Oscar Actors: Bening, Annette, for Playing Aging, Flamboyant Actress in Being Julia

Annette Bening (“Being Julia”) should join the ranks of Gloria Swanson (“Sunset Boulevard”), Bette Davis (“All About Eve”), Simone Signoret (“Room at the Top”), Geraldine Page (“Sweet Bird of Youth”), Dianne Wiest (“Bullets Over Broadway”), and Gwyneth Paltrow (“Shakespeare in Love”).

All of these women were nominated for (and some actually won) the Best Actress for playing aging, flamboyant, eccentric, temperamental actresses.

My book, All About Oscar, shows that the two most prominent professions among the female Oscar roles are actresses and prostitutes. You don’t have to be a sociologist to see the link between the two occupations or to understand the sexism that explains their prominence among Hollywood’s femme roles. Both acting and prostitution are service-oriented professions that rely heavily on physical looks and the desire to please, sexually and otherwise.


If you want to know more about the history and politics of the Oscars, please read my book:

Actresses playing actresses stand the best chance to receive Oscar nominations and awards for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the Acting Branch has the largest number of members (about one fourth of the Academy) and is easily biased toward portraits of eccentric showbiz personalities (actresses, singers, dancers). Second, playing a performer, preferably one afflicted with a problem or disease, provides a meaty, juicy part that lends itself to histrionics and wide gamut of emotions.

In “Being Julia,” an old-fashioned star vehicle, Bening plays Julia Lambert, a beautiful and beguiling actress at her peak. However, her successful theatrical career and marriage to impresario Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) are becoming too familiar and even stale. Julia’s rapidly maturing adolescent son is yet another reminder that her best years may be behind her. Julia is smart enough to know that she’s becoming a woman of a certain age, that as her youth and celebrity fade, she would have to relinquish the romantic leads and be relegated to supporting parts.

Longing for novelty and excitement, Julia falls for Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), a callow youth half her age who pretends to be a fan. Julia surrenders to a passionate affair that makes her feel more beautiful and vital, and proves to be the best antidote to a mid-life crisis—until she discovers that Tom is courting a younger actress and potential rival. Summoning up her considerable powers, Julia masterminds a brilliant revenge that places her where she belongs, center stage and in the spotlight.

Despite an inauspicious film debut in the comedy “The Great Outdoors,” Beining quickly proved her ability with a stunning performance in Milos Forman’s “Valmont” (1989). Unfortunately, the film was a big failure. It had the misfortune of being released after “Dangerous Liaisons,” which was based on the same source material and proved to be a hit.

In 1990, Bening received a supporting actress nomination for “The Grifters,” playing Myra, a con artist and the center of triangle between a small-time grifter (John Cusack) and his shrewd mother (Anjelica Huston). Always on the lookout for easy hustles, Myra is easily able to ply with her siren’s body, which she unabashedly reveals. Bening stole every scene she was in with co-star Cusack, confirming her talent as a solid, dependable performer.

In the following year, Bening joined Hollywood royalty when she married former playboy, actor-director-producer Warren Beatty. They met on the set of “Bugsy,” a stylish crime-gangster film that was nominated for Best Picture and reenergized Beatty’s career but didn’t do much for Bening.

Talent and intelligence have never been in doubt in Bening’s case. If her career is not as stellar as it should have been, it might be a result of some bad choices–and bad luck. “The Siege,” an actioner co-starring Denzel Washington, became controversial and was removed off the screen due to the negative portrayal of Arabs. The romantic comedy “The American President” didn’t perform well at the box-office and again served better Bening’s co-star, Michael Douglas.

Then came the high-profile “American Beauty,” in which Bening was cast as Carolyn Burnham, a brittle wife-mother pathologically obsessed with making everything just right, but falling apart under the gleaming and grinning surface. Bening gave an over-the-top performance that denied her critical acclaim. She didn’t win any critics awards, and on Oscar night lost the Best Actress to a newcomer, Hilary Swank, who gave that year’s most stunning performance in “Boys Don’t Cry.”

In “Being Julia,” Bening is outright marvelous, playing the kind of juicy role that theater critics tend to describe as delicious. Nothing I’ve seen Bening do before matches the exuberance of this performance. Bening breaks all the sacred rules of screen acting. She doesn’t internalize anything. She is not content merely to “be” Julia or let the camera “discover” her character. She projects big, attacking the role the way a stage actress reaches for the top balcony. Bening has always been too theatrical for the big screen, perhaps a result of her formal training and extensive stage experience. In “Being Julia,” she puts her theatricality to good use.

The relish with which Bening feasts upon her role is contagious. She thoroughly invigorates what could have easily been a stock role. Watch the scenes in which, with uncharacteristic humility and selflessness, Julia agrees to showcase the ingnue in her new play, or presumably deferring to her rival in rehearsals. In the big climax, set on opening night, Julia reveals she is more a formidable presence than anyone ever imagined, turning her fading actress into her greatest triumph. More beautiful and more compelling than ever before, Julia is now in control of her career and her life, fully accepting her newfound maturity.

At 46, Bening possesses the self-assurance of an experienced performer, showing facets that previous roles have left unexplored. There is an entire universe in Bening’s face–bemusement, bafflement, comic hauteur, rudeness, gleaming pleasure, and disdain–that’s intoxicating to observe. Gaining audience sympathy from the start, Bening gives Julia style, snap, social history, and the right brittle and irony. Her histrionic intensity elevates her work to a high level of exuberance.

Bening is perfect in a highly entertaining turn of a woman who never doubts for an instant that she’s meant to be the center of attention, on stage and off. Bening races through the motions with reckless assurance, turning temper tantrums into opera arias. She comes close to kidnapping the whole picture in a beautifully realized role that’s adroitly written. The role and Bening’s temperament as a star are inseparable–that’s what makes “Being Julia” an effective throwback to the romantic star vehicles of yesteryear.

Lynda Obst, who produced “The Siege,” once observed: “Annette is a good girl who can so easily be a bad girl. I haven’t seen an actress since Bette Davis who can indicate such autonomy, independence, and intelligence.” Comparing Bening to Davis might be quite relevant this awards season: Julia Lambert is cut from the same cloth as Margo Channing.


This essay was written in 2004.