Movie Review — BEING JULIA: Madame Has a Beer

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Being Julia (Dir. Istvan Szabo, 2004) is a dazzling, fourteen year old romantic comedy whose time has come for a closer look. Based on a Somerset Maugham novella, Theatre, and set in 1938 London, at first glance it seems to be the essence of what has become offensive to progressive people. It’s about the romantic and professional vicissitudes of a rich, white, successful British actress, Julia Lambert (Annette Benning) living in the bubble of class privilege and audience adulation, to the exclusion of all else in society. And it was written and directed by men!! Then there’s Hitler. He was already in progress with his campaign of horror, and there is only one brief acknowledgement in the film of the coming tragedy. But, wait. Don’t turn away. Being Julia offers an opportunity for feminists to mine unexpected gold and to examine our own prejudices and myopia.

It was only belatedly that I had to acknowledge that Being Julia could be accused of catapulting me into the kind of “movieland” that denies the economics, politics and racial and ethnic issues of most people’s daily lives because, from its first moment, I felt it taking me on a journey through Julia’s denials. And very interesting, pertinent denials they are indeed. The film uses a combination of slow development and startling surprise to make us aware that Julia is in denial about her age and her feminine identity. There is a slow build toward the revelation that she uses every ounce of her impressive energy, wit, and imagination to hang onto youth. And there is an initial jolt (of which more below) delivered in the very first minutes of the film by an image of how her self-definition hinges on her internalization of male expectations and values. The inner voice that speaks to Julia when the film opens is her “inner man,” so to speak, the bombastic tones of her first acting teacher, Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon), now deceased, transcending time and even death.

Age and internalization of the voices of dead, white men are crucial feminist issues. In fact the internalization of male imperatives is now being identified as the main reason white women are currently supporting en-masse the most anti-woman administration in history. If this is so, then entertainment that playfully opens our eyes to this phenomenon is worth re-evaluating. I suggest in what follows that Being Julia speaks to its audience in the way Ralph Ellison’s brilliant novel The Invisible Man, about the invisibility of black people in American society, speaks to white America. Painfully aware of how loathe white Americans were/are to identify with black Americans, Ellison concluded his novel with his first person (black) narrator telling readers that perhaps on the lower frequencies he speaks for them. Does Julia speak for us, women who, similarly, are likely to be antagonistic toward being seduced into identifying with glamorous, white, wealthy, fading beauties who are consumed by a desire to live in an eternal springtime while the rest of the world is going to Hell one way and another? Let’s see.

Annette Benning and Jeremy Irons in BEING JULIA

Maugham’s Theatre is, in the words of the author, about confusing art with life, and the plot of Being Julia is very faithful to the novel. But there are important tweaks in the film that piggyback women’s issues on top of the very present fantasy/reality polarity in Istvan Szabo’s adaptation. For example, the novella begins with Julia’s inner thoughts as she comes to see her husband in his office, the beginning of a long series of mental conversations with herself. By contrast, Jimmie’s ghostly, explosive intimidation of the 20 year old Julia as she remembers him when the film opens suggests that all her priorities and her self-image are the fabrications of a man by making us as audience the butt of his attack. We barely know what is happening as Jimmie roars out of the first frame at someone we don’t see that she is star material but needs to be instructed by him about how to use her talents and charisma. “You need to grab the audience by the throat and say, “Now you buggers; you pay attention to ME!’ “ It’s an overbearing offensive that culminates in his final caveat in which he tells her that when she is acting the stage must be the only reality; everything else is fantasy. Sure, fantasy is front and center here. But more aggressively present is the male voice.

Szabo begins with a disorienting introduction. First of all, we have no idea who Jimmie is or who he is talking to. Second, we don’t know he’s dead. And third, we don’t know it’s Julia’s memory. This works beautifully, to put us in the position of the young Julia, completely at the mercy of a lot of confusing sound and fury. This perplexity is compounded when the film cuts to an extreme close-up of a woman’s face, encased in a nurse’s head scarf. It only gradually dawns on us that we are now looking at Julia as a mature actress playing the role of a nurse, intoning her extremely artificial, crowd pleasing curtain speech. The play is ending and the audience, absurdly moved by the sticky treacle of its closing lines, is beginning to applaud loudly and persistently. Julia has listened only too well to Jimmie. The “buggers” are riveted and they are paying attention to her star presence at the center of some ludicrous World War I melodrama—a slushy version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms–that the 1938 theatre sells as reality. This, then is the cinematic springboard for Julia’s story.

Julia’s white privilege, her publicly acclaimed glamour is immediately available to the audience as a subject for study and interrogation, not a given situation of entitlement and advantage with which are to empathize, as we abandon our own very different realities. As the interrogation proceeds, we see that Julia is not only a man-made success, the toast of lifeless, conventional theatrical productions; she is, in addition, choking from the airlessness of the “well-made play,” while her husband Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), the manager of the theatre in which Julia performs, is making money hand over fist. She is exhausted by having to live for her image, craving beer instead of the champagne that freely flows in her dressing room at the theatre and in her dining room at home. Unable to satisfy her genuine thirst because beer is too calorific and she needs to think of her figure, Julia is sailing into advanced age in a state of marital rigor mortis as calcified as her theatre scripts, maintaining the public image of happy domesticity when in reality, although Michael is dashing and very handsome, Julia’s and Michael’s is a sexless union. I hear you rolling your eyes; oh, the tragedy of wanting beer and being forced to drink champagne. But, again, wait.

Having eluded the trap of Hollywood escapism quickly, the film goes on at leisure to avoid the other Hollywood trick of taking with one hand what it gave with the other. At first blush it seems the story will provide easy answers to the predicament of Julia’s incarceration within the golden cage in which patriarchy has made her a captive, by demonstrating that young romance can be hers with a handsome boy half her age, whatever her stodgy husband, Michael, may get up to extramaritally. Julia’s story seems to be heading for a complete coup in which she recaptures romance with her husband through a kind of “she stoops to conquer” trick. But that would NOT be “being Julia.” That would be Julia even more dedicated to the patriarchal script about youth and the necessity for women of captivating men. A delicious turn at the end of the film explodes everything toward which the film only seems to be building.

Salvation seems to be offered to bored, oppressed Julia, who, offstage, is still sporting red ringlets and giggling continuously like a teenager when she enters into an unexpected, euphoric, dancing-forehead-to-forehead affair with a young, very handsome American, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evens) and carries on with him under her husband’s snooty but unsuspecting nose. But her rebirth turns out to be still born, when Tom takes up with a very young actress, Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch) who snags a part as the ingenue in Julia’s new theatrical vehicle Nowadays; she also upstage Julia during rehearsals. Moreover, as Julia learns, Avice is sleeping with Julia’s husband when she isn’t sleeping with Julia’s lover. The normally dynamic Julia is temporarily drained by this reversal. Aha, but she quickly evolves a plan to retake her castle. Skillfully, Julia does everything she can to allow Avice to feel secure as the focus of attention during the daily blocking of the obviously conventional, cliché filled scenes—to the point that she insists that she sit with her back to the audience as Avice takes center stage and that she have a pale beige costume while Avice is dressed in bright colors.

Then on opening night, the very experienced Julia completely nonplusses inexperienced Avice when she bursts onto the stage in a flamboyant costume she has kept secret from everyone and improvisationally redoes all the blocking while rewriting the lines with abandon. She’s made it her story and the audience roars with laughter at the energy of Julia’s performance, Tom and Avice are humiliated and Michael is once again bedazzled by his wife. He decrees that the play will henceforward be performed as Julia has written it and Avice is distraught that she will have to be the second banana for the run of the show. Julia is triumphant.

Annette Benning and Lucy Punch in BEING JULIA

And here movies like The Awful Truth (1937) end, with the Irene Dunnes of Hollywood radiant, wealthy, white and crowned with glory. And what is glory? The restoration of social position and marriage with Cary Grant. Not this time, people. That would be playing the same old, tired game. Julia ends the film alone, by choice, opting not to go to the opening night party, where she is breathlessly expected and where she is intended to be the toast of the evening, and she divests herself of Jimmie, who has madly applauded in her mind as she sashays around the stage, owning it and forcing all “buggers” to their knees. She doesn’t need him anymore and thoughtfully rejects as nonsense his ideas about theatre as the only reality. Now in the company of her own voice, asserting who she is, she no longer sports those Mary Pickford ringlets; quite calmly composed, she is being Julia for once. Dining in the upscale restaurant she and Michael frequent, but not as part of a couple, she drinks a beer. It felt like a let down the first time I watched the film, but once I let Szabo distance me from the delirious expectations of rom-coms, I felt the deep peace of the final scene, noting with both curiosity and pleasure the pensive expression on Julia’s face as the blonde with the band sings the only too resonant, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Golden cages are comfortable. The future will not be easy for her.

Annette Benning and Bruce Greenwood in BEING JULIA

In fact, beer was the beverage that accompanied the worship of the mother gods in ancient Greece, and wine, the choice of the father gods, took over as the designated ritual libation only after the father gods repressed worship of the mother deities. Somerset Maugham almost certainly had read Jane Ellen Harrison’s (early feminist) Prologomena to the Study of Greek Religion and knew that. But it doesn’t matter, as it works so nicely as a motif in this film. So too do the characters Istvan Szabo intriguingly chooses to use as Julia’s chorus, so to speak, when she writes her own narrative for Nowadays. The face of Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood), Julia’s adoring aristocratic friend, whom she and we discover is gay when she attempts to replace her affair with Tom with an affair with him, is picked out of the audience in closeup as he is filled with delight at seeing Julia finally taking charge on her own. So too are the faces of Evie (Juliet Stevenson), Julia’s worldly wise personal maid and assistant at the theatre, Dolly de Vries (Miriam Margolyes), Michael’s wealthy business partner, a lesbian who has a big, long standing crush on Julia, and Julia and Michael’s charming and insightful young adult son Roger (Tom Sturridge). They, as three people outside the bubble of normality and/or privilege, and a young man beginning a life of his own, seem to have a particularly penetrating and exhilarated understanding of the magnitude of the changes Julia is making. In fact, we read Roger’s delight within the context of a lunch he shared with his mother shortly before Julia makes her big move, when he harshly puts it to her that she has tenuous relationship to her reality. “You have a performance for everyone. The servants. For daddy. For m— Everybody. And I don’t think you really exist,” he tells her, pulling his punches only when he can’t bare to tell her that he has experienced her mothering as a pale imitation of her vivacious onstage intensity. Her new consciousness about her role playing has a special meaning for him.

The film doesn’t do as well with its acknowledgement of the estrangement of Julia and company from the imminent approach of World War II. Awareness of a darkness on the horizon is only glancingly referred to by a busker entertaining the patrons standing in line waiting for Julia’s life changing performance at the end of the film. Dressed as Neville Chamberlain, the man who appeased Hitler and never lived that down, the street performer says to the soon to be audience, “This paper in my hand is signed by me, Herr Hitler, and Benito Macaroni in Munich. It is for peace in our time. However, if there is a war, then their majesties the King and Queen, and their two lovely daughters Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, and me, and the entire cabinet will set sail immediately for Canada. You will stay here.” It’s a deft touch, but minor in this context. Basically it serves to underscore Julia’s burst of reality.

Just by chance, while I was writing this blog, I found myself watching a few minutes of Christopher Strong (Dir. Dorothy Arzner, 1933), which I had seen a number of times before, a favorite of feminist film critics for its supposedly subversive view of women. I was shocked by how how very unsubversive it is for the most part in comparison with Being Julia. Yes Christopher Strong was written and directed by women—Arzner was one of the very few who worked for the studios in her day. But nevertheless, it shamelessly wallows in its idolatry of the glamour of the white, rich, self-congratulatory upper class; creates empathy for young and shimmering Lady Cynthia Darrington (Katharine Hepburn) at the expense of Lady Strong (Billie Burke), the older wife of Cynthia’s older lover, Sir Christopher Strong (Colin Clive); and punishes with death Lady Cynthia’s rebellion against convention when she dares to pilot her own plane. (Yup, Lady C. dies in a plane crash, which may have been intentional on her part as an act of contrition for having sex with Sir Christopher.) Okay, Hepburn is a strong woman in the film. But empathizing with an American cartoon of British nobility? The riveting melodrama of masochistic debutantes? AAAAARGH! Why, I wonder, has feminism not been sufficiently updated to recognize a new frontier that has moved far in advance of the embryonic challenges to American culture that the justly celebrated Arzner represented?

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