- Being Julia (movie 2004) review: In a commanding star turn reminiscent of Bette Davis in All About Eve, Annette Bening delivers one of her most captivating performances in István Szabó’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1937 novel Theatre.
- Being Julia earned Annette Bening a Best Actress Academy Award nomination.
Being Julia (movie 2004) review: Seemingly influenced by a Bette Davis classic, Annette Bening showcase tells us a little about Avice
The most recent big-screen version of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1937 novel Theatre, Being Julia chronicles the emotional ups and downs of Julia Lambert (Annette Bening), a late 1930s London stage diva who – despite her talent, wit, and some forty-odd years on this planet – succumbs to her vanity when she falls madly in love/lust with Tom Fennel, a handsome and deceptively innocent-looking American (Liverpool-born Shaun Evans) half her age.
Through Tom’s “special friendship” with the renowned Julia, the youthful Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch) – ambitious actress, memorable sneezer, and the young man’s latest conquest – attempts to jump-start her career by landing a crucial role in Julia’s next play.
Does some of this sound familiar?
If so, that’s because in screenwriter-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 Academy Award-winning classic All About Eve (itself based on Mary Orr’ short story/radio play “The Wisdom of Eve”), Bette Davis plays Broadway star Margo Channing, who – despite her talent, wit, and some forty-odd years on this planet – falls prey to the youthful, ambitious wannabe Eve Harrington: Sweet, pretty, sycophantic Anne Baxter on the outside; ruthless, hideous, backstabbing gargoyle on the inside.
Being Julia vs. All About Eve
With director István Szabó at the helm – his 1981 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Mephisto also revolves around a stage performer – and a prestigious cast that, in addition to star Annette Bening, includes Jeremy Irons as Julia’s theatrical manager and humdrum husband; Bruce Greenwood as her lordly, gay friend; and veterans Miriam Margolyes, Rosemary Harris, and Rita Tushingham in small roles, Being Julia 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 largely due to Ronald Harwood’s prosaic reworking of Maugham’s novel and director Szabó’s off-kilter comedy timing.
In case Theatre was much too restrained, Harwood, whose well-regarded (play/movie adaptation) The Dresser is also set in a theatrical milieu, didn’t make his Being Julia screenplay all that much more piquant.
As for Szabó’s lack of the Ernst Lubitsch (or even Billy Wilder) touch, the film’s humorous climax – when Julia gives the grandiloquent performance of her life – is just amusing. A more elegant handling would have made it sidesplitting.
Even so, by being half as good as Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic while providing Annette Bening with one of the showiest roles of her career, this somewhat backhanded paean to the theater world is still more engaging than most movies out there.
Being Julia (movie 2004) cast & crew
Director: István Szabó.
Screenplay: 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.
“Being Julia (Movie 2004)’’ notes
 W. Somerset Maugham’s Theatre – much more an homage to the stage and actors than a tale of revenge (Avice Crichton is a relatively minor character) – was first dramatized by Guy Bolton and Maugham himself in 1941. (Some sources list only Bolton as the adapter.)
On Broadway, the play starred Cornelia Otis Skinner as Julia Lambert, Arthur Margetson as her husband, and John Moore as her lover. Elissa Landi and Kay Francis were two Hollywood stars who played Julia in stage productions elsewhere in the United States.
As Larger Than Life – and with Guy Bolton credited as the sole adapter – the play made its London debut in 1950. Jessie Royce Landis, Reginald Denny, and Hector Ross starred.
In 1962, Lilli Palmer, Charles Boyer, and Jean Sorel headlined a French-Austrian film version titled Adorable Julia / Julia, Du bist zauberhaf, directed by Alfred Weidenmann. Sixteen years later, Viya Artmane, Gunar Tsilinsky, and Ivars Kalnins were the leads in the Soviet Teatris, directed by Janis Streics.
Additionally, there have been at least a couple of television versions:
- For German TV, Wilm ten Haaf’s Bezaubernde Julia (1960), starring Anneliese Born, Albrecht Schoenhals, and Peter René Körner.
- For French TV, Yves-André Hubert’s Adorable Julia (1988), starring Danielle Darrieux, Raymond Pellegrin, and Bruno Pradal.
All About Eve based on real-life events?
 The most commonly accepted real-life basis for the Margo Channing (Margola Cranston/Margo Crane in the short story/play) & Eve Harrington relationship – with a touch of lesbianism – is that of Elisabeth Bergner (Best Actress Academy Award nominee for Escape Me Never, 1935) 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 and a sometime film actress (Nicholas and Alexandra, Deathtrap), toured with Elisabeth 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, also with a touch of lesbianism, has Margo Channing based on Tallulah Bankhead – who clearly inspired Bette Davis’ All About Eve characterization – and Eve Harrington 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.
At the end of (the play) The Wisdom of Eve, Eve has gone Hollywood, where she has become attached to a movie mogul – much like Lizabeth Scott settled on the West Coast in the mid-1940s after becoming a contract star for producer Hal B. Wallis.
As for Julia Lambert, in a preface to Theatre found in The Collected Works of Somerset Maugham, the author explains:
“Thirty years elapsed between the production of my first play and the production of my last, and in that period I was thrown into intimate contact with a great number of distinguished actresses. Julia Lambert is a portrait of none of them. I have taken a trait here and a trait there and sought to create a living person.”
Being Julia earned Annette Bening Best Actress honors from the National Board of Review, the Golden Globes (Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical), and the Southeastern Film Critics Association. Besides her Oscar nod, Bening was also shortlisted for the SAG Awards.
Shaun Evans and Annette Bening Being Julia movie images: Sony Pictures Classics.
“Being Julia (Movie 2004): Annette Bening Is the ‘British Margo Channing’” last updated in April 2023.