When you get right down to it, Being Julia is a truly extraordinary one-woman show. Obviously, there are a number of other solid actors and actresses in it; all giving terrific performances, but it’s Bening who has to sell the movie. Fortunately, she owns it. She’s nothing less than glorious. The film may not be perfect, but Bening struts across the screen and makes it work. People who love the theater are probably going to love the movie. If you believe all the publicity, Buffalo is the fifth greatest center of theater in the universe, after New York, London, Toronto, and Chicago, which means there should be plenty of folks rushing out to see Bening and her delicious film. She plays a wildly famous 1930s London stage actress in this mostly dead-on adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel “Theatre.”

Bening is at times vain, giddy, haughty, loving, hilarious, neurotic, and sexually supercharged. She is an actress playing an actress who never stops acting, especially in her personal life. Bening’s Julia usually triumphs, but she does occasionally falter onstage, and is, depending on her moods, both convincing and obvious in her offstage manipulations. Why she is like she is a completely different matter. The movie never quite gets around to explaining Julia’s behavior. There’s no psychological resolution, but maybe there doesn’t have to be. Perhaps she is what she is because that’s the way she is. There’s nothing wrong with sitting back and enjoying what director Istvan Szabo and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have concocted: a delightfully glamorous and wonderfully witty backstage world.

At the start of the film, Julia, a diva who knows how to drape a mink over her shoulders with just the right note of insouciance, claims exhaustion. She asks her producer husband (Jeremy Irons) to stop the play in which she is currently starring. The request seems reasonable enough, but the reaction of everyone around her offers clues that Julia’s momentary whim falls into the “heard it all before” category. It certainly hints at her capricious temperament. Irons’ character feigns indulgence, but being very business-minded, he offers her a deal. He agrees to end the show, but not immediately. He believes, or knows, that she will change her mind. Julia’s devoted dresser and maid, played with entertaining good humor by Juliet Stevenson, has definitely heard it all before. In fact, she can mouth along to what Julia says as she complains about middle age, her lot in life, the weather, the audience, almost anything and everything. “The curtain has come down on Act 1, and I have no idea what happens in Act 2.”

One very refreshing aspect of the character, especially the way Bening plays her, is that Julia’s not completely self-absorbed. She’s a diva with an understanding that artifice isn’t everything. She can be sweet and warm and charming, and you can tell it’s not an act. She revels in the company of her theater friends and is honestly concerned about the emotional needs of her quite prescient teenage son (Thomas Sturridge). Julia is just a little less developed as a person than she is as a performer. The movie uses the conceit of her now-dead first, and much beloved, acting teacher (Michael Gambon) offering her advice on everything, sort of a whimsical angel-devil on her shoulder.

Much of the film revolves around Julia’s affair with a young American accountant who adores her acting and then adores her body. We’re soon in All About Eve territory. Tom is played by Shaun Evans, who we first see as cute and blond, but latter as cute and bland. Ah, callow youth. Evans acts the part with just the right understanding of his character’s place in the scheme of things. Julia’s open marriage allows her to cavort, and she is thrilled by the opportunity, and loves giving gifts. Tom is a puppy, nude and lusty, and is filled with eager advice for Julia. He tells her she could be in pictures, to which Julia responds, “Real actresses don’t make pictures,” an in-joke that Bening delivers with just the right note. But when Tom starts pushing the career of a willowy ingenue, Julia’s claws come out. Boy, do they ever. Tom and the ingenue haven’t got a chance.

It’s great watching the London diva swallow what Tom has to offer, but you know she’s smart enough to retain a touch of wariness. You love it when Julia giggles as those around her comment on her sexy sparkle. And you love it when she gets annoyed at Tom and decides she has to turn the tables.

It’s clear that Julia believes that Tom might be an accessory, sort of like the hats she wears. But she certainly knows how to get into the swing of things. As for her husband, well, I got the impression that it was he who opened the doors for the open marriage. Julia also has a dalliance with a chap named Charles (Bruce Greenwood), who ends up revealing something about himself that actually doesn’t surprise her. And hubby isn’t beyond the gentle shag or two. Theirs might be a marriage devoid of romance, but there’s still a lot of love left in it. And it sure does make for great dialogue. Listen for exchanges such as Julia complaining “I’m a bitch. Awful through and through.” “Nevertheless….” Irons begins in response. And as the producer in the relationship, he’s the only person on the planet who can tell her when she’s giving a bad performance.

Being Julia is beautifully photographed by Laos Koltai. The costumes and production values are top-notch. There’s not a dark view or bad outfit in the movie. This is a comedy, after all. As noted, the acting from everyone is sublime. Also enjoy appearances by Rita Tushingham, Rosemary Harris, Lucy Punch, Miriam Margolyes, Sheila McCarthy, Leigh Lawson, and Maury Chaykin, he himself a product of the University of Buffalo and our town’s avant-garde theater scene in the late 60s and early 70s.

Bening, of course, delivers nothing less than a tour de force. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

Annette Bening certainly knows how to make love to the camera.

In Being Julia, the movie that was the opening night selection at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Bening not only makes love to the camera, she owns it, lock, stock, and barrel. Her performance has Oscar nomination dripping all over it.