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The world as stage, life as acting

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The screen adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel Theatre offers something like the perfect part for what was called in the polite fiction of the past "a woman of a certain age." Annette Bening, who stars in the film, is that woman, an actor at the same stage in her life as her character, Julia Lambert, an English actor facing a crisis partly resulting from her realization of the limited future of a middle-aged woman on the stage.

Like many female movie stars over 40, Bening faces some of the same difficulties, like typecasting in maternal roles, small supporting parts, the reluctance of male actors to co-star opposite her, and of course, competition with Hollywood's annual crops of blossoming young beauties.

One of the most celebrated leading ladies of the London theater, the toast of the 1938 season, Julia Lambert enjoys the adulation of audiences, the praise of critics, the support of both her manager-director-husband Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) and her best friend, Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood). She not incidentally earns a great deal of money for her backers, especially the adoring, overweight lesbian Dolly de Vries (Miriam Margolyes), who cultivates an unrequited crush on her. At the age of 45, however, Julia begins to feel fatigued and burned out, dissatisfied with her work on the stage, and uneasy about a future in which she foresees herself playing mothers, aunts, and grandmothers.

When Julia announces that she wants to quit her current play and take a break from acting altogether, her husband, backers, and friends naturally attempt to dissuade her, not only because she represents a source of income but also because they sincerely believe in her talent and accomplishments. She changes her mind, however, when she meets a young American admirer, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) who's come to London to learn the business side of the theater. An avid fan, Tom lavishes praise on her, charms her, and ultimately, makes love to her.

Although she's been involved in previous flings, this time Julia falls in love with Tom and their torrid affair rejuvenates her both personally and professionally. Glowing with life and giddy with sexual energy, she changes her mind about leaving the play and performs with renewed skill, power, and commitment.

When Tom's affection ultimately wanes and he begins to devote himself to a young ingénue, her performances deteriorate. The fusion of art and life, which haunts her throughout the movie, proves too difficult to handle, and she undergoes something like a breakdown.

When Julia discovers a way to regain her health and resumes her career in a new comedy, which also stars Tom's new girlfriend, she engineers a clever and triumphant feat of acting that nicely concludes the action and propels her once again to the top of her profession. The concluding sequences, which deal with the rehearsals and finally, the performance of the new play, reconcile the persistent, ambiguous conflicts between life and art that plague her throughout the film and nicely demonstrate some of the subtleties in an actor's experience of playing an actor.

That task obviously allows Annette Bening to display a considerable variety of emotional effects. She makes the most of the sort of part that few movie stars of her generation get the opportunity to play. In the constant closeups she mostly looks simply beautiful, sparkling with good humor and high spirits. Though when the script demands it, she shows that she is also unafraid to look haggard and plain, a middle-aged woman foolishly besotted with a vacuous man barely older than her son. Being Julia constitutes a wonderful vehicle for her talents, possibly the best portrait of a female theatrical performer in her situation since the unforgettable All About Eve.

The rest of the cast supports Bening in grand style, often playing just a bit over the top, fittingly for a movie about the theater. The redoubtable Jeremy Irons generously takes a secondary role and, like everyone else, seems to be having great fun. In part because of the fine supporting actors, some of them American, some English, the whole movie fizzes with a kind of effervescent charm and zest.

A considerable amount of that charm results from the portrayal of the London theater scene itself. Its generally silly drawing room comedies and domestic melodramas, stiff declamatory acting style, its old-fashioned approach to production, even the lively and varied sexual liaisons all suggest some of the brittle, artificial gaiety of the late 1930s, a moment before the world went back to war.

The movie wonderfully displays the costumes, cars, and furnishings of the times, while the soundtrack constantly plays the appropriate popular songs. Being Julia looks great and sounds great, and Annette Bening plays the title part to perfection.

Being Julia (R), starring Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Bruce Greenwood, Miriam Margolyes, Juliet Stevenson, Shaun Evans; based on the novel Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham; screenplay by Ronald Harwood; directed by István Szabó. Little Theatre

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