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‘Being Julia’

Unbearable heavinessof being a woman

by Kaori Shoji

The great Sarah Bernhardt said all women are actresses in one way or another, and “Being Julia” explores every facet of that quote.

Set in late 1930s London, it’s based on a much-loved Somerset Maugham novella (“Theater”) and revolves around Julia Lambert (Annette Benning), a celebrated stage actress at the pinnacle of her long and successful career. Having reached her late 40s, however, Julia finds herself exhausted and bored. Her life consists of lunches with her producer husband Michael (portrayed by a dead-on Jeremy Irons), platonic dinners with her longtime admirer Sir Charles (Bruce Greenwood), work, and a strict regimen of body maintenance and dieting. (“I have no life!” she moans.)

Where ordinary femmes have long retreated quite comfortably from the front lines of “femme-dom,” Julia has it tough: If she’s to continue working she must remain romantic and beautiful, but her staid, well-ordered life wasn’t likely to provide inspiration for beauty or romance. (“How am I supposed to perform when my own life is just dust and ashes!”)

And so she takes the hard route by taking a young lover, which amounts to alternating between experiencing deeply satisfying, erotic love and plumbing the depths of self-doubt and jealousy. Being an actress, or more to the point, being Julia, may be strenuous, but it also seems like incredible fun.

Directed by Istvan Szabo (“Sunshine”) “Being Julia” is notable for the no-holds-barred camerawork that goes for extreme closeups. The director is obviously fascinated by his cast’s faces — whether they’re young and taut or lined and tired, he wants to chart the effect of emotions and dialogue on the actors’ expressions.

Being Julia
Rating
Director Istvan Szabo
Run Time 104 minutes
Language English

Annette Benning especially is spared no mercy as the lens stays fixed on her startlingly mobile face as it goes through a gamut of feelings with total abandon. As Julia, she has never seemed so generous, vulnerable and utterly charming. The snag (or wonder) is that she doesn’t mean any of it. Ultimately, Julia’s only acting.

During the first scenes she’s a fireball, storming into her husband’s office to declare how she’s been working too hard, she’s at the end of her tether, rant, rant. For emphasis she slaps his face but the calculated grace in her every movement gives her away. As her late mentor Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon) — who appears in the film as a ghost visible only to her — is fond of saying: “Every gesture and every emotion must be perfectly timed and attractive to look at. After all, you’re an actress aren’t you?”

So when she falls hard and fast for 25-year-old American Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), she’s careful to act the part of a sophisticated woman, having a bit of a diversion with a younger man. And in the meantime she shrewdly observes Tom for what he is: shallow, predatory and over-sexed. Still, she grows younger in his company and by striving to please him, takes on a wonderful glow which enhances her performances.

On the other hand, the woman in her demands more out of the relationship and she’s constantly plagued by jealousy (imagined and otherwise) and a crushing sense of inadequacy (“If you must cross your t’s, I’m old enough to be his mother!”). On good days she can channel all that into her craft, but on others she cries herself to sleep and worries about her eyes swelling up. Her self-confidence takes more battering when a much younger rival by the name of Avice Crichton (Judy Punch) appears on the scene, threatening to usurp her position both on the stage and in Tom’s affections.

“Being Julia” could also be called “Finding Julia” as Julia temporarily loses track of what it is to be herself, (what with the tempestuous, stressful affair demanding constant attention) before rediscovering what it turns out to be: not a woman who’s satisfied with something as banal as mere love, but England’s greatest actress.

The last 30-minutes shows Julia in her finest hour. On the stage on the opening night of her new play, she gets sweet revenge on everyone who has done damage to her self-esteem, including her boring, self-complacent husband and the conniving Avice. As for Tom, he doesn’t know what hit him as she walks away (after all that heartache) with a shrug and a bemused smile.

No doubt she’s stored up a lot of emotional data to fortify her future performances. As Jimmie Langton never stops reminding her: “Your only reality is the theater.” And when her teenage son Roger defiantly tells her that she “never stops acting” and even her feelings are “secondhand,” Julia is honestly bewildered: What could possibly be wrong with that?

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