Annette Bening compresses a lifetime of emotions into an entertaining revenge comedy
When a fawning admirer tells Julia Lambert, grande dame of the English stage, that she ought to be in pictures, she huffs, "Real actresses don't make films." Annette Bening has been on a thespian sabbatical, but her bravura performance as the magnificent Julia Lambert leaves no doubt that a real actress has returned to making films. An adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham novel titled Theatre, Being Julia is a zestful account of Julia's decisive triumph on stage and backstage. She is, as her wayward husband, Michael (Irons), admits, "a wonderful, glorious monster."
The year is 1938, and Lambert is beguiling London audiences in a melodrama called Farewell, My Love. But the actress herself is bored and exhausted. She pleads with Michael, who runs the theater, to close down the production and give her some rest. However, her energy is soon restored by a handsome young American named Tom Fennel (Evans) who, preying on the anxiety and vanity of an aging diva, persuades Julia that he is her greatest fan. Though Tom is only slighter older than her son, Julia falls for him. Julia's marriage to Michael, who trifles with starlets, is a cordial but passionless entente, and he refuses to take seriously gossip linking his wife with that bounder. "Sex doesn't mean a thing to her," he assures the theater's principal financial backer, Dolly de Vries (Margolyes). But sex with Tom rejuvenates Julia, and Dolly takes an accurate measure of Tom: "He's a little gold digger."
Tom exploits Julia's infatuation with him to cadge money and gifts and to advance the career of Avice Crichton (Punch), a blonde ingenue he intends to marry. He coaxes Julia into offering Avice a role in her next play. "I can get Julia to do anything I want," Tom boasts to his fiancée. Avice hopes to eclipse old Julia and emerge as the leading actress of the London stage. However, Julia has a few surprises in store for Avice, the audience of the play, and the audience of this film.
In several István Szabó films, the urgencies of public history intrude into the private lives of performers. In Taking Sides, Wilhelm Furtwángler, the most brilliant musical interpreter in Germany, is judged not on how well he conducted his country's leading orchestra but on whether he gave aid and comfort to Adolf Hitler. In Mephisto, an actor intent on perfecting his art finds he can do so only by collaborating with the Nazis. Being Julia, by contrast, presents the theater as a self-contained world in which outside problems register only faintly. As respite from her romantic tribulations, Julia visits the isle of Jersey, but the brief scene functions more as intermission than intervention. Otherwise, relishing the task of presenting life on the stage, the film endorses the claim by Julia's mentor that: "The theater is the only reality." Outside the box office, a stranger rants about the perfidy of the British government in appeasing fascism, but the people in line to see a play regard him as a nuisance not an oracle. Throughout this film, the greatest deed is merely being Julia. •