Indeed, All About Eve was a godsend to Bette Davis, who after a decade of success from the mid-1930s to the mid-40s (a number that nearly coincided with her age) that included two Oscars, found herself groping for material worthy of her. All About Eve, then, was perfect her; who couldn't see Bette Davis as Margo Channing, fending off middle age and, correspondingly, upstart Eve Harrington's (Anne Baxter) efforts to knock her off the top of the Great White Way. So it has always been thus for women in acting, a Logan's Run of a world where if you don't get your glory by the time you're 30, you might as well start staring at the clock. (It should be noted that, for all of All About Eve's Oscar success -- six, including Best Picture -- the performances by Davis and Baxter canceled each other out. In one of the great crimes against humanity, Judy Holliday beat out a field that also included Sunset Boulevard's Gloria Swanson!)
Regardless, the 42-year-old Davis' performance is one for the ages about middle age, even if it was in portraying another of the many petulant (yet deceivingly gritty) souls that marked Davis' heyday. That was her strength, after all, to leave us constantly wondering which we loved more: her surprising strength, or her surprising vulnerability. She always kept us guessing.
Annette Bening, regrettably, is less of a mystery, though there will be those who insist she's gotten a raw deal in her career and that Being Julia is testament to this notion. At 46, her best works (The Grifters, An American President, Bugsy, American Beauty) are probably behind her, and she was forced prematurely to accept the wife/mother roles that inevitably greet Hollywood's female thirtysomethings. Yet, like so much of Being Julia, Bening's supposedly Oscar-worthy performance (sure, why not) rings a little hollow. I've always been a polite if not passionate fan who thought she never truly made good on the potential displayed as the femme fatale in Stephen Frears' The Grifters. Maybe because she insisted on playing good women (Bugsy's Virginia Hill being a sort-of exception).
The notion of Being Julia, it seems, is for Bening to cull the most devilish and sympathetic resources from these previous roles to make Julia Lambert -- at-the-peak star of London's West End -- a complex and engaging character. Like her character, who constantly complains about having to carry a production, Bening has her hands full. She gets little help from director István Szabó (Sunshine) or Ronald Harwood's (The Pianist, another underwritten piece) adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel. Both seem content to surround Julia with half-sketched supporting characters with very little depth and let Bening flounder about (read: emote) and carry the film. It's a heavy load, and Bening, bless her heart, appears no more than barely capable to carry her share. Her idea of a character quirk is to giggle so early and often that my girlfriend started mocking her midway through in a sort of "is that all there is?" snarl. Pretty much, yeah.
But Bening is nothing if not relentless, and about midway through Being Julia, she briefly elicits some needed sympathy for what it's like to be Julia, for a lot of it is what it's like to be any woman -- even a successful woman in pre-World War II London. In her acting prime, Julia's bored and restless, searching for new challenges and a more meaningful happiness beyond her cruise-control career and a business-only marriage to her producer Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons, devoid of that mischievous twinkle in his eye). Even her lover, Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood) seems to be looking elsewhere. She searches for it in a May-September fling with young American Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), but soon his eyes, too, are wandering, and now Julia's got not only Tom's ambitions to contend with but also his aspiring-actress lover Avice's, as well. It's as if Eve Harrington has been divided up into two parts.
Julia spends the rest of the film trying to figure out a way to halt Avice's advances on her turf while finding happiness again, and if her scheming isn't utterly transparent, it's pretty close, a nod to the true nature of acting. She's tutored throughout by her late mentor Jimmy Langton (Michael Gambon, one of England's finest stage and screen stars), who spouts such pearls as "Don't let the world outside cheapen your gifts!" in that self-important defiance that makes theater so easy to mock.
All this makes us remember that Annette Bening -- like most actresses -- may have a little Margo Channing inside her, but she's no Bette Davis. In the end, it's all about talent.