ANGE — May2010
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Queen Victorious!
David Hochman

Queen Victorious!

Who says you can’t rule Tinseltown? Annette Bening is white-hot again with two new buzzed-about films, stage acclaim, and—defying Hollywood track records—nearly 20 years of marital bliss with... you know who

It’s surprising that Annette Bening wants to meet at a bustling 24-hour diner in the San Fernando Valley. The spot is fine for a quick fix of chicken-fried steak and runny eggs, but for a meaningful tête-à-tête with the 51-year-old actress, mother of four and wife of Warren Beatty? Really?
The epitome of polished self-control in movies like The Grifters, American Beauty, The American President and Being Julia, Bening can sometimes appear glamorous to the point of seeming remote. But in person, in skinny jeans, a pixyish haircut and scant makeup, Bening immediately strikes you as the sort of accessible, freewheeling conversationalist for whom the bottomless cup of coffee was invented. Like her notoriously verbose husband, she will chat endlessly about whatever subject crosses the table: raising kids, her beloved yoga practice, L.A. traffic, her controversial trip last year to Iran, or her two highly touted new movies, in which she portrays women better suited to a greasy diner than the sprawling Mulholland Drive estate she and her famous family call home. With Bening, you find that there’s a warm and gentle soul behind those steely blue eyes. As she says with a sparkle at one point, “I can go on and on, so stop me if you need to be somewhere.”
These days, there’s a lot to talk about. Her two new movies feel like the kick-off to a revival of sorts for her career. In Mother and Child, opening this month, Bening plays a world-weary physical therapist who, 37 years later, still hasn’t gotten over the trauma of giving her only child up for adoption. It’s a fierce, vanity-free performance (not much makeup there either) that reminds you why Bening so often wins acclaim and award nominations despite a relatively modest output of acting work. Her co-star Jimmy Smits makes the point that “Annette hasn’t made a ton of movies”—less than two dozen after more than 20 years in the business—“but the work she does is so graceful and resonant, she ranks up there with the best actors of her generation.” Director Rodrigo Garcia says Bening was “so openhearted and connected, people cried after her last scene. We’re not talking about a movie that shot a year in the Philippines. Annette shot for about three or four weeks. But that’s how accessible and real she is.”
Her other standout role is in The Kids Are All Right, out in July, about a suburban lesbian couple (Bening and Julianne Moore) whose teenage children suddenly decide to find their biological father. In one pivotal scene, Bening is hilarious as she warbles through an entire Joni Mitchell song at the dinner table—to the horror of her children. Moments later, she steals your breath as she sips her wine and quietly falls apart over a secret that’s burning a hole through her heart. The film, directed by Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon, High Art), was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival this year, and might just be the sleeper hit of the summer. Bening, a mother of no small repute herself, sees parallels between the two films in that “they really get at this question of what it means to be a mother in a modern, changing world… Families are increasingly becoming these wonderful and strange mosaics.”
Bening’s own family was decidedly normal. Born in Topeka, Kansas, and growing up mainly in suburban San Diego, she was the youngest of four children reared by a church singer mother and Republican father who sold insurance. Bening was a happy, practical, wholesome kid who liked singing songs from The Sound of Music. Her parents are still together, still in the same house Bening grew up in, and still occasionally scratching their heads at the surreal Hollywood existence their baby daughter has created for herself. “They never went to movies or talked about show business; it wasn’t who they were,” Bening says. “I remember when I started doing plays”—at the American Conservatory Theater, where Bening received her acting training—“they would call and ask, ‘What are you doing now?’ I’d say, ‘Tartuffe in San Francisco.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, that’s nice, dear.’”
One can only imagine what it’s been like for them having Warren Beatty as a son-in-law. Bening and Beatty met while making the movie Bugsy in 1991. Back then, Bening was a rising star for having played the seductive con in the 1990 film The Grifters, a role that earned her the first of three Oscar nominations. (The others were for American Beauty and Being Julia.) But Beatty saw more in Bening than just her exemplary dialog skills. The story goes that, after seeing her onscreen, the legendary Hollywood ladies’ man was hell-bent on making Bening the mother of his children. And within five minutes of their first encounter, as Beatty later recalled, “I thought, ‘Everything’s going to be different.’ It was as if all the nines had turned over and everything made sense.” Bening’s still not exactly sure what he meant by that, but the butterflies weren’t all Beatty’s. “I was certainly deeply charmed,” she says.
When the couple married in 1992, few people expected the relationship would last, let alone thrive for more than 18 happily committed years. In the jaw-dropping unauthorized biography Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, published earlier this year, author Peter Biskind liberally calculated that prior to meeting Bening, Beatty had bedded 12,775 women, give or take. The book was roundly slammed by critics as sensationalistic and Bening calls it “incredibly disappointing from a journalistic point of view.” She says, “It’s just another example of people trying to make a buck off you.” But it’s undeniable that Bening brought a level of fulfillment to her relationship with Beatty, now 73, that many, many previous lovers could not.
Bening clearly doesn’t like talking about her marriage. She’s polite enough but there’s something in the way she gently clears her throat, forks around her lettuce and never actually mentions Beatty by name (she calls him “my husband” if necessary) that signals: Please don’t go there. Asked to explain their secret to outlasting the cynics, Bening arches a brow. “I don’t know. Part of it is luck, part of it is the children, part of it is we’re in the same business, so we understand each other. I don’t know.” Then silence.
She’s a bit more expansive about her four children—Kathlyn, 18; Benjamin, 15; Isabel, 13; and Ella, 10. “I went very quickly from being surrounded by kids in diapers to having these wonderful, smart adolescents who in many ways are way ahead of me,” she says. Ever since she famously passed on the role of Catwoman during her first pregnancy, Bening consciously chose to be an involved mom rather than putting everything into her career. “I’ve always loved children and especially babies. I was the girl all the neighborhood moms called for babysitting,” she says, adding, “raising our kids has been the most joyous and astonishing experience of my life.” Family certainly keeps her busy. Yes, the Bening-Beattys have “help,” but their family compound atop Mulholland is a hive of cozy domestic activity. “At any given hour, somebody’s being picked up, somebody’s working on a project, somebody’s been to a class, somebody wants to know what’s for dinner, and there’s an endless stream of homework happening. I love it.”
Best of all, the kids are finally old enough to give Bening some breathing room. In addition to her two new movies, Bening spent much of the last year doing two plays—Medea and The Female of the Species—in Los Angeles. Between performances, she dedicated herself to her Iyengar yoga practice. “I love that I can just go to a class and be there, not as someone who is known, but just to hang,” she says, admitting, “it’s not possible to hide in plain sight when I’m out with my husband.” She also traveled to Iran last year as part of a delegation of filmmakers and actors from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was a life-changing experience, she says. “Iran is not a place that’s hospitable to artists or to women, so just stepping off the plane felt like a statement about culture and politics.” (Tension arose after the Iranian government used the trip as an excuse to rail against America, insisting Hollywood apologize for “insults and libels” about Iranians in films, something neither Bening nor her cohorts agreed to do.)
Bening turns 52 at the end of May. In the stark light of the diner, you see a few more crinkles around her eyes than you do onscreen. But, if anything, growing older is giving her a sense of liberation. Perhaps it helps that people in her family live a long time. One of her grandfathers lived to be 100 years and six months. By those standards, she still has a lifetime to live. “You get to a place where you’re not troubled by all the same things, and instead you start to feel grateful,” she says. “I’ve had a life I never could have imagined. It’s beyond anything I could have dreamed up. Now it’s time to really just savor it all.”
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