I have been reading about Annette Bening lately, who's starring in the upcoming Mother And Child by Columbian director Rodrigo Garcia. I've always had a soft spot for Bening, but felt that her talent has been underused unfortunately, for although she has a couple of interesting films under her belt - most notably American Beauty - her, in my opinion, outstanding talent as an actress notwithstanding, she's been somewhat unlucky in her choice of films as they often turned out to be critical or financial failures, or sometimes both, such as the unfortunate In Dreams by Neil Jordan. So I was quite pleased to read that she'll be seen in a whole string of films, due to be released in 2010, among them an Oscar Wilde adaptation, A Woman of no Importance, and a remake of Capra's State of the Union.
One of my favourite Bening films - and also, I believe, one of her best - is Being Julia, which I dubbed, All About Julia, Bening's collaboration with Hungarian director Istvan Szabo from 2004. Based on Somerset Maugham’s short story, Theatre, Szabo's film will surely not write cinema history, but it is nevertheless an absolutely delightful, highly enjoyable and intriguing film, due in large part to its captivating leading lady: Annette Bening. Bening dominates the screen with her extraordinary presence, which she hadn’t had the opportunity to express so dazzlingly since her appearance in American Beauty. Tragic, exuberant, melancholic, barmy – Bening as Julia Lambert pulls all the stops, running the whole emotional gamut from A to Z, in a role that has more than just a little in common with Margo Channing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the creator of All About Eve’s Margo Channing, had been inspired by Maugham’s novelette before he set out creating what would become one of the most famous characters in film of the 20th century. Like Margo, Julia is a celebrated actress, but suffers from fear of ageing. Capricious, fascinating and eccentric, both women care little what others think of them. And although Julia is married she shares with Margo a hang-up for a younger man. However, while Margo truly and sincerely loves Bill Sampson, Julia’s love for Tom Fennel can be little more than an infatuation, which has its origins in a deep-rooted reluctance to grow old and in the fact that her marriage has grown stale. Enter Eve Harrington - sorry: Avice Crichton - who’s to play the ingénue in Julia new play. Upon realizing that Avice not only sleeps with Tom but also with her husband, Julia comes up with a revenge master plan that leaves the audience gasping, not to mention the playwright! Outwitting not only her adversary but also her husband, Julia swirls around the stage on an imaginary broomstick, her revenge being one of panache, verve and cunning, showing no traces of bitterness - Margo Channing couldn’t have done it better!
Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons in Being Julia, Istvan Szabo, UK/ USA/ Hungary, 2004
However, Being Julia, unlike All About Eve, is strictly a character study, which Maugham most probably wrote with one particular real-life actress in mind (I wouldn't be in the least surprised if it turned out to be Tallulah Bankhead!). It’s like a portrait - idolatry almost - a perfect show case for an actress of Bening’s calibre. Szabo’s film doesn’t aspire to take the whole theatre world under scrutiny, dissecting it, like Mankiewicz did, with wise-cracks and witty one-liners which every self-respecting movie-buff of today knows off the cuff. Being Julia is set in 1930s London, and apart from it being a highly amusing story, it is also a feast for the eyes. Partly shot in Budapest, location scouts and set designers must have had a field day, using the remnants of the city’s lavish KuK splendour to fill in for pre-war London.
A real treat, this film, which I'd advise you to catch should you have missed when it was first released five years ago.
About Julia is available on DVD.