'Being Julia' movie review: Annette Bening showcase tells us a little about Avice
Being Julia movie antecedents: In Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 Oscar-winning classic All About Eve, Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, a major Broadway star who, despite her talent, wit, and some forty-odd years on this planet, falls prey to the youthful, ambitious wannabe Eve Harrington: sweet, soft-spoken Anne Baxter on the outside; ruthless, poisonous gargoyle on the inside.
More than a decade earlier, in 1937 to be exact, W. Somerset Maugham had written Theatre, a novel about West End diva Julia Lambert. In Maugham's tale, Julia, despite her talent, wit, and some forty-odd years on this planet, succumbs to her vanity when she falls madly in love with Tom Fennel, a handsome – and deceptively innocent-looking – American half her age.
Through Tom's “special friendship” with the renowned Julia, an ambitious young actress, Avice Crichton, who also happens to be the young man's lover, attempts to jump start her career by getting a crucial role in Julia's next play. (See more detailed Being Julia movie summary further below.)
'Being Julia' vs. 'All About Eve'
Featuring Annette Bening as Julia, Shaun Evans as Tom, and Lucy Punch as Avice, Being Julia is the latest filmization of Maugham's novel. With director István Szabó at the helm (his 1982 Mephisto won that year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), while boasting a prestigious cast that also includes Jeremy Irons (and his son Max Irons in a bit part), Bruce Greenwood, Miriam Margolyes, and veterans Rosemary Harris and Rita Tushingham, this early 21st-century version of Maugham's tale had to be, at the very least, half as good as All About Eve.
Unfortunately, Julia is indeed only half as good as Eve. That's partly a result of Ronald Harwood's uninspired screenplay adaptation – if the source material was itself bland, Harwood didn't make it all that much more biting – and partly because director Szabó's comedy timing feels more than a bit off.
Even so, by being half as good as Mankiewicz's 1950 classic while providing Annette Bening with one of the best roles of her career, this slightly backhanded paean to the theater world is still more entertaining than most of what gets made nowadays.
Being Julia (2004).
Dir.: István Szabó.
Scr.: Ronald Harwood. From W. Somerset Maugham's 1937 novel Theatre.
Cast: Annette Bening. Jeremy Irons. Shaun Evans. Bruce Greenwood. Miriam Margolyes. Juliet Stevenson. Lucy Punch. Michael Gambon. Sheila McCarthy. Leigh Lawson. Rosemary Harris. Rita Tushingham. Max Irons. Michael Culkin. Tom Sturridge. Maury Chaykin. Teresa Churcher. Barnabás Réti.
'All About Eve' real-life inspirations
 The generally accepted real-life story that inspired the Margo Channing-Eve Harrington relationship – with a touch of lesbianism – is that of Elisabeth Bergner (1935 Best Actress Academy Award nominee for Escape Me Never) and a fan she met – and later hired as her live-in assistant – while starring in The Two Mrs. Carrolls on Broadway in 1942.
A variation of the story has Irene Worth as the real-life Eve Harrington. The Nebraska-born Worth, later a renowned stage performer in both New York and London, toured with Bergner in a 1942 stage production of Escape Me Never and later played a supporting role in the Broadway staging of The Two Mrs. Carrolls.
Yet another version has Margo based on Tallulah Bankhead, who clearly inspired Bette Davis' All About Eve performance, and Eve on future Hollywood star Lizabeth Scott (You Came Along, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), Bankhead's understudy in the 1942 Broadway play The Skin of Our Teeth.
 W. Somerset Maugham's novel Theatre was first dramatized by Guy Bolton and Maugham himself in 1941. The play starred Cornelia Otis Skinner and Arthur Margetson.
In 1962, Lilli Palmer and Charles Boyer starred in a Franco-Austrian film version titled Adorable Julia / Julia, Du bist zauberhaf, directed by Alfred Weidenmann. Sixteen years later, Viya Artmane and Gunar Tsilinsky toplined the Russian film Teatr, directed by Janis Streics.
Additionally, there have been at least a couple of television versions:
- Bezaubernde Julia (1960), directed by Wilm ten Haaf, and starring Anneliese Born and Albrecht Schoenhals for German TV.
- Adorable Julia (1988), directed by Yves-André Hubert, and starring Danielle Darrieux and Raymond Pellegrin for French TV.
'Being Julia' movie synopsis
London, 1938. Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) is a temperamental West End star at the top of her powers as an actress. Her theatrical manager, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), also happens to be her husband, but their relationship could hardly be described as passionate. Julia desperately needs some excitement in her life.
That arrives in the form of a young American, Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), who describes himself as Julia's biggest fan. At first, Julia is barely polite to him. He is just one more admirer among millions.
But when Tom seduces her – or rather, her vanity – while the two are having tea at his flat, Julia loses her head. She falls madly in love with this man half her age, needing to be frequently reassured that he feels the same way.
Her longtime friend and admirer, Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood), tells her that such stories – older woman, younger man – never end well, but Julia refuses to believe him. Perhaps because the (gay) Lord is seen with a date (Barnabás Réti) who looks less than half his age.
As to be expected, the callow Tom soon transfers his affections to a younger woman, the ambitious Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch), a small-time actress who believes that Julia can be her ticket to big-time stardom.
Avice knows of Tom's “friendship” with the renowned actress, and insists that he get Julia to put in a good word for her in the casting of Julia's new play. During her audition, Avice fakes a sneeze so well that she leaves a lasting impression on Michael, who is directing the play.
Realizing that both her professional and private lives are at stake, Julia sets out to give the performance of a lifetime – both during rehearsals and on opening night.
'Being Julia': Oscar Movies
István Szabó's Being Julia was nominated for one Academy Award.
- Best Actress
Winner: Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby.
Curiously, at the 2000 Oscar ceremony, Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) had also beat Annette Bening (American Beauty).
Being Julia movie cast information via the IMDb.
Shaun Evans and Annette Bening Being Julia movie images: Sony Pictures Classics.
Being Julia trailer: Sony Pictures Classics.