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December 24, 2004

A fun story of a 1930s diva has some unusual twists

Being Julia is pathbreaking in a way that will slip under the radar of most critics, especially in less queer media outlets.

It has two queer supporting characters, which isn’t so unusual these days, but one of those is an older lesbian, one who has sexual and romantic desires.

When was the last time you saw that in a Hollywood film?

The film tells the story of an aging stage diva in 1930s London, a woman who is overworked, falling out of love with her husband and being threatened by younger cutthroat talent.

The film’s title character finds that the perfect solution to her personal and career ennui is to fall in love and have a torrid affair with a young American man who has come to London to learn the theater business.

But Tom Fennel, the lover, is nothing but an opportunist and when he finds a younger actress who will bed him to climb the theatrical ladder, he incurs the wrath of the scheming Julia.

Julia’s husband is her manager. Her main patron is Dolly de Vries, a socialite with oodles of money and a penchant for the star of all her blockbuster shows.

In a very funny scene, early in the film, Dolly comes to meet Julia to talk business. She makes sure to do this just when Julia is getting her daily massage. Dolly’s antics in this scene are hilarious and show an older woman in touch with her sexuality and her lust for other women.

Later in the film, when Julia is paying more attention to the young Tom, Dolly displays the pain and hurt of an unrequited love, an unfulfilled desire.

Julia’s biggest fan is Lord Charles, a dashing man about town who is also her best friend. Before she contemplates the affair with Tom, Julia indicates that she wouldn’t mind a fling with Charles. But Charles keeps her at bay.

After Tom has abandoned her, she pursues Charles again. This time, too, he declines, but he comes out to her as “playing for the other side.”

Disappointed, Julia still hangs on to him as her confidant and companion--a safe haven from the ones lusting after her body or her talents.

The final segments of the film, in a very All About Eve way, shows Julia’s antics as she tries to hold on to her stardom and show the young Tom that she will not be used by anyone.

The film is simply marvelous. Annette Benning as the dazzling and charismatic Julia is wonderful. A performer of a myriad talents, she is at her best here as she realizes that life, art and love are not for the faint of heart.

Jeremy Irons as her husband is strong and funny in a deadpan sort of way. Shaun Evans as the young lothario Tom is sexy and manipulative, contradicting his baby face and his eyes of innocence. Lucy Punch as the aspiring ingénue is funny and gorgeous to watch.

Juliet Stevens as Evie, Julia’s maid and backstage hand, is simply divine. Stevens, who had given a hilarious performance in Bend it Like Beckham as the mother of a girl who she thinks is lesbian, is funny here as well. And the relationship between Evie and Julia is a wonderful one between two women--strong, loving, honest--not often seen in contemporary cinema.

Bruce Greenwood as Lord Charles is perfect as the debonair man about town with a secret. And Miriam Margolyes as Dolly is superb. She plays the producer with a feisty independence and a range of emotions rare in a supporting role. The only regret is that Greenwood and Margolyes didn’t have much more screen time than they already do.

Ronald Harwood’s (The Pianist) screenplay based on a novel by Somerset Maugham is strong and well paced.

Istvan Szabo’s direction is wonderful with its great sense of timing, comedy and balance of heightened drama and realism.

The period has been beautifully recreated and this is a must see for those who love the hi-jinks that go on behind the curtains in the theater. Szabo, whose last film was the brilliant Holocaust epic Sunshine, has made another film to remember.

Being Julia is a perfect piece for the holidays--funny, moving and made with the extraordinary talents of some of the best people working in cinema today.

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