In praise of Annette Bening’s difficult women

From Bugsy to American Beauty and now 20th Century Women, the actor has always relished playing characters that ask us to look deeper.


Matthew Eng

What is it about Annette Bening’s singular screen persona that has drawn her to characters of a certain severity? One of the most discerning and revered actors in Hollywood, her public persona radiates with soft-spoken, good-humoured charm – and yet what stands out most prominently from her eclectic film career is the robust gallery of visceral, vinegary and headstrong characters who are unendingly encouraged to change their ways by those behind and in front of the camera.

Bening has been putting her personal stamp on the crusty facades of her characters since as early as 1991’s Bugsy, Barry Levinson’s gangland retread that fatefully paired Bening with Warren Beatty and firmly ensconced her in the upper echelons of Hollywood royalty. “Why don’t you go outside and jerk yourself a soda?” Bening’s moll-in-the-making snipes at Beatty’s flirty hood-on-the-rise, defining herself most decisively as a woman of fierce impenetrability, a trait that has been revived and reshaped throughout her 30-year screen career.

Sam Mendes’ 1999 film American Beauty contains perhaps many people’s favourite Bening performance, even though her character Carolyn Burnham is one of the more sexist creations in memory, demonised for her bourgeois materialism and extramarital infidelity as Kevin Spacey’s Lester speeds around in his Firebird and lusts after Mena Suvari’s rose-spewing bosom. For this behaviour, Spacey becomes an icon of self-righteous iconoclasm, while Bening becomes the pistol-gripping harpy. As the extravagantly fraying Deirdre Burroughs in Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of ‘Running with Scissors’, Bening snaps like a rubber band ball of neuroses and removes herself from her son’s adolescence, leading him to a lifetime of resentment.

Unlike her performance in American Beauty, here Bening transcends a rigged part and contributes one of her more empathically fearless characterisations, even as the film stakes its distance early and unyieldingly, encouraging everyone, characters and audiences alike, to gawk at Deirdre like some chintzy oddity. On the other end of the spectrum, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right resists Mendes and Murphy’s skin-deep simplification. Even so, the reflexive acidity and Cabernet-dependance of Bening’s overworked mom Nic become equally critical sources of familial contention as the entrance of an interloping sperm donor, whose hold on Nic’s children (and wife) only exacerbates her tetchy disposition.

It isn’t that Bening can’t play ‘light’. Her earliest film credits brim with roles enlivened by the jubilant verve of a performer unmistakably new to the medium. She crafts a Marquise de Merteuil of loosey-goosey cunning in Milos Forman’s 1989 film Valmont (still one of Bening’s most underrated turns) and delights as a winking backlot floozy during a cameo in Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge from 1990. Bening really made her mark later that same year as a conniving, bottle-blonde minx in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters, which brought her much more than acclaim and accolades.

But even in The Grifters, Bening’s chirpy seductress is ultimately forced to confront the bitter truths of her dirty profession and, more specifically, her falling position within it. When Bening’s Myra stares with shock in the mirror of a motel near the film’s end, she comes face-to-face with the woman those on-screen and off have pinned her as from the start: a cheap, ageing and exceedingly anonymous hustler who should make a break for it now before it’s really too late.

So many of Bening’s characters come up short as wives, girlfriends, lovers and mothers in the eyes of the men and children who surround them (and the writers and directors who craft them), when not alienating them entirely. These women are perpetually in danger of losing something crucial in their movies, whether the objects are family, fame, or self-respect. Even a frothy confection of a comedy like István Szabó’s 2004 film Being Julia, which captures Bening at her most regal as a lionised leading lady of the 1930s British theatrical scene, pushes its titular grand diva to fight for her primacy, both in the bed of a shallow boy-toy and on the very stage from which she made her name.

Such stakes are necessarily required for securing our investment in these stories, but they frequently run the risk of withholding compassion from these characters and saddle Bening with the task of overstating her interpretations so as to distract from the misogyny inherent in their conception. They also occasionally undermine Bening’s own talents, which have most often been applied to comedies, even though Bening herself has never been labeled a purely “comedic” actress.

Bening’s brand of comedic embodiment has always felt so much more intimidatingly specific than those of her more accessibly agreeable semi-contemporaries like Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton, and can easily be misapplied in the service of broader ends. When Bening gets aggressive with her comedy (i.e. magnifying each movement and dialling her lines all the way up in American Beauty), she threatens to harden her characters and block off any and all pathways into their interiors. A film like Kids Are All Right, whose storytelling veers toward bluntness even when it’s indebted to the everyday, at least offers perceptible reasons for Nic’s calcification and the boldly defensive gestures of Bening’s performance, which presents a flinty facade that only appears impermeable.

Then again, maybe Bening can’t be considered a purely “comedic” actress because so many of her performances come from places of pain. In Phyllis Nagy’s biting 2005 tragicomedy Mrs Harris, in which the tabloid murderess Jean Harris comes undone following a romantic betrayal, Bening’s verbal and physical prowess hints at an underlying devastation that is impossible to ignore. As in her very best work, Bening can kill with a perfectly inflected punchline or just a withering glare, but she also shows grief, depression and insanity as the emotionally damaging experiences that they are.

What’s funny about Bening’s characters is rarely inseparable from what’s heartbreaking, but rather than sand down their brittle surfaces, Bening remains resolutely devoted to making us see and feel these jagged emotional energies, even when their performed intensity threatens to turn overbearing. Perhaps she is so often cast as difficult women because her actorly impulses are difficult by their very nature, courting affectation and risking shrillness for the sake of deeper truths in a stage-trained style that skews realism and isn’t directly interested in appearing palatable to a mass-market audience.

In this context, Bening’s work in writer/director Mike Mills’ bittersweet new comedy drama, 20th Century Women, manifests as something like a late-career revelation. As Dorothea, a single mom doing her best to prepare her aimless teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zimmerman) for changing times and future griefs in 1979 Santa Barbara, Bening has at last found an ideal vessel for her particular instincts and skill set. The character is yet another addition to Bening’s long line of difficult women, but Dorothea’s prickly idiosyncrasies are not just chinks in a protective armour. This is because Mills is a most compassionate creator with a clear love for all of his characters, as evidenced by this film and his earlier Beginners, both of which mirror episodes and individuals from his own upbringing within dysfunctional and often makeshift familial units.

Yet it’s also because Bening is a game collaborator working with a filmmaker who is keenly invested in the mysteries of human behaviour and envisioned the role, based in part on his own mother, specifically for the actor. Mills guides Bening’s efforts with an intimate, surefooted ease that relaxes the actress and elicits a fascinating performance of tenderness, lucidity, and comedic vitality, all of which have been tempered in a way that doesn’t polish over but actually unearths the character’s carefully hidden depths.

Bening is the quietly compelling centre of 20th Century Women, emerging as a woman of such everyday gravity that she practically sends all of the film’s major characters into orbit around her. This includes Zimmerman’s curious son, Greta Gerwig’s instructional free spirit, Elle Fanning’s impetuous enfant terrible and Billy Crudup’s shaggy layabout, who chases younger women but fosters a casual infatuation with Dorothea. All of these characters come distinctly into focus at various points of the film, but it’s Dorothea who sets them into motion. And it’s Bening who never forsakes the respective humanity of a character who remains in perpetual consideration of others, attempting to relate to a younger generation but unable to set aside her wary caution.

In one scene, Jamie, having been handed a reading list of seminal feminist works by Gerwig’s Abbie, reads aloud to Dorothea a passage from Zoe Moss’ essay ‘It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete: The Aging Woman’, detailing a specific sort of older, lonely, unsatisfied, and, yes, difficult woman and expecting his mother to relate to this figure, not anticipating her discomfort. The blanched look that falls over Bening’s face could cut glass, but it communicates more than disappointment in and resentment of her son.

Looking beyond this scene and at the wider trajectory of Bening’s career, it’s possible to see Bening’s recoiling physical reaction and her final verbal rebuttal (“I don’t need to read a book to know about me”) as a rejoinder to the fictional characters and real-life creators who have misrepresented or tried to alter Bening’s difficult women. In 20th Century Women, Bening refuses to render Dorothea’s difficulty as invisible or irrelevant. Mrs Harris and The Kids Are All Right see almost as far into her characters, but Mills’ film, with its humbling capacity for nonjudgmental recognition, feels like the closest a Bening character has ever come to being a hero. Her contradictions register not as flaws to be repaired and ridiculed, but magnetic complexities to be examined, even celebrated. In this way, 20th Century Women does what Bening has been doing throughout her career: it encourages us to look deeper.

Published 7 Feb 2017

Tags: Annette Bening Mike Mills

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