Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Exit, Stage Left

Films: Being Julia
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on The New Portable.

A little known fact about me is that for a brief one-semester period in college, I was a minor in theater. I did a little acting, took a class in playwriting. And I learned something important: I hate actors. Oh, there are actors I like, but as a general rule, I hate actors. Whiny, self-important, arrogant, and convinced that their shit doesn’t stink. I gave up acting pretty much the day the play I was in wrapped, and when the semester was over, I switched my minor to psychology. For what it’s worth, being an English major wasn’t an improvement. There are only so many times you can watch the poet in your group angrily break up with his girlfriend at a party and then consciously count on his fingers until he got to the right dramatic moment to chase after her barefoot in the snow before you essentially want to burn everything to the ground (and yes—that’s a true story). All of this is to say that Being Julia is about actors, which is why it’s taken me this long to get to it.

It’s also a movie that stars Annette Bening, an actor I have never really warmed to for some reason. I don’t know why that is, because she is certainly capable of being very good. I like her in The Grifters and American Beauty, but for some reason, she doesn’t really work for me that often. She’s like coffee or Jell-O in that respect. I understand that most people like coffee and like Jell-O. I’m fine with that; I just don’t like them myself.

Being Julia takes place in the years just before World War II and concerns Julia Lambert (Bening), a stage actress who is starting to feel her age. Her husband, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) now works as a producer/director. The two have a loose marriage that more or less allows them the luxury to have affairs as they wish. The marriage works in no small part because the two of them have their own lives. Unrelated to this but in the same vein, Julia is frequently seen with her friend, Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood).

Much of the first half of the film is taken up with the arrival of Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), a young American who is entranced with Julia. She is flattered by the attention and the two soon begin an affair where Tom is essentially a kept man and she happily pays most of his expenses. As the affair continues, it soon becomes evident that Tom isn’t nearly as in love with Julia as she is with him. In fact, Tom soon takes up with Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch), a young up-and-coming actress. Tom’s essential dumping of her causes Julia to react badly, closing her current play. While she goes off on vacation, husband Michael plans her next show, and starts auditioning Avice for a major role.

The truth with Being Julia is that I’m in a difficult position, although not a wholly unfamiliar one. I don’t really like this movie because I don’t like the characters in it. The only one we really learn anything about is Julia herself, and what we learn most about her is that she is demanding, vain, and frequently has little mental conversations with Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon), her long-dead acting coach, who doesn’t seem to be able to tell if she is on stage or dealing with something in the real world.

Really, though, the rest of these characters are non-entities. Miriam Margolyes plays Dolly de Vries, who is sort of the theatrical angel of the Gosselyn/Lambert duo. Her role more or less seems to be showing up places, being needy for attention, and trying to see Julia naked. Julia’s assistant/dresser Evie (Juliet Stevenson) is a character who might be interesting if she had more than a couple dozen lines. Everyone is a cardboard cutout here—not so much a character as a set of quirks and character traits that wears clothing.

I can’t deny that this is a well-made film. The third act is surprisingly interesting and fun, especially based on how much the first two-thirds of the film consist of a great deal of posturing, whining, and demanding of attention. I’m a little surprised—the third act almost literally saves this film from being a complete waste. It’s also probably the reason Bening got the nomination, because she’s pretty great in the last half hour.

And yet, for all that, I still hate actors and don’t really give a crap about how important they are to themselves.

Why to watch Being Julia: Nice cast.
Why not to watch: Seriously, fuck actors.


  1. "...I switched my minor to psychology. For what it’s worth, being an English major wasn’t an improvement."

    Considering how much psychologizing English majors and theater folks engage in—discussing character motivations and trying to get inside writers' heads—going from theater to psych is hardly a switch at all. For what it's worth, I tended to see the English majors at my university as psychotherapist wannabes, always reading too much meaning into situations. These folks were so often the authors of their own misery because they essentially lived in a spooky facsimile of the real world that thrummed with way too much emotion. I tended to like the English majors who were more grounded and dour in comportment and worldview.

    "I understand that most people like coffee and like Jell-O. I’m fine with that; I just don’t like them myself."

    I don't like drinking coffee, but I love the smell of it for some reason. As for Jell-O... if I'm doing a low-carb diet, then sugar-free Jell-O is my go-to dessert. Never totally satisfying, but better than nothing. Like Annette Bening.

    1. For me, Jell-O is all about texture. Food shouldn't move of its own volition, so Jell-O freaks me out. It's for a similar reason I can't drink eggnog.

      I don't disagree at all with you on the typical English major. My last year as an undergrad was really just me getting through as much as I could with as little contact with other English majors as possible. In grad school, I ended up back in the English department, but managed a degree without taking a single lit class, since I focused entirely on linguistics and related topics. That was deliberate--I had no desire to dive back into that sort of psychobabble.

      Psychology was a much different experience for me.

  2. I'm not a huge Bening fan either, though she's grown on me over the years, but I watched this strictly because she was nominated. I didn't hate it but didn't love it either, I haven't given it a thought since that view really.

    As you said it had a nice cast but wasted them. I was particularly disappointed in its treatment of the two actresses you mentioned both of whom are performers I'm always happy to see turn up in any film or show but neither was given anything worthwhile to do here.

    1. Yeah, that's pretty much it. This was an empty shell of a story and an empty shell of a movie.