She Acts To Conquer
“My goal is to become an old woman playing all sorts of character parts,” Annette Bening told a group of drama students at a workshop a few years ago. After seeing Bening’s scintillating performance in Being Julia, I’m convinced she’ll be around to play any role she wants for a long time to come.
Because of her love for acting and her successful live theater experience, Bening takes to the part of Julia Lambert, a British actress commanding the London stage back in the 1930s, like a bear to honey. Happily, the film's fashions, make-up and music suit this versatile actress in the same way those elements complemented her superb acting in Valmont, one of my favorite Bening movies.
To become “Julia,” Bening adopts a convincing British accent and a self-absorbed manner befitting an adored diva of that era. Julia loves being the center of attention. She craves admirers -- even the approving glances of her long-time maid (Juliet Stevenson, marvelous in this low-key supporting role). And, urged on by the ghost of her beloved acting mentor (Michael Gambon), Julia acts as much off-stage as on. She can cry at will, express any emotion with her well-modulated voice, and even uses dialogue from her plays in real-life conversations.
Most moviegoers know by now that films about the ups and downs of a famous actress aren’t complete without a younger woman trying to steal the crown from the reigning queen. Remember how Bette Davis encountered such treachery from Anne Baxter in All about Eve? In Being Julia, a pretty blonde named Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch from Ella Enchanted) is the challenger who not only reaches for Julia’s acting laurels but also for her social-climbing toy boy (Shaun Evans) and her producer husband (Jeremy Irons). To Bening’s credit, although we realize Julia is far from perfect, we can’t help cheering her on as she plans her revenge and carries it off with such glorious aplomb.
Being Julia, directed by Istvan Szabo (Taking Sides) and adapted by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) from a W. Somerset Maugham novel titled Theatre, succeeds in keeping us guessing about what form Julia’s revenge will take -- and eagerly anticipating it. I don’t want to spoil this wonderfully entertaining movie for anyone, but here’s a quote from Of Human Bondage, one of Maugham’s most acclaimed novels, that should give you a clue:
“It is a crime to discover one’s mediocrity only when it’s too late.”
Perhaps I’ve said too much here, for soon after Being Julia begins, you’ll know “mediocrity” has no place in Julia Lambert's -- or Annette Bening’s -- repertoire.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated “R” for some sexuality.)
Read "Bening Goes Back To Work," Betty Jo's interview with Annette Bening right before her 2000 Acadamy Award nomination for Best Actress in American Beauty.