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Being Julia

All actors probably like to think that the movies they make just wouldn't be the same without them, but the cases when that turns out to be true are generally fairly few and far between (can you picture Tootsie without Dustin Hoffman? The Sound of Music without Julie Andrews? All About Eve without Bette Davis?) Luckily for audiences, Being Julia (2004) is one of them. Annette Bening is the movie; her performance as an aging (relatively speaking) theater diva whose heart is broken by a tempestuous affair is the kind that will pop up on "best of" lists for years to come. Bening manages to make Julia Lambert — a demanding, emotional, needy, selfish, passionate woman who demands attention as her natural right — both strong and vulnerable, detestable, and sympathetic. Set in late-'30s London, Being Julia (which is based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel Theatre) throws its titular character up against a breaking point in her personal and professional life. Exhausted by her demanding performance schedule and a growing sense of ennui, Julia insists that her theater-owner husband Michael (Jeremy Irons) do something to save her. Little does he know that inviting eager young American Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) to lunch will turn out to be it. Tom and Julia fall into an ardent affair; the adoration of a handsome young man half her age turns out to be exactly the spark Julia needs to set her on fire, both at home and on stage. But when Julia allows herself to really fall for Tom, she sets herself up for heartbreak — the consequences of which will ultimately be played out in Julia's most memorable performance ever. Throughout Being Julia, Bening is a joy to watch — when she giggles with glee (as she often does), we can hear Bening's exultation at getting to play a complicated character. A consummate actress, Julia is never just herself; her son Roger (Tom Sturridge) is quite accurate when he accuses her of always playing a part. The only person she really lets her guard down with is her dresser/maid/companion Evie (a delightful Juliet Stevenson) — their scenes together are some of the movie's best. As is often the case with films that revolve around a single actor, Being Julia isn't perfect. Most of the supporting players are a little underdeveloped. (Why does Tom shift so quickly from nice guy to impatient jerk? Why has Michael put up with Julia for all these years?). And despite an unexpected ending, some of the plot turns are easy to anticipate. But those are relatively minor faults in a movie that, overall, is grandly entertaining, thanks to its memorable central character and the talented actress who plays her. Columbia TriStar brings Being Julia to DVD in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a companionable commentary track by Bening, Irons, and director Istvan Szabo, two "making-of" featurettes (one "official," the other composed of raw behind-the-scenes footage), four deleted scenes, and previews. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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