Near the end of “Being Julia,” there’s a sharp intake of breath that encapsulates Annette Bening’s performance.
The moment arrives when Julia Lambert (Bening), a beloved stage actor in 1930s London, is trying to convince her caddish young lover, Tom (Shaun Evans), that they ought to keep sleeping together. Julia’s at the crux of her argument, adorning it with tears and a husky voice, when she cuts herself off. In the middle of a sentence, she gasps as if she’s been punched in the stomach, and Bening’s eyes suggest that Julia didn’t plan on this violent interruption. It’s a startling, naked moment.
It takes impeccable control to make chaos feel so real, and control is Bening’s specialty: She’s always so focused, her performances are always so crafted, that I trust her to guide me through a scene, confident that she’s mapped out exactly where we’re going. And within that craft, she almost always finds the ideal instant to let everything collapse—to either cry off her makeup or hurl scissors at the dog.
Those bursts of wildness force me to pay attention. Is there another explosion coming? What will set it off? Will she be laughing or crying? And how long before she pulls it back together? If I don’t keep watching, I could miss something.
In “Being Julia,” which netted Bening her third Oscar nomination when it was released in 2004, the dance between order and disorder is even more complex. It’s not just that Julia is an actor; the entire film is about acting itself. Julia and Tom perform the rituals of a passionate couple. Julia and her husband, Michael (Jeremy Irons), fight and coo with equal intensity, but they never seem to mean it. It’s all just scenes from a life.
Then comes the final scene, when acting makes Julia a conquering hero. In front of a packed house at the West End premiere of her latest play, she seizes control of the show, spontaneously rewriting a pivotal scene so she can deliver coded rebukes to Michael and Tom in the audience. She also dismantles her co-star Avice (Lucy Punch), who’s foolish enough to think she can outsmart Julia as an actor and a lover. These people think Julia’s a trifle because she’s always performing and never genuine, but as the film demonstrates, acting gives her power.
As she flits around the stage, turning a light comedy into Julia’s greatest triumph, Bening practically burns with power, like Artemis replacing arrows with wry asides. And as thrilling as it is in isolation, the scene is more impressive because it rewrites the rest of Bening’s performance. Suddenly, her emotional outbursts have to be reconsidered. Were they actually unhinged, or were they just part of the character’s plan?
Take that gasp: Is Julia racked by something, or is she crying on cue? A few seconds later, when Tom falls under her spell, the camera lingers on Bening’s face, and she seems delighted. But there’s a hardness to her smile, as if she’s proud of herself for conquering a foe. Rewatching this moment with the knowledge of what comes later, I can see all those facets in the performance—the spontaneous and the calculated blurring together.
And of course they should blur together. Julia is a creature of the stage, and even she can’t always parse the difference between what she feels and what she enacts. Happily, she has the wisdom to embrace that ambiguity, and Bening has the skill to make it captivating. Both actors find the electric middle ground between losing composure and losing it on cue.
Mark Blankenship edits the theater magazine TDF Stages. He writes about film and television for several upstanding websites.