Annette Bening has many accomplishments associated with her name: her stunning performance as the materialistic suburban spouse in American Beauty, her ability to sustain a successful marriage with former Hollywood gigolo Warren Beatty and most recently her masterful performance in Being Julia.
Bening’s performance as Juliet Lambert, a leading lady of 1930’s West End London, is already creating rumors of Oscar nominations. In the film, Julia, at 45 reaches a transition in her career. She is becoming too old to play the parts of young ladies on the stage, her husband (Jeremy Irons) is quite open about his infidelity and her son (Tom Sturridge) pretty much admits that he doesn’t respect her. As a result, Julia finds escape in an affair with a young, penniless American named Tom (Shaun Evans). However, Tom is really only using Julia to advance himself and his girlfriend, another rising star named Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch). When Julia figures out what is going on, she finally reinvigorates her acting and her life by hatching a wild scheme to get the final laugh against Tom, her husband and Avice.
Comparisons between Being Julia and Joseph Mankiewicz’s classic All About Eve are unavoidable. To her credit, Bening’s prima donna portrayal of Lambert is the closest thing to Bette Davis’s Margo Channing, as seen on the big screen during the premiere of All About Eve in 1950. Just like Channing, Bening’s Julia is fickle, annoying, demanding and a witch to everybody around her. However the audience can’t get enough of it. From beginning to end, everybody roots for Julia. During one of her spats she cries to her husband, “I hate myself. I’m rotten through and through.” Her husband can only respond, “Nevertheless, you are a great actress.” We couldn’t agree more.
While Bening’s performance is wonderful, the rest of the film doesn’t gel. Even though the supporting cast includes Academy Award winning actor Jeremy Irons, talented Bruce Greenwood and Michael Gambon, their roles just don’t fit well with the picture. Unlike All About Eve, in which Channing is often paired with her equally wicked Waspy friends, most of the supporting roles in Being Julia are awkward and take away from the flow of the story. Julia’s son shows up once or twice to make a nice line or observation about what is going on but then disappears for the rest of the film. The same can be said of her former love interest played by Bruce Greenwood. Gambon’s role as the ghost of her mentor is undeveloped and awkward. The same can be said for Julia’s investor (Miriam Margolyes) whose character seems to suggest being some sort of lesbian love interest for the leading lady.
Another shortcoming of the film is its focus. Being Julia by all means is a film developed and marketed to the over 40 audience with no room for mass appeal. Bening is great in Being Julia and the directorial talent of accomplished Hungarian, Itsvan Szabo is nothing to laugh at. However these two elements are not enough to elevate the film above a supporting cast that doesn’t gel and a plot that lacks any magic.