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November 18, 2005

DVD Journal: "Being Julia"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My DVD find of my current vacation has been the sumptuous period romp "Being Julia." Although it's chickflick enough that many straight guys will probably prefer to avoid it, I can report that my very manly stepfather-in-law found the picture as touching and funny as I did, and as The Wife did too.

It's a comedy-drama set in the theater world of 1930s London, with plenty of is-it-reality-or-is-it-make-believe metaphysics-lite to chew on -- something along the lines of "Shakespeare in Love," if less playful and more emotionally substantial. Full of gorgeous old cars, richly appointed lodgings, and extravagant backstage scenes, "Being Julia" is the kind of beautifully upholstered, cleverly-turned entertainment that people used to call "delicious."

Annette Bening plays a legendary British theater diva who, moving into her 40s, is having herself one heckuva crisis. Julia is still a great -- if fading -- beauty, but she's painfully aware that she's no longer young. Life is taking some kind of turn for her. Where has the passion gone? Julia and her producer husband have a marriage of mutual respect -- ie., they're devoted, but they both screw around. And the starring roles? Well, these days they kind of come and go.

Is anything she's feeling real, or at least any more real than anything else she's feeling? What does any of it -- the fame, the roles, the art -- really mean? And where has the spark gone, dammit? Julia needs to revive herself, in other words. Given that she's an actress, the agent of her revival is a new love affair. Yet love is never as simple as it first appears, is it?

Working from a novella by Somerset Maugham, Ronald Harwood has devised a sweet and malicious script that is full of scenes so actable that they ought to be used as examples in intro-to-playwriting classes. Istvan Szabo directs with a lot of fondness and respect, and gives the film a rich, Visconti-goes-to-Prague mise-en-scene -- no surprise to learn that much of the film was in fact shot in Eastern Europe.

But you watch movies like this one even more than most for the actors, and the cast in "Being Julia" really sings. Jeremy Irons is suave and witty as Julia's matinee-idol-turned-producer husband. Lucy Punch is a hilariously in-over-her-head combo of glamorous and gauche as Julia's ambitious young rival. Michael Gambon turns on a lot of stirring hamminess as Julia's deceased first mentor, a provincial director who made her a star, and who visits in spirit to supply coaching even now. Nearly everyone in the cast turns in a charmer of a performance; they keep in constant contact with both earnestness and a sense of the absurd.

At the center of it all is Annette Bening, who I found staggeringly good. Helplessly overdramatizing everything, Julia is a diva to the ends of her fingernails, and Bening doesn't shy from showing what an exhausting life-destroyer a diva can be. But she also finds and embodies the desperate and lonely little girl within the star too. Harwood, Szabo, and Bening seem to have taken it as their challenge to show how many sides of this scary and charming woman they can capture onscreen: rapture, bitterness, exhaustion, inspiration, gratitude, humiliation -- it's a portrait that seemed to me almost up there in complexity and depth with the Jeanne Moreau character in "Jules and Jim." Bening puts on a brilliant display of high-comedy technique, turning on one wobbly dime after another. Watch, for example, the way she lets the years show, then collects herself and switches on the incandescence instead. Yet she nails a surprising number of big and raw emotions too.

"Being Julia" may be nothing but fluff, but it struck me as gorgeous fluff, and occasionally as very moving fluff too. At its best, in fact, it reminded me of a couple of late Jean Renoir films that I love: "Elena et les Hommes," and "The Golden Coach."



posted by Michael at November 18, 2005


I thought Being Julia was a great viewing experience too. And Benning was superb, i wish she got the Oscar last year. There is one line from the movie that particularly stuck out as funny. Benning's character says at some point in a monet of honesty, recognizing her wickedness, "I am a rotten bitch through and through". To which Iron's character, which portrais this perfect gentlement in the movie, replies: "Nevertheless..."

One of the best movies in recent years.

Posted by: saint exupery on November 18, 2005 8:27 AM

That was a great exchange, wasn't it? What a pleasure the screenplay was -- sophisticated but friendly, witty yet very humane ... And too bad (for us anyway) that Bening hasn't acted more often than she has since her marriage. Did you notice Warren Beatty during the run-up to the Oscars? He seemed crazed and out of control. Someone told me that it was because he really couldn't stand it that his wife was getting so much attention. I guess he's a Julia-type diva himself.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 18, 2005 10:58 AM

I thought Bening was amazing in that film. I found it a bit slow in the middle, but it's been a while so I don't remember precisely where. The costumes, props, and locations were superb.

Posted by: claire on November 18, 2005 12:20 PM

Maybe you could do a posting on "Great Bitches of the Cinema"....or "Great Diva Films"...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 18, 2005 2:48 PM

Dovetailing Mr. FvB, top of the list of GBoftheC has to be Bette Davis. In fact, she should take the top 5 spots. Every other aspirant is but an amateur.

Posted by: DarkoV on November 18, 2005 4:56 PM

This role sounds tailor made for Bening---normally, I find her to be a great over-actor---as in "The Grifters" and "American Beauty"---very controlled and proficient, but utterly unrealistic. The complete opposite of Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront", for example. A friend once said, "Whatever it was Jimmy Stewart had, Bening has none of." But it sounds like this role is made for over-the-top, given that it sounds like that is precisely what the character is. Almost like a stage role, and she was supposedly quite a stage actress.

Its interesting that you note the timing of Warren Beatty's wierd behavior---remember that commencement speech he gave? It may well be that his wife's accomplishments are a bit uncomfortable for him, good little narcissist that he is!

Posted by: annette on November 19, 2005 8:31 PM

PS--great bitches of the cinema must of course include Joan Crawford.

Posted by: annette on November 19, 2005 8:33 PM

It's also interesting that you mention "Elena et les Hommes"---that was the Renoir film that brought another great diva, Ingrid Bergman, back into Hollywood's viewfinder after her Scandalous Affair. It was because of that that they considered her for "Anastasia", which won her an Oscar and allowed her stop being Hollywood's great fallen woman.

Posted by: annette on November 19, 2005 8:36 PM

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