BEING JULIA directed by István Szabó
a commentary by Tony McRae
An aging actress, Julia Lambert, has risen to the heights of her profession by hard work and exceptional talent. Along comes a talented ingénue, Avice Crichton, who is not averse to using her looks to get ahead--and step over Julia in the process. But stardom is earned, not the result of playing up to lecherous producers and directors, one of whom happens to be Julia's husband.
One thing we know for certain--Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) is her acting, her natural milieu the stage. She carries this theatricality with her wherever she goes. She makes no distinction between art and life. Perhaps she is incapable of doing so. Her son Roger (Tom Sturridge) accuses her of playing the mother with him--and playing the wife with her husband Michael (Jeremy Irons) as well. "You have a performance for everybody," he says. "I don't think you really exist." At this point in the movie we've been conditioned to view Julia precisely in this way, yet when the camera cuts back to Annette Bening seated across the table from Roger, we see her dismay. But is it Julia the consummate actress or Julia the devastated mother? We cannot be certain. This is the brilliance of Annette Bening's performance.
One could argue that Julia is totally self-centered, constantly upstaging whomever she is with--and doing it with style. Her demolishing to Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch) is brilliant, not because she is heartless--she is when it comes to her art--but rather because she is morally right. Actors have to earn their stripes. Becoming Julia Lambert has taken years of toil.
When the movie opens Julia is bored; she wants out of her contract so that she can recuperate, reenergize herself. Two young people enter her life, one a shallow young American Tom (Shaun Evans) whom Julia decides to take as her lover. The other is the aforementioned Avice Crichton. Both rejuvenate Julia in ways she does not anticipate. Tom betrays her for a younger lover, Avice seduces Julia's husband. These actions get Julia's attention, but not for the obvious reasons. She can put up with attacks upon her person, but not if her profession is jeopardized. So Julia fights back, not because her husband is unfaithful or her young lover is venal, but for the integrity of the stage.
I began this review by referring to Julia Lambert as "aging." Some may think this an unfair, even nasty, observation. For a time Julia feels the same way. But Julia Lambert's persona is based on the premise that veteran actors, especially stars, must pay their dues to the profession. By growing old in the theatre, she is entitled to rule. To have a beautiful young thing move effortlessly up the ladder is against nature. For a brief moment in the film Julia wishes to be young again, but this soon passes. She knows her "aging " looks and bearing give her the gravity and confidence that is only achieved through experience--and of course talent.
So Julia takes Avice apart. On stage before a packed house. We laugh not so much at Avice's distress but at the absolute genius of Julia's outré performance. The young woman is devastated but she is being taught a much-needed lesson. If she is smart enough, she may some day have the maturity to become a great actress.
The movie many critics mention when reviewing "About Julia" is the Bette Davis classis "All About Eve," an earlier back-stage drama about an aging actress Margo Channing (Davis) and grasping Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). There are few actresses today who are able to remind us of classic Hollywood, with its strong grownup women, but Annette Bening does just that.