W. Somerset Maugham’s novels and short stories were constantly adapted for film and television during his lifetime, but where his reputation stands today is open to debate. Most of his books are still in print, some might even be read, but they haven’t been made into movies much in recent years (aside from Philip Haas’s disastrous Up at the Villa). Maugham was an extremely successful playwright, too, but his plays are barely ever done anymore. His novel Theater displays his knowledge of those who tread the boards. It also displays more heart than he was accustomed to showing, even if, in the end, it trumpets his familiar world weary “love is for suckers” routine.
Being Julia, an adaptation of Maugham’s Theater, feels at first like a rickety star vehicle for Annette Bening. She seems miscast in the early scenes, too down-to-earth and Californian to be Julia Lambert, an English stage diva having a mid-life crisis. But once you get used to Bening’s accent and all the period trappings, the film begins to build into something unusual, and this has to do with the way the material is handled by the director, István Szabó. Julia is a cliché, an actress who can’t stop acting, yet Bening and Szabo take this tired notion and breathe life back into it. They take Maugham’s facile, complacent story and deepen it with acute psychological details. Szabó’s most famous film, 1981’s Mephisto, was a sweeping, heavy-spirited and rather obvious condemnation of acting as a profession. In Being Julia, Szabó tackles this theme again from a more ambiguous standpoint.
Stuck in a comfortable but sexless marriage to a sturdy theatrical impresario (Jeremy Irons), Bening’s Julia has devoted her life to her art, and she is beginning to get restless. When she meets young Tom (Shaun Evans), an attractive American social climber, she can’t help being tickled by his attention. In heat for a lover young enough to be her son, Julia finds the whole thing so amusing that she’s constantly breaking into helpless laughter. In this section of the film, Bening lowers her voice to a sexy purr and gets truly down and dirty. This carnal awakening gives her full access to the character, and she’s on firm ground for the rest of the film.
Julia is humiliated when Tom jilts her for a younger actress (Lucy Punch). This girl eventually goes to bed with Julia’s husband and takes a sure-fire ingenue part in the older woman’s new play. Slowly, carefully, Julia plots an artful revenge on her rival. In the novel, Julia merely does what many an older actress would do: she upstages the girl by playing with a red handkerchief and by stepping on her laughs. In Szabó’s film, Julia launches into a vicious improvisation, giving vent to her total disillusionment with love. Her venom is met with vociferous applause, and the ingénue is left sniveling on the floor. In a tidier movie, and in Maugham’s book, we would simply feel Julia’s triumph. But Szabó and Bening go much further, suggesting that Julia’s humanity is curdled by her rejection of life for art.
The film ends with Julia alone in a restaurant, forgoing the cast party and enjoying a forbidden glass of beer. This is a very bitter conclusion, far removed from the simple exultation of Maugham’s Julia as she smugly feels superior to her audience and vows to let the girl have her laughs for the rest of the run. Bening’s Julia has won, and she seems resigned to her solitary, loveless fate, but she also looks distinctly guilty, as if she knows how unjust she has been. Being Julia will most likely be appreciated solely for Bening’s tour de force performance, yet the film itself should not be overlooked; it’s a tart, observant look at the seductiveness of revenge and its generally empty aftertaste.