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Actresses on the Verge

István Szabó's 'Being Julia': fasten your seat belts, it's a bumpy ride

By Richard von Busack

IN 1938, the actress Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) is the toast of the West End. Crusty toast burned a bit at the edges, maybe, but she is still considered a savory dish by the crowds who turn up to see her in such deep-dish efforts as Farewell, My Love, The Second Mrs. Jonquil and Kiss Me If You Can. Being Julia follows this sometimes irascible and aging star through heartbreak. While everyone around her swills champagne, this former Isle of Jersey girl secretly prefers beer. Julia is happy to let out her working-class side. A lady who knew Julia in her childhood confronts this mink-wrapped actress for the veterinarian's daughter she once was. Yes, Julia snaps, my father was often at your house, delivering bitches.

Julia's marriage with her manager, Michael (Jeremy Irons), is about as substantial as the pasteboard sets behind her. And because of her boredom and uncertainty, she becomes mad about a boy (even though there's something of a cad about the boy, as the soundtrack, quoting Noel Coward's song, reminds us). Her new beau is the American Tom (the Chris O'Donnellish Shaun Evans). Despite advice from the visible phantom of her first and best teacher, played by Michael Gambon, Julia loses her head. The worst happens: this boy toy is not averse to spending her money, and he also has a girl on the side (Lucy Punch). With all the wrath of a two-timer three-timed, Julia plots a suitable revenge.

It should be apparent that Being Julia, derived from W. Somerset Maugham's 1937 novella Theater, is a thoroughgoing piece of fluff. The film sweeps away the tinsel of the theater to reveal the real tinsel underneath. It delivers the bitches, certainly, but it's All About Eve without enough saberlike lines. The tragedy of this pampered and petted star can't be taken too seriously, which is apparent to everyone but Bening who, having a juicy Bette Davis part, squeezes it till the rind bursts. Bening tends to giggle girlishly during the love scenes—her way of showing bubbliness—and that gets on the nerves. And she gives her all to the cheaper parts of the tragedy, even letting her see us smear cold cream on her face to play the whitefaced tragic clown. She would have hit home more if she showed less. Maugham has gone out of fashion onscreen, and maybe the reason is that there aren't many actors to play his brittle, glossy characters; there's only one Jude Law, and he's overbooked already.

This gusty comedy blows hard—observe Maury Chaykin if you want to see a really grisly drunk scene, or Miriam Margolyes if you want to see a particularly low lesbian joke. Others survive: Juliet Stevenson does some superb Thelma Rittering, but would one expect any less from this acid actress? And in the interest of promoting young actors—part of the story's theme—I thought that the young Tom Sturridge was very suave as Julia's intelligent son, who sees through his mother's artifice but forgives her for it.

Being Julia (R; 105 min.), directed by István Szabó, written by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, photographed by Lajos Koltai and starring Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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