STAGE TO SCREEN: "Being Julia"

STAGE TO SCREEN: "Being Julia" As we march into autumn, the number of prestige pictures always goes up, many of them with a theatrical pedigree. (Although I continue to read and hear that Miramax will likely bump “Proof” to 2005.) In fact, two period romantic dramas immersed in the world of the stage are upon us, and so I headed off to cover them.
Annette Bening
Annette Bening

This turned out to be a bit easier said than done. Seeing as it’s based on Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty and is all about the staging conventions of Restoration theatre, “Stage Beauty” will undoubtedly make for a terrific Stage to Screen column. But not this one: After a series of bizarre near misses and communication breakdowns, the “Stage Beauty” screenings and press events sailed by, one by one. I was actually in the same hotel as one of the events and rode up in the hotel elevator with Rupert Everett, who plays King Charles II in the film. (This actually got a bit complicated, since neither of us knew exactly which floor we were supposed to be on.) I made it as far as the hospitality room. I watched footage of Billy Crudup describing the role. But that’s it.

In my search, however, I stumbled onto an entirely different press day in the same hotel, this one for “Being Julia” (opening Oct. 15), in which Annette Bening plays a London stage star in the 1930's. (It’s based on a W. Somerset Maugham novella called “Theatre,” no less.) After chatting a little with the people there, it was decided that I’d attend the premiere the following night and speak with Bening at the party afterward. Why not?

The movie itself is a blast, two-thirds froth and one-third romantic drama, and Bening is phenomenal as Julia Lambert, for whom life is a constant performance until an affair with a young suitor brings things (temporarily) crashing down. The film relies too heavily on an imaginary Michael Gambon, who plays a long-dead acting coach that serves as Julia’s lecherous Jiminy Cricket, and the ending might strike audiences as a bit tidy. But it’s beautifully put together: It really feels like one of the West End plays of the time, with its romantic complications, droll dialogue and triumphant finale. Picture Maugham with a bit of Terrence Rattigan and a fair amount of “All About Eve” thrown in — in other words, an intoxicating combination. Director István Szabó and screenwriter Ronald Harwood also collaborated last year on “Taking Sides,” a piece that seemed a little too talky and underdeveloped. (I remember the glorious visuals by cinematographer Lajos Koltai, who also shot “Being Julia,” working against that film’s tone somewhat.) But this one connects.

Jeremy Irons, Rosemary Harris, Juliet Stevenson and a batch of other theatre types are in it, too, but the movie belongs to Bening. She seems to have reached a truly enviable and, to the best of my knowledge, unique position in Hollywood. She’s beautiful enough and talented enough to get great parts, but settled enough (with four kids) and content enough to pick and choose. Basically, she acts only when a dream role surfaces. It worked with “American Beauty,” it worked with that bizarre “Sopranos” dream sequence, and it works in “Being Julia.” (Chalk “What Planet Are You From?” up as a chance to work with Mike Nichols.) This could be the movie that finally gets Bening her Oscar.

I wasn’t looking for stars at the premiere, in part because I got there about ten seconds before the movie started, but I did happen to sit right next to soon-to-be ’night, Mother co-stars Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn along with their director, Michael Mayer. (Mayer is slated to direct Bening in “Under My Skin.”) I always find it a little disconcerting when co-workers head out in tandem like that; it reminds me of when the “Queer Eye” guys would constantly show up at events as a fivesome. Don’t these people get sick of each other? Anyway, on to the party. It was pretty loud, and I could tell that the promised meeting with Bening was going to take some time and some effort. She had a roped-off VIP area, and it was pretty clear that journalists who couldn’t make the junket were not VI. Nor should they be: A party’s a party, and the last thing people want to do there is plop down and jabber with journalists. But since I was told it would happen, I stood there, terrified to grab a drink in case I lost my turn. It took a while. I did say a quick hello to Szabó, whom I had interviewed for this column when “Taking Sides” came out. I’d pass on the contents of our chat, but here’s an instructive formula:

Interview + booming Barry White music - notebook - tape recorder = no quotes longer than three words

Shortly thereafter, I got my turn with the lady of the evening. She was very warm and friendly, and didn’t seem rattled in the slightest by having just seen one of her best film roles unspool in front of her. We talked about the difficulty of giving a “stage” performance on the screen, of simultaneously acting for the back row and the camera. We talked about coming to New York for another play. (She got a Tony nomination for Coastal Disturbances while she was still in her teens.) She said a limited-run Broadway revival — I recall talk of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels — almost happened a year or two ago but just wasn’t economically feasible. Anyway, she couldn’t have been nicer, and I didn’t get a single useable quote. Somehow, I suspect Harry Haun could have gotten one. Ah, well.

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The future of a few big musicals crystallized this month. “The Producers” will shoot in Brooklyn instead of Toronto, which is good. Mel Brooks has no excuse not to use the Lincoln Center fountain again. The best part of this is that it should open the door to all sorts of gimmicky casting with actual Broadway names. I’d love to see a procession of grandes dames play the dirty old ladies. (If only Uta Hagen had held out a little longer.) Let’s see a jury made up entirely of composers and lyricists. Come on, Mel! Interestingly enough, press reports listed the “Producers” budget at $45 million, which is exactly what “Chicago” cost — in Toronto.

Both “The Producers” and “Rent” are now scheduled to shoot in late winter/early spring for holiday 2005 openings, which sounds a little fast in the case of “Rent.” Don’t they still have to cast the thing? Aren’t they still looking for names, who presumably have other commitments? If Chris Columbus wanted to go with all unknowns, I could see the fast turnaround, but I’m still a bit skeptical. Still, coupled with the news that Really Useful Films is developing “Bombay Dreams” and “Sunset Boulevard” for the big screen (and not the frequent PBS/video shoots that Andrew Lloyd Webber has gravitated toward in recent years), the start date on “Rent” is yet another encouraging sign of movie musicals picking up steam.

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This column generally focuses on movies, but a short Off-Broadway run warrants mentioning. As Anne Bogart (War of the Worlds) and Tim Robbins (“Cradle Will Rock”) have demonstrated recently, Orson Welles is an incredibly interesting subject, and Rosebud (The Lives of Orson Welles) is the latest to take a stab at Welles’ tumultuous, intermittently transcendent life. It’s getting just five performances in November as one of two Edinburgh Fringe Festival hits, and it sounds like something worth catching; www.bestofedinburgh.org has more details.

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If “Being Julia” doesn’t scratch your Jeremy Irons itch, he also appears with Joan Plowright in “Callas Forever,” which opens Nov. 5 in limited release. The fictionalized drama was written by Martin Sherman, who can make up for his Boy From Oz script with a new adaptation of A Passage to India at BAM in November. Also opening Nov. 5 is Zoe Caldwell in “Birth,” which also has an script by someone who is a working playwright. It was co-written by Jean-Claude Carriere, whose new play The Controversy opens at the Public this spring. And not to be crass, but theatre buffs who also love beautiful women are in for a treat this month. Jane Krakowski and Marisa Tomei are among the title character’s conquests in “Alfie” (Oct. 22), Contact temptress Deborah Yates appears in “Shall We Dance?” (Oct. 15), Aunjanue Ellis plays Ruth Brown in the Ray Charles biopic “Ray” (Oct. 29), and Laura Linney stars in the cross generational romance “P.S.” (Oct. 15). Quite a month.

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My Favorite Thought: I’d asked for some help in naming other eminent Brits to add a touch of class to big-budget action movies, particularly sci-fi or fantasy ones. Steven, Bill and Hector all added to my “Star Wars”/"Harry Potter”/”Lord of the Rings” list:

Ralph Richardson (long before the sir) and Cedric Hardwicke in 1936’s “Things to Come”
Ralph Richardson 45 years later in “Dragonslayer”
Michael Redgrave in 1945’s “Dead of Night”
Arthur Conan Doyle as himself in 1925’s “The Lost World”
Laurence Naismith as Merlin in 1967’s “Camelot”
Denholm Elliott in the first and third Indiana Jones movies
C. Aubrey Smith and May Whitty in 1943’s “Flesh and Fantasy”
C. Aubrey Smith again in 1935’s “Transatlantic Tunnel”
Laurence Olivier (as Zeus, no less) in 1981’s “Clash of the Titans”
And don’t forget Peter Cushing, who appeared along with Alec Guinness in “Star Wars”

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Your Thoughts: Good answers, guys. I had totally forgotten about “Dragonslayer” and “Clash of the Titans”; I saw them at a drive-in with a bunch of friends and my father (bless him) on my tenth birthday. Now: Any thoughts on “Being Julia” or “Stage Beauty”? And I’d love to get some “insider” casting ideas for “The Producers.”

Eric Grode is associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.