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Being Julia

Released: Oct. 15

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Oscar alumni: Jeremy Irons (actor, “Reversal of Fortune”), Ronald Harwood (screenplay, “The Pianist”), Luciana Arrighi (production design, “Howards End”)

The proposition is a tricky one: playing a 1930s stage diva whom the audience can never be quite sure is acting or acting out.

To be sure, Julia Lambert — essayed by Annette Bening in the grand manner of the film and stage queens of the early 20th century — feels deeply. Lambert is at the peak of her theatrical career in London, and her relationship with her husband, played by Jeremy Irons, is as comfortable as an old pair of shoes, with about as much passion. The restlessness and growing disillusionment with her profession is mirrored by her lack of romance. Taking on a young lover invigorates Julia but makes her vulnerable, and this is where the line between dissembling and true ardor is ever changing.

Bening carries this film on her shoulders, and it’s just the kind of histrionic performance — think Bette Davis’ Margot Channing crossed with Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois — that causes the Academy to stand up and take notice. Critics ranging from the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern to USA Today’s Claudia Puig — who says Bening “gets the role of a lifetime and runs off with the movie” — have sung her praises.

Bening is an intriguing case study. She has been wowing critics since her lead role in Milos Forman’s “Valmont” (1989) and has been to the big Academy dance twice before: as the predatory femme fatale in “The Grifters” (1990) and as the duplicitous wife of Kevin Spacey in “American Beauty” (1999). And yet for many, she’s primarily known as Mrs. Warren Beatty.

“Being Julia” not only proves that Bening can dominate the spotlight on her own, but gives Oscar voters the chance to validate her immense talent.

“Being Julia” director Istvan Szabo has explored the line between artifice and reality by a narcissistic thespian before, namely in his Oscar-winning “Mephisto” (1981). His command of period subject matter and his actors is no less in evidence here.

Playwright-novelist Ronald Harwood, who adapted the screenplay from Somerset Maugham’s 1937 novel “Theater,” wrote one of the most probing portraits of an actor losing his grip on reality in “The Dresser,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for adapting his own play. More recently, Harwood won an Academy Award for adapting Wladyslaw Szpilman’s “The Pianist” into one of 2002’s most acclaimed films.

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