If Annette Bening is nominated for an Oscar this year for Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, as seems likely to those who foretell such things, it will be her fifth such nomination in just over two-and-a-half decades on movie screens. (For nearly a decade before appearing in her first film, the conservatory-trained Bening was an acclaimed stage actress, earning a Tony nomination in 1987.) Bening’s career has traced an unusually steady upward arc for a woman of her age in Hollywood, especially given her great physical beauty. After an early run playing ingénues and sexpots, Bening hasn’t struggled to reinvent herself in midlife, like so many others. Instead, she has seemed to grow steadily in range, intensity, and truthfulness with each role.
Bening has long been one of the rare performers who can alchemize base metals into precious ones. Some of her finest performances come in movies that couldn’t entirely be said to deserve them, and if her presence can elevate mediocre material, it can lift good scripts into the stratosphere. 20th Century Women has its flaws—as with Mills’ last film, Beginners, the characters’ criss-crossing emotional journeys can seem too swiftly and too neatly resolved to make for engaging drama. But Bening, playing an eccentric ‘70s-era feminist closely based on the writer-director’s own mother, provides the story with an emotional core dense enough to exert its own gravity.
The motley crew of hippies, punks, and teenagers who board (or just crash) at the ramshackle Santa Barbara house Bening’s Dorothea shares with her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) make sense as an alternative family only insofar as they have Dorothea to keep them together, and Dorothea herself makes sense only as a bundle of contradictions. She’s a chain smoker who covertly lights up in the middle of a meditation lesson from her boarder and handyman (Billy Crudup). A fiercely progressive fan of President Carter who also checks her stocks in the newspaper every morning. A generous hostess—when the fire department extinguishes a blaze in the engine of her ex-husband’s beater, she invites the whole truckful of men to dinner—who can also turn tetchy and misanthropic at the drop of a hat.
In this scene, Dorothea shares a smoke and a frank exchange with her son’s 17-year-old best friend and unrequited love interest, played by Elle Fanning. “You’re good at hiding things,” she challenges the girl by way of an icebreaker. But as the conversation that follows reveals, Dorothea has her own, even more skillful techniques of concealment.
In a way, Bening’s role in 20th Century Women—a blunt truth teller who sometimes seems to be doing everything to evade her own most difficult truths—seems like a logical extrapolation of the kind of role she’s always specialized in playing. In her most memorable parts—let’s take for examples those that have earned her those four Oscar noms—she tends to play characters who get through life by playing characters themselves. In The Grifters, Stephen Frears’ stylishly nasty 1990 neo-noir, an impossibly sexy Bening plays the outwardly kittenish, inwardly ruthless Myra Langtry, a small-time scammer seeking to line up partners for a long con. Myra’s great gift for the grift is that she can effortlessly and shamelessly transform into whoever the mark of the moment needs her to be. In this scene, she attempts to seduce an honest jeweler (played by the indispensable character actor Stephen Tobolowsky) after he recognizes a diamond bracelet she’s trying to pawn as a fake.
Nine years and as many films later, by the time of American Beauty, Bening had become an established star, albeit generally in wife or girlfriend roles that limited her ability to explore her range (Regarding Henry, The American President). She had also married Warren Beatty, one of Hollywood’s most legendary Lotharios, and had three children with him. (They would have a fourth in 2000.) American Beauty would be recognized—over-recognized, some thought—in nearly every category at the Oscars that year, and wound up nearly sweeping: Best Picture, Best Director for Sam Mendes, Best Actor for Kevin Spacey, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. But Bening’s performance as a miserable suburban housewife and real-estate agent—perhaps the most nuanced element of a generally un-nuanced movie—went unrewarded.
In this scene, we see again Bening’s skill at playing characters whose daily lives are themselves elaborate performances. After failing to interest two prospective buyers in a house, the rigidly perky Carolyn closes the blinds and falls briefly to pieces. What keeps her despair from registering as simple bathos—and invests it with a touch of dark comedy—is the struggle for self-mastery Carolyn manifests even midmeltdown. After a few seconds of childlike wailing, she begins chastising herself for crying, whipping herself back into shape with slaps to the face and insults (“You witch! You … baby!”). The effortlessness with which The Grifters’ Myra slipped between one persona and the next has given way to a performance that reveals the grueling work behind Carolyn’s together, successful appearance.
István Szabó’s Being Julia (2004) exemplifies Bening’s special capacity for playing characters who live behind elaborate masks. Her Julia Lambert is a celebrated English stage actress who, at 45, can no longer coast on her beauty and ingénue charm. But unlike Bening, who has aged on screen with unapologetic grace (and a blessed seeming lack of cosmetic intervention), Julia isn’t handling the transition so well. She cheats on her husband and longtime producer (Jeremy Irons) with a much younger man and eventually hatches a secret plan to undermine the debut performance of a younger co-star (Lucy Punch) whose ascendant star threatens her own place in the West End firmament. It’s an overfamiliar All About Eve setup, but Bening’s full-bodied incarnation of this vain, self-deluded, enormously charismatic woman makes this otherwise uninspired period piece an unusually sharp inquiry into the paradoxical nature of acting.
In the climactic scene, Julia sabotages her younger rival on opening night by swanning onstage wearing a far more glamorous costume than her dress-rehearsal one. She changes all the blocking and lines in her big scene with the young woman, transforming herself from self-effacing second banana to scenery-hogging star as her young co-star writhes in humiliation. Though the script tries, somewhat clumsily, to pass off this as an artistic triumph for the actress, Bening’s performance finds a deeper truth in the moment. Julia finally locates her real self while behaving with a maximum of Grand Guignol artificiality: In order to be seen, applauded, and loved on the stage, she’s willing to sacrifice whatever human qualities make her worth loving in real life.
In Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right in 2010, Bening explored a character who, after half a lifetime of living behind a mask, decides she’s done with hiding. As Nic, the breadwinning partner in a married lesbian couple, Bening’s performance is most notable for its plainspoken simplicity. At the moment we meet Nic and her wife Jules (Julianne Moore), they are entering a new phase of their marriage in which long-held assumptions about politeness and saving face in public are beginning to come apart. One of the earliest signs of that dissolution comes in this remarkable scene, when Nic interrupts a genteel dinner out with friends with a hilarious half-drunken riff on the preciousness of Los Angeles foodie culture, giving a frank and caustic glimpse into her bottomless contempt for the petit bourgeois world they all (including her) inhabit. Bening expresses at once Nic’s sadistic joy in this chance to let loose and her shame at the awareness she’s insulting her friends and humiliating the woman she loves. There’s a sense that Nic has been emotionally stripped down to the point where she has no choice but to speak the mean, embarrassing truth—a note of stripped-down honesty that returns in Bening’s performance this year in 20th Century Women.
I’ve gotten through a whole illustrated essay on the wonders of Annette Bening—for whom, I’m only now realizing, I’m rooting to win her Oscar this time around—while barely mentioning the work she’s done over the last 25 years with her actor-director-producer-legend of a husband. Maybe this is a part of Annette’s uniquely feminist magic: She’s the anti–trophy wife, with a sensibility too pronounced and a style too idiosyncratic to be subsumed by even as charismatic a celebrity partner as Beatty. The movies Annette and Warren have made together over the years have tended to be less critically and popularly well-received than the ones she chooses on her own, and their box-office value as an on-screen couple is in fairly steep decline; their latest collaboration, Beatty’s Howard Hughes biopic Rules Don’t Apply, is appearing on zero screens in Manhattan less than a month after its catastrophic wide release. But if I had to choose a moment to feature from a Beatty/Bening collaboration it would be from their first, Barry Levinson’s Bugsy, the movie on whose set the couple fell in love. As gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and his Hollywood starlet–turned–co–crime boss, Virginia Hill, Beatty and Bening meet on a movie soundstage and share a steamily suggestive exchange that makes clear who will be calling the shots in any potential future encounters.
Once again—or rather, already—Bening excels playing a professional actress channeling her skills into delivering a polished performance in her everyday life. It’s a preview of the many thoughtful and layered performances in the years since—and no doubt still to come—from a woman who seems to have made it her life’s work to keep burrowing deeper into the truth of performance, and the performance of truth.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Oscar race.