Having Fun Watching 'Julia' Get Even; Bening's Portrayal Overcomes Early Limits

Article excerpt

Byline: Scott Galupo, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The first few frames of "Being Julia" spell disaster for the casting of Mrs. Warren Beatty as Julia Lambert, a star of stage in prewar London.

Annette Bening ("American Beauty," "The American President") talks in a husky, heavily perfumed English accent that barely rises above affectation. She looks older than she is (a supple 46) and older than she's supposed to be (45), her face a canvas of lines and crows feet.

Gradually, though, so gradually you barely notice you're forking over the disbelief-suspension cash, she grows into the part. By the third act, this vain, sulky, spoiled queen of potboiler theater becomes a sympathetic woman whose conniving, self-aggrandizing shtick we gladly accept as a defense against all the back stabbers and hangers-on of the West End.

Julia's plot against a young ingenue (Lucy Punch) who plans to upstage her is so sassily take-charge that you might call it American.

Miss Bening is the best thing in this whimsical high-fashion farce, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel "Theatre," that may have floated like so much helium without her.

The cast is an ensemble of bons vivants and black-tie types, and the plot, a May-December romance wherein the guy plays the part of May, is frothy, with some gold-diggery and a hint of seriousness about dignity in middle age and identity outside the practice of art.

Miss Bening's Julia is a critically acclaimed and publicly adored stage actress who is, if not long in tooth, then plentiful in wrinkles. Director Istvan Szabo ("Sunshine," "Mephisto") surrounds her with mirrors, and Julia is drawn to them like a fly to bug-zappers.

She's married, technically, to manager-director Michael Gosselyn (a smartly mischievous Jeremy Irons), but their relationship is companionably professional. "Michael and I lead separate lives; that's how we stay happily married, more or less," Julia jibes to a lover (Bruce Greenwood) who's gotten cold feet about their affair. …