Friends often accuse me of not appreciating acting in movies, and I'm afraid I must plead guilty. Rabid auteurist that I am, actors usually interest me to the extent that they express the directors behind the camera, and a performance is judged firstly within the context of film, oeuvre, career -- which is absurd, I know, since actors can be their own auteurs as much as the most dictatorial of filmmakers. I guess my own bias against the widespread "realism" criteria that's used to tell "good" from "bad" acting has a lot to do with it. (I happen to find a good deal of so-called "bad" acting more expressive and personal than most of the performances that snatch Oscar gold, but that's a subject for another column.) Anyway, the point is that acting can often go beyond appreciation for performance and into a work's very theme -- vide such filmes d'auteur as To Be Or Not To Be, Persona and Opening Night.
Ray and Being Julia are in no danger of coming anywhere near those masterpieces, but they're brisk, lively entertainments with performance concerns that, whether accidental or deliberate, go beyond the bravura turns they're built around. Of the two, Ray is more obviously a star vehicle, with Jamie Foxx's mimicking of late, great blues groundbreaker Ray Charles already a virtual Best Actor lock come Academy Awards night. Don't be fooled by the buzz, though: Foxx is actually good. Supporting the nominal stars of Any Given Sunday, Ali and Collateral, he had grit and smoothness without sacrificing the comic limberness of his Ugly Wanda In Living Color bits. Pushed to the screen's center, he floods it with that elusive term, "presence" -- not just a matter of pinning the trademark Charles ticks (rocking shoulders, upward-tilted head, hepcat sputtering), but of assembling them into a spiritual whole.
Obvious but rousing, Ray follows Ray Charles' life from early '30s traumatic childhood (guilt over a drowned brother, blindness at the age of seven) to raucous '60s iconization following such legendary vinyl hits as "I Got a Woman," "Georgia on My Mind" and "Unchain My Heart." In between there are troubles with the ladies (Kerry Washington's church-going wife, Regina King's sassmouth singer and Aunjanue Ellis' torchy temptress are standouts) and with dope addiction, as well as the obligatory biopic sleights of hand -- "What'd I Say" improvised on the spot to fill in the last minutes of a nightclub act, emotional turmoil pouring out through "Hit the Road Jack." The director is Taylor Hackford and, despite his oeuvre (which includes that classic of '80s proto-fascism, An Officer and a Gentleman), I'll resist punning on the appropriateness of the first half of his last name: he lays his usual montage-happy sizzle on James L. White's schematic screenplay.
I would put Ray Charles alongside Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones as musical giants of the second half of the century (he died within a week of Ronald Reagan earlier this year, and I mourned for Charles alone). The movie scarcely flinches from the darkness behind the shades and the thousand-watt grin because the demons are inseparable from his appetite for life, and central to the Ray Charles image -- a "performance" in that the spotlight helps mold the man's feelings into the drive to make great music. Performance as heightened emotional outlet, which is very different from Being Julia's emphasis on performance as emotional evasion. Where the stage provides Ray with mid-century cultural revolution, it is in Being Julia an arena for role-playing that extends beyond the footlights and, on the brink of WWII, carries more than a hint of complacent self-delusion.
That's a theme the veteran Hungarian director, István Szabó, has tackled before in his most famous picture, Mephisto, and I dreaded him bringing the same leaden-spirited symbolism to the W. Somerset Maugham material. Happily, he's directed with comic agility and tartness that, while not quite the ideal handling of a George Cukor (whose own underrated 1933 Maugham adaptation, Our Betters, is not thematically dissimilar), mark an improvement over his previous Central European heaviness. Annette Bening plays the titular Julia, a fortyish London stage diva whose acting extends to her private life, in her relationships with her pipe-puffing impresario husband (Jeremy Irons), the ardent young American (Shaun Evans) who becomes her lover, and the toothy ingenué (Lucy Punch) who threatens to usurp her spot both in the play and in Evans' bed.
While Ray is pretty much a one-man show, Being Julia abounds in supporting pearls: Juliet Stevenson's vinegary dresser, Miriam Margolyes' doughy busybody, Michael Gambon's spectral confidant and Maury Chaykin's shambling playwright, just to name a few. But the film belongs to Bening, her grand dame -- vain, frightened, jealous, manipulative, manipulated, carnal, weary, giddy, a histrionic machine, a woman in heat -- stemming, with appropriately Pirandellian dimensions, from an actress reveling in her own exquisite middle-aged lushness. A "comeback" vehicle only to those wags who could not appreciate her performances in In Dreams, American Beauty and What Planet Are You From?, the film offers Bening at her most sexy-intelligent, her final gaze, following her triumphant glass of beer, capturing both the elation and essential ambiguity of her character's role-playing.