Video Virgil: Seniority

Neither István Szabó nor Ronald Harwood are getting any younger, and it has been a long time since W. Somerset Maugham topped the bestseller list. Maybe that's why several critics praised Annette Bening's performance in "Being Julia" but disparaged the film itself, adapted from Maugham's 1937 novel, "Theatre," about a 40-something actress in 1930s London trying to stay in the game.

Roger Ebert described the "basic material" as "wheezy melodrama"; Mark Kermode of the Guardian called the film "contrived fluff"; and Slate's David Edelstein found aspects of it "shopworn" and "old-fashioned." These comments are surprising, given the perennial appeal of the 1930s and 40s in films of all kinds.Why pick on "Being Julia"? The answer, I fear, is that it is about a theme most film critics do not find interesting: how a woman of a certain age needs just the right mixture of defiance and resignation.

In the few films that bother to treat women over 40 as people rather than stock characters or props, defiance is the preferred mode, because the assumption is that (to quote Cole Porter) the gals who are no longer hot tomatoes are yesterday's mashed potatoes. If Stella Can't Get Her Groove Back, why go on living? This is why, when Julia starts an affair with a much younger man, Tom (Shaun Evans), we are supposed to applaud her brave, futile gesture but then wait for her to lose him and then fade bitterly away.

She doesn't, of course, which is why so many women admire this film. But here's where the resignation comes in, because defiance only takes Julia so far. She cannot be hotter than Avice (Lucy Punch), the gangly blonde who seduces both Tom and her husband (Jeremy Irons). But she can be cooler. After gloriously upstaging Avice, and everyone else, Julia does something women in movies rarely do: she dines alone, content to be in her own company. If this is wheezy, contrived, shopworn, and old-fashioned, please tell me what other movies made it so.

June 30, 2005 9:30 AM |

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