BEING JULIA (István Szabó, 2004)

In the early 1960s Lilli Palmer and Charles Boyer, no less, starred in a German-language farce titled Julia, Du bist zauberhaft, known in the States as Adorable Julia. Alfred Weidenmann directed (heavily), from a script based on one or more plays that was or were, in turn, based on the novella Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham. Although one would never guess this from the film’s publicity, 2004’s Being Julia is a remake of that film.

I am sorry I was given no hint of this in advance. Had I known, I would have seen Being Julia when it came out in the movie-movies. I would have done so for the sake of the memory of a great actress and a luscious beauty: Lilli Palmer. The star of the new version means little to me, although I have never seen Annette Bening give a bad performance—nor one better than the glorious one she gives here, as Julia. For it, she won a Golden Globe and was named best actress by the National Board of Review. Bening is no Lilli Palmer, goodness knows; but in this particular part, in Being Julia, she is better than Palmer. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself.

Moreover, Bening joins her director, István Szabó, and her co-star, Jeremy Irons, in providing enjoyable commentary on the film’s DVD. Better than that, her discussions with Irons about film versus stage acting are scintillating.

Happily, Being Julia brings Szabó back from the dead following the artistic debacle of Sunshine (1999). The Hungarian filmmaker who made the brilliant, tragic Confidence (1979) once upon a time is clearly past his prime, but he takes to the gleeful comedy and theatrical artifice, and the très gay atmosphere, of this new film with grace and panache. In this instance he is working from a script by Ronald Harwood, who was Oscared for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). Both Harwood and Szabó, doubtless, needed a good comedy after their traumatic Second World War epics.

We are the beneficiaries. We are the ones who end up having a ball.

The action is set in pre-war London, 1938. Julia Lambert is a 45-year-old West End actress, a star, who is bored with the play she is currently appearing in, and she begs Michael Gosselyn, who is one of her business partners as well as her husband, to get her out of it. Instead, Michael introduces her to an American boy half her age with whom she takes up sexually, reviving her interest in her work. In a twist on the American innocent abroad theme, Tom is calculating; he is using Julia toward his own nefarious ends, which eventually includes getting his same-age girlfriend cast in Julia’s new play. As it happens, this girlfriend is covering all angles; she is also Michael’s mistress. Julia has a longstanding lover in addition to Tom, but he comes out of the closet (“I play for the other side”), and even a lesbian suitor-of-sorts. Used to transferring her stage lines to life, Julia, encouraged by her college-age son, Roger, now secretly rewrites the ending of her play to give delicious comeuppance to her rival for Tom’s affection and to Tom. It is all theatrically impossible, but that’s pretty much the point. The “reality” of the theater is as much illusion as is the “civilian life” unfolding outside the theater, and (though merrily vicious) not nearly as lethal. Of course, Adolf Hitler and his designs on Europe are part of the life that is unfolding “outside.”

This is plain wonderful stuff, with its All About Eve-ishness and a host of terrific performances. Only a too-aggressive English accent mars Bening’s spirited acting. (However, accents aren’t all. Case in point: Shaun Evans, as Tom, manages a fine American accent, but his performance is the weakest one in the film.) Jeremy Irons elicits the few out-loud laughs as vain, oblivious and mostly befuddled Michael. Bruce Greenwood, as Lord Charles, who breaks up with Julia, is as graciously gay a guy as one can imagine. Juliet Stevenson is quick and savvy as Julia’s other business partner. (It’s the Thelma Ritter part.) And one of the other actors is nearly as good as Bening, and another is even better than she. Tom Sturridge brings more to the role of Julia’s son, Roger, than one thinks possible. Roger is dear, probably gay, and a real confidante to Mum, and one is sufficiently drawn into the illusion Sturridge creates that one ends up hoping that Roger won’t be killed in the coming war. Best of all is Michael Gambon, who plays a ghost constantly attending to Julia and giving her shrewd counsel. In life (as we see in a flashback, in which Bening looks miraculously young), the ghost had been Jimmie Langton, the mentor who directed Julia to stardom. Gambon seems to be having the time of his life, and it carries over to us.

This is a slight film, to be sure, but one with comical charm and, also, serious reflections. The exquisite color cinematography is by Lajos Koltai, Szabó’s longtime collaborator. The film, in English, is from Hungary, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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