland in A STAR IS BORN
#9: Annette Bening in BEING JULIA
#10: Natalie Wood in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS
(I remember second guessing myself on numbers 8-10. There are so many performances I adore. For example, my unfinished list of runners-up went like so:
Fonda in They Shoot Horses Don't They, Lange in Frances, Keaton in Reds, Hepburn in Summertime, Mulligan in An Education, Kidman in Rabbit Hole, Sarandon in Thelma and Louise)
In fact I felt something akin to physical pain leaving some of these off, and I wondered - was Annette's Julia Lambert truly that excellent a performance? Was, Geraldine Page as another theatrical actress enough theatrics for my list? The Oscar nomination for Julia Lambert in 2004 is one of Annette's four nominations and arguably the one least spoken of, definitely the one from the least remembered film. And, at the time, I remember thinking - it's so easily the best work she's done. It's why when I saw it on television last week I decided to give it a go to see if I had misremembered. I had not. Annette in Being Julia is, for me, the excellent example of a consummate actor in full control of their finest assets, and even their flaws, carving out something excellent. Annette's archness has always been her most noted aspect, but her playfulness in The Grifters, or her theatricality in Bugsy or her winsomeness in The American President are all essential aspect of her as an actor, and they're all on display here to such a excellent effect.
The film around her is not as flawless, but this time around I was even more willing to appreciate the whys of that. I might be giving the film the benefit of the doubt, but the way that the film seems to be created around its lead performance and not the other way around seems only an extension of Julia's own volume. She must command the wind in the sails, she cannot accommodate the film. It's a performance of such constant show that I can understand it being accused of all action but no soul, and yet it always moves me. Even when she is exhausting to behold. And, even at its broadest.
I remember Mark Blankenship wrote an excellent piece on Annette's work HERE and I commented with this response:
I suspect that part of the reason this performance has become undervalued is because of how it plays up the broader aspects of acting with its ostensible lack of subtlety. But that's the genuine beauty of Bening's work. Julia is garish in her ambition, but the performance is never not well executed. A marvel.
I have so many favourite moments, but quiet moment at the end when Julia (FINALLY) drinks her glass of beer and smiles - not the Julia Lambert smile, but a quiet, private one - is a beauty.
And, it's weird. That showdown on stage is spectacular. But, it's the ending of the film that really reminds me that Annette is doing so much here. Her, God I love beer! line reading is another golden one from the film. Dolly responds, Are you acting dear? I never know if you're just acting. It's maybe not the richest of feminist tales, but Julia's refusal to indulge in beer for her appearance when acting is not an incidental point earlier. For, when she does decide to get that one glass at the film's end it feels like such a profoun decision. And, more than the act itself it's Annette's acting which transcends it. I remembered first wondering why a film of a woman of such theatricality ended so quietly, but it fits so well for the film and for Annette. In that single non-speaking moment that smile Annette gives at the film's end, her face alone tells so much and that is PERFECT acting to me.