Being Julia

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
Being Julia
Year of Release: 2004
Rating: R for some sexuality.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No.
Spoilers: Mild.

When Being Julia was released in 2004, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott reviewed the film as “a flimsy frame surrounding a brightly colored performance by Annette Bening, whose quick, high-spirited charm is on marvelous display.” Maybe this opinion was shared by the Academy when they nominated powerhouse Million Dollar Baby an impressive seven times next to Being Julia’s singular Best Actress nod, which Hillary Swank took the trophy home for in the end. But I’m not bitter. I digress.

To me, the frame surrounding Annette Bening’s role as temperamental stage actress Julia Lambert is not so much “flimsy” as it is a light, unobtrusive backseat to a character-driven film. Julia and her husband Michael (Jeremy Irons) are the definition of late 1930’s power couple, forming a “modern” partnership that is far less about romance than it is about business. Michael directs, Dolly (Miriam Margolyes) finances, and Julia acts: though she is growing more and more disenchanted with her stagnating career. “I want something to happen,” she insists, and until it does, she is left with regurgitating favorite lines from old performances. Early on, as Julia’s dresser Evie (Juliet Stevenson) is able to mouth Julia’s musings word-for-word, we understand that the line between Julia herself and the roles she plays are frequently blurred, if they even exist at all.

We don’t have to wait long for something to shake things up: enter a promising young American named Tom (Shaun Evans), a businessman and self-professed fan of Julia’s work. Julia is flattered by Tom’s professional – and quickly sexual – attention to her, and the two begin an exhilarating affair that has Julia feeling more alive than she’s felt in years. One of my favorite scenes will always be Julia sitting in front of her bedroom mirror the morning after she and Tom first sleep together, fresh-faced and makeup-free, breaking her low, moody drawl with an uncontrollable fit of giggles. Of course, Tom’s intentions are less than honorable. He is plainly after Julia for the social and monetary benefits, and eventually uses his connections to secure a role for his new and much younger love interest, Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch) in Julia’s upcoming play. Julia does not stay lost in her fantasy world for long as things become clear, and masterfully orchestrates the sweetest revenge on her former lover and one bad actress.

At first, we think we should dislike Julia because of her lack of authenticity – “I don’t think you really exist,” her son Roger (Tom Sturridge) tells her in one heartbreakingly honest quip – but as the film moves toward its vengeful climax, we understand that it is through the stage that Julia can regain control of her real life. Being Julia, though clocking in at a brief 105 minutes, leaves us refreshed, inspired, and contemplating the boundaries (or lack thereof) between life and art. The film is also an exercise in modern relationships – Julia and Michael do care for one another in their own way, and their exchanges (“My husband is a devious little runt,” Julia growls face-down on a massage table) are nothing less than adorable. Bruce Greenwood delights as Julia’s best friend Lord Charles, who gently rejects her romantic advances due to reasons that would be rejected by 1930s English society but are joyfully embraced by Julia herself. And Michael Gambon offers a quiet heartbeat of a performance as Julia’s acting coach, whose memory and advice influence her every move: “You have to grab the audience by the throat and say ‘Now you buggers, you pay attention to me!” And Julia, you have our attention, in art and in life.

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