Let's start with the oddest, most persistent paradox of Annette Bening's career. On the one hand, virtually no major actor exudes so much generosity, approachability, learned introspection, and sexy intelligence in interviews. At awards events and during nominee roundtables, she comes across as a participant whom other actors are eager to listen to and emulate, whose camaraderie or approval might mean something to them. I have learned vocabulary words from her articulate responses to journalists and taken lessons in tactful firmness as she has gingerly deflected uncouth inquiries from Jay Leno and Barbara Walters over the years. Few actors need so little prompting to effuse over their children, or about motherhood as a boon to one's career, or about career as a boon to one's evidently jubilant, practical, involved motherhood. On the other hand, despite everything I just said, Bening gets persistently cast or is perceived to be consistently cast as sharp, prickly personalities, if not outright harridans. Were I to review a film or read a script and tell you there's an "Annette Bening role" in it, you'd surely have your antennae up for the tough customer, the bitter pill, the disillusioned scold.
I think movies and audiences would all gain if we spent more time with candid, perspicacious, warm, and forceful women like the one Bening seems to be, even more than with the women Bening often plays, especially since her idea of character truth rarely involves dialing back the abrasiveness that's written into so many of the parts she takes. I say this even though, in an industry full of docile wife and girlfriend roles, the spikiness of Carolyn Burnham or Deirdre Burroughs can be refreshing in itself. Still, since establishing her berth in the public and industrial consciousness with the one-two punch of her frisky, insouciant con artist in The Grifters and her cutting, formidable Virginia Hill in Bugsy (my review), the flintiness of the latter has defined her career much more than the giggling sauciness of the former. One wonders whether keeping the Catwoman role in Batman Returns might have preserved a reputation for fun, or if the marriage to Warren Beattyyielding two decades of stale, tasteless, "she tamed the beast!" jokes at award ceremonieslent the Bugsy persona more pull as Annette's "type." Through silly pop-cultural logic, Beatty was really drawn to Bening, and with Beatty, Bening played a fierce broad, so that must really be Bening! Whatever the reason, it can seem like Annette has been ordering people to step outside and jerk themselves a soda ever since.
Like a lot of typecasting myths, this one isn't strictly true. In Bening's case, the myth's stamina is compounded by the fact that her clearest instances of imaginative casting or softer playing have arisen in less profitable films. She has a lovely supporting role in Open Range, where she overcomes some initial confusion over who the character isconfusion that serves as a scripted plot point but also derives from the actress's mixed signals in early scenes. By the end or even the middle of Open Range, she achieves a delicate rapport with Kevin Costner, exudes a can-do professional dispatch as a doctor's assistant and then as a doctor herself, and uses sympathetic tenderness to defuse the men's violent braggadocio. She asserts her needs while bravely disclosing her vulnerabilities, all while sporting the longest, most romantic tresses she's ever had on film. Open Range grossed twice its cost but couldn't shake a reputation as a non-starter; people remember it as a flop. Bening's and Beatty's much chortled-at remake of Love Affair made even less, though her game, un-lachrymose spin on the world's unluckiest Empire State visitor has an intriguing modesty and subtle starchiness. Standing opposite Katharine Hepburn, slicing a teacake with a large knife, Bening's Terry McKay is fresh, tough, and casually glam; it's not her fault that she can't do anything with the character's career of singing commercial jingles (with Chloë Webb and Taylor Dayne!), and that she can't counteract her spouse/costar's bizarre refusal to do or say anything that might make his character appealing. Cue Carolyn Burnham: "Are you trying to look unattractive?" Bening is even better in one of her outright commercial disasters, the Mike Nichols-directed alien sex farce What Planet Are You From?, in which extra-terrestrial Garry Shandling accompanies sleazeball co-worker Greg Kinnear to an AA meeting to trawl for single women, and thereby meets Bening's Susan Hart, a drily witty recovering alcoholic who actually seems like a drily witty recovering alcoholic: bruised pluck, self-administered haircut, self-consciously bad taste in lovers, the works. Bening bothers to create a pert, specific, very likable character in a film that's better and funnier than you've guessed if not good enough to deliberately track down. You never get credit for personalizing the "types" in films like this, but she ought to have. Her interactions with gal pals Nora Dunn, Ann Cusack, and Camryn Manheim are what the Streep-and-her-buddies scenes should have been in It's Complicated.
Given Bening's self-perpetuated associations with motherhood, it's notable that her Love Affair character finds it seductive that Beatty's Mike wants to court her without ever even broaching the topic of kids, past or future. Her What Planet Are You From? character swoons that her fella, not her, is the one with the ticking biological clock (linked, as it happens, to a penis that buzzes), but resents being turned by Shandling's nebbishy E.T. into a barely-glorified sperm-cooker and incubator. The question of children never arises between Costner and Bening in Open Range, not even in one of those precious epilogues where anonymous towheads often proliferate as a visual sign that Everything Turned Out. Children could not, as I recall, be further from the minds of Sydney Ellen Wade and her illustrious paramour in The American President, another decent grosser that suffered only for falling short of the studio's plainly unreasonable expectations, as though the Clinton Administration was the right time to sell embossed fairy tales of Oval Office amour. It's been a while, but I recall Bening as smart, chic, and three-dimensionally humane in that one, probably the closest to my detections of who she "really" is, gently explaining what she cannily perceives about the pitfalls of dating the President before he's able or willing to acknowledge them.
The takeaway from all four films is that Bening has repeatedly been cast in a formula that's on permanent dialysis in Hollywoodromances between adults, serious and otherwise, in which already-born children play no role whatsoever. She's a valuably adult presence, and the perceived under-performance of all four vehicles says more about the grim fates of that kind of movie, whether pitched as comedy or drama, than it does about her participation, which in all four cases takes more pleasing advantage of her unique endowments as an actress than, I think, three of her nominated performances do, though there's good stuff in all of them. She's a fun minx in The Grifters, but except the visit to Stephen Tobolowsky in the jeweler's shop and the giggling, naked sprint through the bedroom before laying John Cusackculminating in what looks an awful lot like her head sutured to another woman's body, once she's lying downvery little of that performance sticks with me, even after three viewings. Being Julia, a tolerable picture if bizarrely determined to be as old-fashioned and as low-stakes as possible, has some flavor while Bening is relating to Jeremy Irons as her ex-husband and Michael Gambon as her phantom mentor, and she looks smashing. She struggles to seem nearly foolish enough to get besotted with Luke Evans's bland, young, plainly mercenary idolator, and the last, intensely theatrical act feels flat-footed and drawn out too long, though Bening ends the film with a close-up so fetching it almost recuperates the experience. A well-known partisan and devotee of stage acting, I haven't yet seen Bening triumph in an overtly theatrical piece. She feels too coarse in this one and similarly rigid in Richard III, though I'd wager these both rank among the parts she's been happiest to nab in her career.
Then there's American Beauty, that obsidian icicle, with a Bening performance a lot of people love and that certainly delights me in savory moments. Her schizophrenic rage at the dinner table after her husband capriciously quits his job is easily my favorite, though she's very funny fumbling her martini in her sit-down with Peter Gallagher and makes the line "I was so stressed out" unusually hilarious in bed with him, later. Her failed attempt to reach out to her daughter after a marital meltdown is choice, but Bening is too often corraled into playing the gunmetal harpy Alan Ball has concocted rather than the fuller, less dismissable woman she might have found underneath. She's much, much more successful at this sort of retrieval from misogynist characterization in Running with Scissors, where you see plainly why she's a nightmare for both husband and son but her big, bold strokes of characterization are both fearsome and comical. Her impressively straight playing of Deirdre Burroughs's illness, her angry disappointments, and her total helplessness at apologizing or mending fences give a too-often synthetic film the texture of bracing truth. She sticks up for a woman almost no one would stick up for, without the sleek deliciousness of Meryl Streep in the same year's Devil Wears Prada but with braver edges, deeper digging, and a tougher row to hoe. 2006 was Bening's annus mirabilis, between Scissors and the HBO release of Mrs. Harris, where she toes an athletic, fascinating line between sending up crazy, gun-firing Jean Harris and making her pitiable, genuine, and well-intended, a grown and respectable woman who's simultaneously an inchoate romantic with no idea how to choose a partner, or how to behave.
She came close to having another of those Twin Towers moments this year, first with the theatrical release of Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child, where she plays the iciness too hard at first but finds persuasive hurt and anger in a pivotal conversation with her mother's live-in nurse, and then a late-blooming resilience and capacity for empathy, filling in a lot of the steps that Garcia's script omits about how her character gets from A to B, or in some ways from A to H, A to P, C to S. It's quite a transformation. In The Kids Are All Right, it's the point of the piece, rather than a reflection of dubious writing, that her character doesn't evolve so much as she gets the rug pulled out from under her three timesforced to meet her kids' sperm-donor father, then confronted with the possibility that he might be more substantial and less threatening than she thought, then faced mere moments later with an epiphany that he's actually more threatening than she thought. At all three moments, Nic's sense of herself and her family gets yanked away from her, and she has to land quickly on new terrain. Bening's good at making it feel like new and old terrain, the sweet and sour sense of being partnered with someone who rarely hurts her but regularly surprises or puzzles or unnerves her. Her three climaxes are showstoppers, respectively, of queasy surprise, atypically florid openness, and profound, intimate injury, but Bening is just as good in "smaller" moments, kid-gloving one of her wife's sun-flares of temper or of capricious project-planning, hilariously taking disgusted exception to the concept and trendiness of composting, trying to have a civil conversation at a bar when she's really furious, emitting tiny whispers of self-criticism at the things she doesn't know how to do or how to fix, giving the word "interloper" all the kilowatts of charge it requires in context.
There are strong traces of that Bening Imperiousness in both roles, but in Mother and Child her character evolves further away from it, and in Kids it's only drummed up as an emergency defense mechanism, while a lot else is going on in the performance and the character. Given the arc of Mother and Child and her well-publicized conviction against Kids Are All Right turning "earnest" and short-shrifting its comedy, it seems clear that she's excited to evade the Tough as Nails typecasting and remind the industry of her range. It makes me very excited for what she'll do next, especially if she can hook up with another director as ambitiously idiosyncratic as Milo Forman, and achieve a synthesis of her stage roots and her magnetism in close-up as rich as what she achieved 20 years ago in her first important part, as the Marquise de Merteuil in Valmonther most grievously underappreciated performance in yet another movie known primarily as a money-loser. There's no small irony in the fact that, however often Bening would later get stuck (or stick herself) playing hard edges in her characters, her Merteuil has none of the glacial, contemptuous hauteur that Glenn Close emphasized in an effective, memorable, but somewhat limited take on the same character in Dangerous Liaisons. Bening's Merteuil is more flush with life and saucy wickedness, imposing without being overtly grand, lusty enough to enjoy sex and not only think of it as a means of playing checkers with other people's lives. (Colin Firth, Meg Tilly, Fairuza Balk: everyone in Valmont is super, in ways that have little to do with how they've been used elsewhere.) Bening's the kind of actress, in technique and in unabashedly scholastic bent, to whom one could plausibly say, "I want to route 18th-century France through a prism of that sly mordancy of Eastern European theatre," and she'd know exactly what you mean, and be able to do it. German-born Mike Nichols is not too far from Forman in sensibility, and as the only director who's used Bening more than once, in Planet, Regarding Henry, and Postcards from the Edge (my review), I'd love to see him and Bening find a more perfect vehicle for a fourth reunion. If a bit young, she'd still have carried off a mean Violet Weston in August: Osage County, and when Nichols still seemed attached to the project, I harbored some hope she might get to try.
But Kids seems to have reminded everyone of how much they like Bening, and it's prompted me to seek out more of her filmography and discover that I'm even more interested in her than I thought I was. In a comparatively tight résumé of 21 theatrical features plus Mrs. Harrisroughly two-thirds the number of movies that fellow nominees Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams have already filmedBening's back pages are equally notable for the relative absence of head-scratchers. Ill-destined projects like Planet, Love Affair, and The Women involved collaborations with talented people or revised attempts at storied material; The Great Outdoors and Guilty by Suspicion were highly visible properties in the years they appeared, even if they're nobody's favorite movies. And the features I haven't addressed all show Bening to good advantage: she's excitingly unhinged if highly uneven in Neil Jordan's apple-mush psychodrama In Dreams, a giddy pip with her New Age crystals in Mars Attacks!, and substantial, tough, and wholly in sync with the dangerous edges of the material in The Siege, which a lot of people seem to dislike but I remember, anyway, as Edward Zwick's nerviest and most interesting movie. Every one of Bening's films made an impression or seemed attached to a worthy ambition at the moment it arrived. Her CV lacks the kinds of tossed-off filler projects that peers like Streep, Kidman, and Moore have regularly indulged. She's never made a movie that seemed designed to pay for the next one (and granted, why should she?) or "done one for the kids," even though she plainly prioritizes her kids as much as any leading Hollywood actress ever has. So, whatever's next, I'm sure it'll be interesting, and I'm sure we'll actually notice it. Bening's performances, uneven though I sometimes find them, don't have that kind of moment-to-moment volatility and unpredictably that I so love in Jessica Lange's work, but the career itself seems both tonier and stranger the longer you ponder it, her choice in roles much more eclectic than I had once understood. I'm ready at the ticket counter whenever she is, and even more than that, if she ever wants to have coffee, I'm there. FAQs / Leave a Comment
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