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Annette Bening: On Her Way to Oscar Gold

Bening | Springsteen | Kerry

Annette Bening: On Her Way to Oscar Gold

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the dearth of potential nominees this year for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.

Gwyneth Paltrow might be one in "Proof" if Miramax releases that film. Meryl Streep could be another if Paramount puts her in the lead category for "The Manchurian Candidate." Each of these is still uncertain.

I am late to say that I've now seen Annette Bening in "Being Julia," directed by Istvan Szabo. But better late than never, right? "Being Julia" is based on a novella called "Theater" by W. Somerset Maugham, and it is certainly not a special-effects thriller or a historical sweeping epic.

Indeed, "Being Julia" is a like very good Merchant-Ivory or Masterpiece Theater production, with exceptional acting, writing and stage values. Set in late-1930s London, it's all about a top stage actress of the West End (Bening), her husband, who is also the producer of her shows (Jeremy Irons), and the actress's young lover (Shaun Evans).

There are three or four supporting players, too, who do a wonderful job: Bruce Greenwood, going against the grain as Julia's suitor with a secret; Juliet Stevenson as her trusty assistant; Miriam Margolyes as a patron of the theater; and Rosemary Harris in a much-too-small part as Julia's mother.

Playwright Ronald Hardwood, famous for the screenplays for "The Pianist," "Cry, the Beloved Country" and "The Dresser," does a masterful job weaving all these people and these elements together.

He keeps it light when it could become melodramatic, and draws each character so beautifully that they resonate far beyond the movie's borders. He will absolutely be nominated for best adapted screenplay.

But as good as all its pieces are — including a cameo by beloved New York restaurateur George Lang, of the Café des Artistes, as a maitre d' — "Being Julia" is a crowning success for Annette Bening.

I just don't see how she could not be nominated for Best Actress. In fact, her performance is the one to beat at this point.

Bening has always brought a knowing sexiness combined with steely intelligence to all her roles. She's been a knockout in her best efforts: "American Beauty," "The Grifters," "Bugsy" and "The American President."

Even in films that didn't quite work, like "Love Affair" or "In Dreams," she held her head high.

Interestingly, one Bening film that really missed the mark, "Valmont," seems to be echoed in "Being Julia." It's as if Bening recalls the central success of her role as Madame Merteuil and refashions that schemer in a new, more sympathetic light. Nicely done.

Every good actor in Hollywood who displays a desire for a career usually gets a shot at the Oscar. For Bening, the wait may have been a little longer since she married Warren Beatty and knocked out four beautiful children over eight years.

But I do think her time has finally come. It's going to be hard to ignore this performance, or this movie.

Beatty had better polish up his patent-leather shoes. He's going to be escorting his wife to a lot of awards ceremonies this winter!

Rock All-Stars Generate Little Passion

Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., John Fogerty, the Dixie Chicks — you'd think their big week-long six-pronged concert tour would be lighting a fire somewhere among someone. It ain't happening.

The shows begin tonight, but Moveon.org founder Eli Pariser, who put this behemoth together, keeps sending out e-mails announcing new blocks of available tickets to everything.

On Wednesday, I was able to find good seats to all the shows, except tonight's Philadelphia date with the Springsteen gang and the final show on Oct. 11 in Washington, DC.

Otherwise, it looks as though ticket scalpers are going to have a lot of ducats on their hands right up until curtain time.

The shows won't be getting much press beyond the local papers in the cities where they play. That's because the national press has been kept pretty much at bay, with lots of dissent among the performers who were supposed to be activists. (Was Joan Baez this much of a prima donna? I doubt it.)

Their various managers and publicists haven't done much to endear themselves to anyone, either. (I've got more to say about that next week.)

So let's see if Springsteen, who never fails to amaze and also has a higher purpose at heart, can rise above the nonsense around him and put across his message to young people.

Let's also hope all those would-be young voters read Rolling Stone magazine, because so far that's the only publication that's been granted a decent interview by The Boss's minions. Personally, I rather doubt it.

In the meantime, the original protest singer, Bob Dylan, releases his autobiography next week from Simon & Schuster.

Dylan's people, at least, see that his readers have grown up. They gave their cover story to Newsweek. Smart, smart, smart.

Kerry Upriver With Leo; Billy Joel Marries

Forget the Vote for Change concert in Philly tonight: The real political action, at least on the Democratic side, will be a screening of George Butler's "Going Upriver" about Sen. John Kerry.

Sharon Stone, Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio are hosting it, and the guest list reads like a Who's Who A-list. The guys from R.E.M. are no doubt sorry they're missing it, but they have to be on stage in Philly....

Billy Joel, who's 55, marries Kate Lee, 23, tomorrow on Long Island at Joel's North Shore estate. There are 200 guests coming, including Foreigner's Mick Jones with wife Ann Dexter Jones, Sony Music CEO Andy Lack and wife Betsy and Billy's ex-wife Christie Brinkley with husband Peter Cook.

Billy and Christie's daughter Alexa is the maid of honor, and Billy's half-brother Alexander, the famous classical-music conductor, is best man.

Kate's dad, by the way, is six years younger than Billy, but he has his own 25-year-old girlfriend.

Regrettably, two of Billy's big name pals, Elton John and Sting, are on tour and can't make it. But there will be a lot of music and maybe even a performance by the cast of Billy's hit Broadway show with Twyla Tharp.

Unfortunately, Tharp herself may be absent. Her close friend, legendary photographer Richard Avedon, is gravely ill....

Danny Aiello is beloved from his work in "Moonstruck" and other movies, but did you know he's a singer? His album, "I Just Wanted to Hear the Words," is a hit on the jazz charts.

Now Danny's bringing his act to Feinstein's later this month. He told me he's got two new movies in the can, as well. It's time to make Danny a New York Living Landmark!...

Finally, all New Yorkers of a certain age mourn the passing this week of the great radio personality, Scott Muni, dead at 74.

A veteran of the real WNEW-FM in its heyday along with the late great Alison Steele, Pete Fornatale, Dave Herman and Dennis Elsas, Scott was one of the legends who made rock 'n' roll.

Before his three decade run at 'NEW, Scott was a WMCA "Good Guy," then went to WABC where — with Bruce Morrow, Dan Ingram et al. — he introduced the Beatles to America. (I will forever remember his "Beatle Blocks.")

It was his experience taking a call on-air from a bank robber in 1972 that became the basis of the Al Pacino movie "Dog Day Afternoon."

His was a soothing voice of reason, always, and especially, as I recall, when John Lennon was murdered. Rest in peace, Scott.