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They just don't make movies like this anymore. I thought I was watching a movie starring Joan Crawford, Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck. They haven't made movies like this for decades. Being Julia is a star vehicle of the old style with Annette Bening as the diva. In this film, she plays an aging actress who rules the London theatre world. She doesn't just play parts in plays, she plays the part of diva in her life. She has all the accoutrements of the star, a long-suffering husband (Jeremy Irons) who manages her career, a devoted dresser (Juliet Stevenson), an old admirer (Bruce Greenwood), a young admirer (Shaun Evans), and an young up-and-coming actress threatening her dominance (Lucy Punch). She is also haunted, so to speak, by her dead mentor (Michael Gambon). All this plays out in 1930's London, in a very 1930's cinematic style. The young admirer is a nasty social climber who seduces Bening and then throws her aside for the young up-and-coming actress who then has an affair with the long suffering husband. But of course, Bening has the last laugh in a scene onstage, very reminiscent of the climactic scene in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman reveals that he is a man. (I don't want to imply that Annette Bening is a man.)
This is a good movie but I found it difficult. It's one thing to tune in to some old Joan Crawford movie on AMC, but it's quite another to see Annette Bening channeling Crawford in 2004 and as a Brit no less! I think it was Bening, a very American actress, playing a British diva among a bunch of great British actors, Irons, Stevenson, Gambon etc etc., that made it so difficult for me. Jeremy Irons can be over the top. Michael Gambon can be over the top. And somehow it's Ok, but I had trouble accepting Bening. Don't get me wrong. Bening is great and she's been in a couple of movies I really love, Regarding Henry and The American President. I mean I want to marry Sydney Ellen Wade! But while I'm on the subject of washing away any worries you had about my sexuality, based on my feelings toward Peter Sarsgaard, I need to talk about Juliet Stevenson. She really is the love of my life. Ever since I saw her as Rosalind Franklin in The Race for the Double Helix, I have been off the deep end for her. And then there was Truly, Madly,Deeply. What more can I say? Unfortunately, she's not getting good roles these days, but she does have a nice little, very little actually, role in Being Julia and Stevenson makes the most of it. Irons is very good as always. And Gambon has fun as the ghost. Evans left me cold as the young admirer.
I feel like I'm missing something in this movie. Maybe it's just that I can't understand a movie directed by a Hungarian, István Szabó, and filmed in Hungary. By the end, Bening pretty much won me over, and the climax is juicy. There has been lots of buzz about Bening getting an Oscar nomination for this role. Maybe it's because it's a weak year for female roles. I'm not saying don't go and see Being Julia. It just didn't get me. I think that I was waiting for Bening's character to come out of character but it never happened.