She intrigues us with her choices and, now, this most thoughtful of stars returns in a provocative new role that spotlights the ongoing conversation on sex, gender and age.
Annette Bening is a serious actress, and one of the world’s best. She’s also Hollywood royalty as a movie star — but does she see herself that way?
When the actress, 59, sat down to talk about playing a Hollywood icon during the Toronto International Film Festival last fall at the premiere of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, she was only half-joking when she said she didn’t quite know how to answer the question. “Is it a bad thing? Or a good thing? I don’t know,” Bening replies with a chuckle. “I try not to worry about it. I feel lucky that I get to do what I do.”
What Bening “does” is make consistently interesting choices. As the BAFTA retrospective in London last fall and career kudos in December from the Museum of the Moving Image can attest, those choices range from Augusten Burroughs’ loopy mother in Running With Scissors to Shakespeare in the Park to a one-woman play based on Ruth Draper’s inimitable monologues at the Geffen Playhouse. Bening’s career to date has had few missteps (the remake of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women might be the exception that proves the rule) and includes an early Tony nomination for Coastal Disturbances, an Emmy nod for her lead in HBO’s Mrs. Harris and four Academy Award nominations.
Although her actor and producer husband Warren Beatty has been famous since he entered show business 60 years ago, Bening admits she didn’t grow up a movie buff. Acting was about the theatre. “When I was a kid – I’d seen like five movies, probably – Julie Andrews was one of my heroes and as I got a little bit older and thought about acting more seriously in college, I got into Liv Ullmann – I remember reading her memoir [Changing] and loving that. And loving her and the film Persona.” Bening recalls being wowed by both Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s performances and becoming curious about film acting. “But I really didn’t think of myself in any serious way as a film actress until much later.”
Soon after their courtship and her 1992 marriage to Beatty, whom she met while making the gangster drama Bugsy, the couple starred together in the remake of the classic Love Affair, sharing the screen with Katharine Hepburn.
In person, Bening has the same quick intellect and elegance as that screen icon. Dressed in a tan linen jacket over crisp white shirt and loose tailored trousers, the actress is warm and voluble – she laughs easily and often. Also like the fiercely private Hepburn, she’s happy to talk about the work but beyond that there’s an undercurrent of reserve. If Bening is more guarded than most, she’s also more articulate, stopping to choose her words carefully only after fully considering a question. She says not to believe everything you read, which was especially true – and for her preparation, challenging – when it came to playing one of Hollywood’s most infamous dames in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.
The film is an intimate portrait of film noir icon Gloria Grahame, based on the memoir by Peter Turner. (Turner and the star had a romantic relationship in the late 1970s when she was almost 30 years his senior, after her fame and career had faded.) Although she had a famously tempestuous personal life that played out in the tabloids, not much is known about Grahame’s inner life: her marriage to director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) ended after she became romantically involved with Ray’s teenage son Tony, and the scandal cemented Grahame’s femme fatale persona. In spite of having an Academy Award, her Hollywood career soon disintegrated.
The role is something of a full circle: Grahame’s sultry performances in films like The Big Heat and In a Lonely Place were Bening’s references back in 1990, when she crafted her character Myra in Stephen Frears’ neo-noir The Grifters. The breakthrough performance earned her her first Oscar nomination.
“What a great gift to just have Annette Bening in front of your camera!” says Film Stars’ director Paul McGuigan, who sings the praises of her portrayals of complex older characters like Grahame. “She was a strong woman, a sensual woman – you don’t usually see that in movies,” he says, “50-something women who are sexual, vibrant and present – and who can be a pain in the ass.”
In the movie, Bening and co-star Jamie Bell (who plays young Turner) share a joyous impromptu disco scene and, during our interview, they joke about which of them is the better dancer. But that’s the only thing the 31-year-old Bell will dispute. A large part of the appeal of his role was “the opportunity to work with a great actor and really stretch myself. And also just to kind of sit back and watch, honestly,” he says. “Which is what I did most of the time.”
“She’s also really fun to be around,” Bell adds. “We share a similar sense of humour, which Paul would get mad at sometimes because we’d stand around laughing.” McGuigan adds that Bening’s curiosity contributes to her enormous talent. “She’s a student, and she’s a master at the same time,” he explains.
“The student bit is she wants to learn and keeps learning and researching and finding things, and the master is she knows what to do with it.”
“Every experience and certainly every movie becomes a different [learning experience],” Bening says. “Even though there’s a certain form that moviemaking takes, every one is so different because of the people involved.”
For example, Bening recently worked on two films with Vanessa Redgrave, 81, and admits she watched the legendary actress very carefully. “On Film Stars, she was doing Richard III on the stage at the same time, eight performances a week of a very good production at the Almeida with Ralph Fiennes. Quite remarkable,” Bening recalls. “She came on the Sunday, and her enthusiasm and her stamina were incredible. I remember at the end of the very long 12-hour day, we were all in the makeup chair taking our stuff off, and she was getting ready to go out. Going to dinner!”
They also spent time in Toronto last summer together filming Georgetown, Christoph Waltz’s directorial debut. In that Washington society true crime thriller, Redgrave once again plays her mother. (Although in that story, her role is reversed: Bening plays a judge who disapproves of her mother’s marriage to a man three decades her junior.) “When I worked with her for a longer period of time on Georgetown, I noticed that she knew when something was off for her – and she knew when to stop [shooting] and how to say that.”
Getting back to that original question about a profession that’s more tangled up in fame and stardom than ever, Bening still very much remembers her early years on stage after studying at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, wondering whether she’d be able to get a job, let alone make a living. “In the long run, that was very valuable because, by the time I was doing movies, I was almost 30. I think it’s easier if you become known when you’re older in some ways because you have the life experience that’s similar to everybody else.
“And there’s so much of my life that I experience that I feel has nothing to do with [being a movie star], in my day-to-day life,” Bening continues. “There are times it’s lovely, and people say nice things to me on the street,” she adds. “And then there are other times when having a lot of people focused on me, is … a lot. But I have a lot of freedom as well,” she appreciates. “Freedom in the work, to continue working.”
Unlike Grahame, Bening has her pick of projects.
“One of the gifts of having choice is that you can do what you want, what really appeals to you and what really challenges you. Something that you don’t quite know you can do, that puts you into uncertain territory in a healthy way,” Bening says of her approach, and past projects like The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s comedy of post-modern family life in which she and Julianne Moore are lesbian parents or her choice to play an enigmatic single mother in Mike Mills’s acclaimed 1970s-era drama 20th Century Women. “I tend to get drawn to things that have that element to them. I think most of us sort of relish that,” she adds. “We’re not looking for something familiar. We’re looking for something that takes us off in another direction.”
Sometimes, that direction is a lark. “I thought it was so cool,” Bening laughs as I ask about The Sopranos “The Test Dream” episode (in a cameo as herself she delivers the accusatory line, ‘There’s something Bugsy about him”). “It was so fun and such a weird thing,” she says through peals of laughter as she attempts to explain the plot; like most fans of the cult series, she’s still trying to make sense of the bizarre dream sequence. “But I loved it.”