29 October 2010

Somerset Maugham's Theatre and Being Julia

Somerset Maugham before he turned into a full fledged novelist was an illustrious playwright. And even though he never got too involved in the workings of the theatre world of his time, he remained a close observer. And it is much of this he saw staying in the wings that made its way into the novel he wrote later in 1937.
Theatre or/and its 2004 literary adaptation, Being Julia (directed by director István Szabó), is the story of an exquisitely talented and alluring stage actress Julia Lambert and her trysts with various men.

So consumed is Julia with her aura as an actress, and such is her versatility at playing different parts, that she never stops being a performer even when she is not on stage. As she embarks on a spectacular career, Julia gets enamoured by her good-looking and industrious co-actor, Michael. They are a happily married couple for a while, but soon Michael's vanity and business-minded approach to everything starts to bore Julia. She is a mega successful actress on the London stage, and by 40, she has all that an actress can possibly aspire for - plenty of money, a fleet of admirers, a husband who looks after her career interests, and a teenage son whom she is content to see on and off.

Yet, Julia is a restless soul, always looking for short-term romantic adventures that will uplift her soul and send her heart into raptures. She's also acutely self-centered with a constant need for assurance about her desirability. Vain to an extreme degree, Julia has a compulsive need to feel loved, adored and highly valued by all. She returns all this attention with a charming superficiality, but with no great sentiment towards anyone. In fact, in Julia's mind, the lines between the stage and real have long blurred and she no longer can recogonise who she really is. Like her son Roger tells her once, "You don't know the difference between truth and make-believe. You never stop acting, It's second nature to you. You act when there's a party here. You act to the servants, you act to Father, you act to me. To me, you act the part of the fond, indulgent, celebrated mother, You don't exist, you're only the innumerable parts you've played...."

It is this struggle with conflicting identities and a fickle, restless but sparkling mind that prompts her to be on the look-out for instant gratification. Between flirting and keeping her wealthy, erudite lover, Charles guessing about her affections for him, she also meanwhile falls headlong in love with an American boy, Tom several years her junior. His smooth, handsome face and body evokes a great passion in her. Tom, on his part, is kicked about being seen with a celebrity and joins her to all her high profile parties. But soon, he gets attracted to a younger, upcoming actress, Avice Crichton and cold shoulders Julia. Infuriated and upset, Julia goes through a slump, only to recoup and assert her glorious celebrityhood.

In Julia, Maugham creates a memorable and life and blood female character, who is as despicable as she is delightful, as artificial as she is alluring and as capricious as she is charming. It's easy to read her as scheming and manipulative, but that would be a surface reading of this extremely complex woman. Her airy superficiality and self-absorption make her difficult to like, and yet, Maugham does not condemn her. He writes her part with stunning constancy and depth, and even though he depicts what is truly pathetic about her state, one guesses Maugham is quite taken in by her spirit and allure to let her slip into being anything dismal. He allows her a grand comeback,from the brink of despair.

When a novel is an exploration into the psyche of a singular character, with no real hook, it can become difficult to adapt on screen. But Being Julia turns out to be a beguiling film, all thanks to a glorious performance from Annette Bening, who keeps you riveted to her from start to finish. She is beyond beautiful, and in spite of the narrative being condensed to suit the film format, Bening captures Julia perfectly, and one dare says, makes her perhaps more scintillating than she was in the novel even. But not everything else in the film is perfect. The Tom-Julia affair lacks the adequate chemistry in the film. Shaun Evans, as the American cad is only half convincing, and many of the scenes between him and Bening seem awkward. Ditto with Jeremy Irons, who plays Julia's practical-minded husband, Michael. The book recogonises him as vain and boring, but Maugham infuses in him a masculine charm that is entirely missing in the film. But apart from that, the film takes all the best scenes and dialogues and does a neat job of it. The novel reads the character of Avice Crichton - the struggling new actress on the block - rather differently from how the film uses her. The character is far from comical in the novel, and is quite an undistinguished character, except for the fact that Tom likes her and thinks of her as a perfectly honorable choice for him, which Julia is not! The problem is the film treats Crichton as a buffoonish wannabe, and hence Tom's affection and so called 'respect' for her does not ring true. Yet, the climax in the film, and the scenes leading upto it, are all entertaining and Bening makes it every bit worthwhile.