In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening redefines what it is to be an actress over forty – okay 58 – while gunning for an Oscar as Santa Barbara single mum Dorothea. Smart, sexy, searching: just three adjectives that describe the Kansas native. Fold in funny and touching, too. But what makes this mother-of-four married to former matinee idol Warren Beatty so disruptive, so eruptive, is that as a craftswoman and artist, she never stands still. Read on…
And she’s fearless, unafraid to look her real age on screen, to go from sex goddess to makeup-free mother, disrupting the Hollywood status quo. She’s always evolving – and dragging both her audience and her fellow actors along with her.
Greta Gerwig, Bening’s 20th Century Women co-star, recently described the four-time Oscar nominee’s creative process to me in an interview for the Observer: “Her performance is not planned out in her head. She prepares and once she’s on set it’s all thrown out the window. She’s just looking for the truth in the moment and it’s very exciting to work opposite her. It’s thrilling and also scary.”
Bening seems to sense that beyond fear exists the excitement of discovery, the juice of creativity. Drawn to complexity — not for its own sake but for authenticity – the actress juggles intelligence and intuition. These qualities define the role of Dorothea, a character based on the mother of writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners). Dorothea reflects Mill’s semi-autobiographical search for the essence of his mom who he described to the New York Times as a combination of “Amelia Earhart and Humphrey Bogart — but more Humphrey Bogart.”
BENING IS TRANSGENERATIONAL
Set in 1979, 20th Century Women locates Dorothea at that charged, unstable moment where women’s roles in society are changing with dizzying speed. The forward-thinking single mother seeks help raising her adolescent son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) from his best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and her twentysomething boarder Abbie (Gerwig). The movie digs into transgenerational similarities and differences as Dorothea develops a real friendship with Abbie, and attempts to see her own son through Julie’s eyes. Dorothea isn’t trying to erase the boundaries between people of different generations but to learn as much as she can to stretch as an individual.
In order to do this, Dorothea reaches out to understand the younger generation. For example, she listens to the punk band Black Flag and goes (with her pocketbook anchoring her forearm) to a nightclub as if it were homework. She may not find the music embraceable – it’s not intended to be – but she tries. She extends herself. She attempts to connect.
Forging friendships between the generations reveals the way these women are alike – and different. The tensions surface at a drunken dinner party hosted by Dorothea. When pink-haired Abbie utters the taboo word “menstruation” she nettles Dorothy who becomes visibly uncomfortable. Abby the punk is intentionally prying under Dorothea’s skin, to push her beyond her comfort zone. The scene shows that Dorothea, for all her openness, remains embedded in a more reticent, conservative past.
That particular scene, and the film as a whole, showcases leading lady Bening’s virtues: she’s a beauty who doesn’t rest on her looks; a mature woman who recognizes wisdom in those years of experience rather than wrinkles. Perhaps the actress’s most radical trait is in an industry that has so often expected one-dimensional images of women, she has insisted – whether it’s The Kids Are All Right or The Grifters or American Beauty – on being complicated, thorny and unexpected. In Hollywood, for powerful women, just being human can be disruptive.
NOT THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
Throughout her A-list career, Bening has been disrupting Hollywood expectations. Here are her four Oscar-nominated peaks:
The Kids Are All Right (2011): As the more grounded half of lesbian parents, Bening brings down the house when she breaks down singing along to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”
Being Julia (2005): Bening playfully tackles the subject of aging in public as a London theater star whose midlife crisis lands her in the bed of a younger man — and avenging herself on the ingénue eager to displace her at center stage.
American Beauty (2000): While Kevin Spacey character’s midlife crisis drives Alan Ball’s coal-black comedy, Bening plays his uptight realtor wife who lets loose with a wilder, sexier side.
The Grifters (1991): Bening locks and loads in this neo noir as a crafty femme fatale — radiant, at ease in her body and ever surprising.