As a wise, witty, and uproarious celebration of womanhood in all its infinite variety, “Being Julia,” premiering in Geneva at the Smith Opera House on Feb. 18, is a more cheerful and British flavored version of “All About Eve.” Best Actress Oscar-nominee Annette Bening brings to the lead role of an aging, flamboyant actress the same relish, gusto, and abandonment that Bette Davis brought to Margo Channing in Mankiewicz's 1950 Oscar-winning film. Combining elements of a wicked British comedy of manners and smart melodrama “Being Julia” is an enjoyable film, an old-fashioned star vehicle elevated beyond its source material by Bening's tour-de-force performance as a great actress at an important crossroads in her life, onstage and off.
Directing with an assured hand, Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo returns to the theatrical milieu that he had evoked successfully in his 1981 Oscar-winning “Mephisto,” with a terrific Klaus Maria Brandauer as a brilliant German actor who sells his soul, and in “Meeting Venus,” starring Glenn Close as an opera diva. In the hands of Szabo, the richly imagined theater world becomes a metaphor for the roles we all play in our intimate relationships, and the comedic, tragic, and melodramatic elements that constitute the essence of our everyday life.
Based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel “Theatre,” the story is set in 1938 London, centering on the beautiful and beguiling Julia Lambert (Bening), a woman at her peak both physically and professionally. But her successful theatrical career and her marriage to impresario Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) have become stale and unfulfilling. Julia is smart enough to know that she's rapidly becoming a woman of a certain age, realizing that the roles she used to play — on stage and off — will inevitably change. As her youth and celebrity fade, romantic leads will give way to supporting parts, reducing her to a second banana. Her 17-year-old son, on his way to becoming an adult, is just another reminder that her best years are behind her. With her long-standing marriage more platonic and ironic than romantic and sexual, she longs for novelty, excitement, sparks.
Enter Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), a younger man, half of Julia's age, who introduces himself as her greatest fan. He woos her with a refreshing ardor that can't be denied. Julia surrenders to his attention and finds herself in the throes of a passionate affair that makes her feel younger, more beautiful and vital. Finding Tom's ardor irresistible, Julia decides that romance is the best antidote to a mid-life crisis, and embarks on a passionate affair that makes her life seem more daring and exciting.
Tom, it turns out, is a callow youth. After sweeping Julia off her feet and enjoying her money and social connections, he turns his attentions to a younger woman, an aspiring actress named Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch). He has the chutzpah to ask Julia to help launch Avice's career. With uncharacteristic humility and selflessness, Julia agrees to showcase the ingénue in her new play. During rehearsals, Julia seems to be setting the stage for her own retirement, deferring to the younger actress at every turn.
When Julia's young lover callously tries to relegate her to a supporting role, she summons all of her considerable powers, and masterminds a brilliant revenge that places her exactly where she belongs, center stage and in the spotlight. On opening night, Julia reveals that she is more formidable actress than anyone — lover, husband, friend, and actress — ever imagined. Playing a fading actress has become her greatest role. Stepping onto the stager and delivering a surprise performance, Julia reduces her rival to tears.
Unlike Bette Davis's Margo Channing (who was exactly Julia's age), who was forced to choose between career and marriage, Julia establishes that she is in control of her career and her life. More beautiful, compelling, and fulfilled than ever before, Julia seems ready to accept, enjoy, and celebrate her newfound maturity–until the next crisis and next young lover, one is lead to believe.
Maugham wrote the novel upon which the film is based in 1937, at the peak of his hugely successful career. Like his highly commercial plays, “Theatre” is marked by an urbane, cynical tone and latently gay sensibility. Maugham's incisive observations about the stage and its lively and volatile residents are drawn with a good deal of knowingness from the inside. And they are admirably captured in the witty dialogue that screenwriter Ronald Harwood (who won an Oscar for “The Pianist”) devised for the film.
“Being Julia” combines lush period atmosphere and elegant costumes with a series of timeless observations about women, life, and art, unapologetically using overtly theatrical devices like high melodrama, betrayal, and revenge. Though Bening dominates every frame and functions as the driving force of the plot, for diversion, the movie offers a slew of colorful characters that make puzzling entrances and exits, marvelously played by a top-notch British cast, including Jeremy irons, Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson, Miriam Margolyes, Rosemary Harris, and Rita Tashingham.
The Smith screens “Being Julia” at 7 p.m. Feb. 18 and 19, at 2 p.m. Feb. 20, and at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 and 22. Rated R for some sexuality, this film has a running time of one hours, 45 minutes. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens. All seats are $3 on Thursday and $2 on Tuesday. Call 781-5483 or toll-free (866) 355-5483 for details or to reserve tickets.
The Sunday Movie Roundtable meets following the matinee screening on Feb. 20. The Smith invites patrons to stay after and participate in insightful discussion about the film lead by The Smith's Arts-in-Education Director RJ Rapoza. The discussion takes place in The Smith's lower-level cabaret.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.