From the Golden Age of film when its legends and the fables surrounding them were so closely intertwined to today’s almost unrecognizable industry, where screen icons are held as accountable as everyday folk. Showbusiness feels like a hollowed out line of work. But if there are any legends left today, almost everyone would agree that the four-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening is one. Known for her remarkable agility and depth given to her characters, not to mention her portrayal of ‘real’ women rather than the idealized silver screen version.
Her latest film Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool sees her revisit this bygone Hollywood era, filling the lofty shoes of Academy Award-winning Gloria Grahame, star of Oklahoma! and The Bad And The Beautiful, and detailing her subsequent tragic downfall. The serendipity is not lost on us. Annette plays Gloria at a time when many people are questioning what being an empowered woman in the driver’s seat means today.
Bening is the star of classics such as The Grifters, American Beauty and of late, The Kids Are All Right and 20th Century Women. Verbs like classy, fearless, intelligent and dignified don’t do justice to Annette. She is every bit as sophisticated and enlightening in life as she is on screen. In this revealing discussion, Annette Bening opens up to us about the realities of the industry, the importance of anger and why she is saddened by today’s young women who are so keen to make it in a minute.
I saw Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and thought it was a really beautiful movie. It’s a story about a woman from a bygone era – I certainly didn’t know who she was – and it felt like in the movie we were not only mourning for her but also for a certain way of life?
Yes. I think she was an icon and she wasn’t in a way; she won the Academy Award and she was certainly a femme fatale in the noir period, but she also never achieved the level of status or class that she wanted. Actually, I don’t know if she wanted that or not, I’m sort of extrapolating it but when she was struggling after Oklahoma!, which was her last big picture, she couldn’t get a job; she was doing tiny theatre jobs in LA and Wisconsin and then she ended up in England. She really struggled, and I think a part of that was because she had been seen as this ‘scandalous’ woman.
"It has always been more difficult for women to express their anger; socially it’s very threatening and unacceptable."
Annette Bening on fear of idealising women
There are a couple of threads that I see running through the movies that you have starred in over the years, from Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool to other films like American Beauty and The Kids Are All Right, and to a certain extent 20th Century Women, there seems to be this woman who is crying out for meaning, starved of any real relationships. Am I totally off the mark here?
That’s interesting, I’ve never thought of it that way. I certainly saw that and felt that in 20th Century Women. Certainly, for Gloria [in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool] I think you’re absolutely right and it makes sense.
If I had one wish it would just be to have the opportunity to sit with Gloria for two hours and ask her every single question I have about her and her life and what actually happened. She had four marriages; the first one was very brief, then it was Nick Ray who she married at the height of his career when he was a very highly regarded, talented director. They were married pretty briefly and then it was Cy Howard, who was a pretty big deal, very highly regarded and a hilarious person from what I understand. My husband [Warren Beatty] knew him actually and said he was the most charming and delightful man, but they had a pretty terrible time together and divorced very quickly.
So by her thirties, she has been married three times, in court fighting with her ex-husbands about divorcing and custody, and then she begins a relationship with her stepson, then in his twenties, marries him and they have two children. She was quite the woman.
It’s interesting to think about how a woman who had married four times in that era, or someone like Elizabeth Taylor who beat that record, would be viewed in today’s culture. How do you think it would differ?
What happened then was people wanted to have all these affairs but they couldn’t so they would just get married. I’m saying that the wrong way – I mean that there were people who could have just had affairs and then they would have gone on their way but they didn’t because there was so much pressure to get married if you were involved with someone. I don’t think people would do that now.
I’m sort of supposing that Gloria did have a lot of affairs and relationships that we don’t know about, from what I understand. There isn’t a lot of information about her that is accurate.
Annette Bening as the brilliant eccentric mother in 20th Century Women. Images: A24
There’s another emotional thread that I find consistent in your work. I re-watched American Beauty last night for the first time in maybe twenty years, and it is such an incredible performance that you give. I feel like there is a subtle theme of anger running through most of your characters. What does anger mean to you?
It’s a big subject, isn’t it? It’s definitely a big subject for women and I think culturally it has always been more difficult for women to express their anger; socially it’s very threatening and unacceptable if I can be that general about it. Anger is a very complicated issue for women and very different to how it is for men.
So yes, I think it’s part of what we all have in our emotional makeup – we certainly all have it about something.
Would you consider yourself an onscreen pariah in that sense, acting out all these impulses that women wish they could express? I saw you letting loose in American Beauty and even I wish I could do that.
Well, I guess on some level part of acting, if you are serving the story and serving the larger project, whether it’s a play, film or TV, is finding as much emotional range as possible. My theory as an actor is if you are working in the right way when you go through all this emotional stuff that you are acting out, it can be cathartic. Clearly, there are things that we get to explore in our imaginations and act out in these fictitious stories that we would never do or express in life, so that can be a very healthy process and it can be where the self-actualization work can perhaps come to the surface. So it can be helpful to work on personal growth.
You don’t come across as an angry person though, so this is just an onscreen persona that you sometimes explore?
I think you’re right. Obviously, I have anger in my life and express it from time to time but I guess I’m pretty careful about how I express it. I’m trying to think of a quote I used to have on my mirror about anger, it might have been Socrates but I’m not sure, but he was talking about how one of the highest forms of communication can be to express your anger at the right time, to the right person, on the right level. Of course, we all have it but sometimes it spills out in the wrong way.
Oscar-worthy Annette Bening in American Beauty. Photograph: Allstar/Dreamworks
I have this romantic notion that actors are drawn to a certain type of character that they play over and over to maybe try and understand elements of their own personality. I sense that you are drawn to these women who are vulnerable, on the edge and looking for some form of enlightenment. Would you agree with that?
The honest answer is that I don’t know. When you are talking about this sort of unconscious navigation towards certain subjects, periods or in my case certain types of women, and how that signifies some kind of search, I think about that more in terms of writers. Especially as they get towards the end of their lives and they are looking back.
Part of it with acting too, maybe it’s because most of us when we start out are just trying to get jobs, so we’re not thinking in terms of ‘I have this thing that I need to express so I am going to find the role that will express this urge I have inside’. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to pick what I want to do for a while so that would make sense now that I have some sort of expression of something going on like you suggest.
Annette Bening starring alongside Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner/Focus Features
I want to go back to this idea of you being the pariah of the female acting world, which is an awful sentiment because it shouldn’t have to be said, but there is a real dearth of great roles for women in film. I recently saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri with Fran McDormand who is just an incredible powerhouse similarly. Do you get a lot of comments from women supporting you in the roles that you take on?
I do. A lot of women talk to me if they see me in the street. They start talking to me about their lives, and I often have that conversation where they have identified in some way with what I’m doing.
Women were idealized for so long, especially in cinema. There was this stereotypical woman, like Gloria, who was either the ‘bad girl’ or the angelic type. It was always one or the other; the good mother/bad mother, the good girlfriend/the whore. All of us, including Fran, are trying to find something more dimensional and find the flaws.
Fran is a very good example of a great actress at the height of her power. I saw Three Billboards too and she really has a craft. We met when we were both up for the same television pilot in 1987, exactly thirty years ago. So I have this connection to her and we aren’t close friends but we have stayed in touch over the years – I’ll go and see her in things and vice versa, we’ll write each other a note or go and see each other backstage after a show, and that connection means a lot to me because I’m a huge admirer of her work. What she did in Three Billboards is certainly remarkable and the character is remarkable, especially in terms of what we were talking about earlier with anger and how to express it.
"A lot of women talk to me if they see me in the street [...] they have identified in some way with what I’m doing."
Annette Bening on being a female role model
What would you say is the biggest illusion you would shatter for young female actors starting out today?
Gosh. Well, one thing I’m certainly learning is that there are just so many ways to approach the profession, and we all have our own entry into it. In my case I just sort of plodded along – I went to community college, then San Francisco State where I got a theatre degree, I went to a conservatory, I was in tiny Shakespeare festivals in California, and that was how I started. So I really had to study and for me that was necessary, but I know there are plenty of very good actors who didn’t do it that way at all and are very accomplished.
I guess that’s the illusion because there really is no one way to do it. You really have to follow your gut and do dramatic things like move cities, get your heart broken, travel. Do irrational things. I don’t think there needs to be a hurry; I get this incredible sense now that people really feel like, ‘I’ve got to do it when I’m twenty because if I don’t do it right now I won’t get known etc’, and that makes me very sad. But I was talking to a young actor the other day who goes to college and also does auditions, and she said that very often someone with a lot of Instagram followers will get a job over the next person purely for that reason. The person hiring thinks, ‘Well, I know I’m going to have 1.2 million eyeballs on this whatever I do’, so that’s pretty disappointing.
You met your husband Warren Beatty on the set of Bugsy in 1991. in this post-Weinstein environment that we’re all experiencing, do you think for instance had you met your husband on set today things may have been viewed differently, he being 20 years your elder?
I think it’s so important to distinguish between people being involved in a consensual way and the other side of the conversation. That for me is part of what is so important with what is happening because we have to have a more nuanced conversation about coercive, unwanted sexual come-ons, harassment, and assault. These things need to be distinguished and they have nothing to do with consensual sexual, emotional, romantic attraction. I think it’s important you bring it up and I get what you mean, but it’s the silence, the hiding and the keeping things under the radar that has created the really unhealthy atmosphere.
Of course it’s in showbiz all over the place, but the larger issue of harassment and sexual assault in the workplace will hopefully benefit from what has happened in show business because it will ripple out. It’s one thing to be an actress in that situation and that requires one kind of conversation about what to do, but it’s another thing if you are working at a fast food restaurant and you’re a single mom who needs the money and you are being harassed by your boss. That’s all over the place in the work culture so there is a very broad, serious conversation that needs to be had.
"It’s the silence, the hiding and the keeping things under the radar that has created the really unhealthy atmosphere."
On the Weinstein saga
I saw a tweet last week describing it as a ‘healthy purge’, all the people that are being targeted. But something about that description makes it seem very uncomfortable like it’s a McCarthy witch-hunt. Even though all these men are guilty does it make you feel at all uncomfortable?
One of the stories that comes to mind is from the famous long-distance swimmer, named Diana Nyad. She has told her story before about being raped by her coach when she was fourteen years old. There are lots of those kinds of stories and it’s tremendously important that young people hear about that so we can change the culture for people to understand that there is something they can do, that they can come forward about what has happened.
It’s also important, and that’s why this is such a complicated thing, that people have the ability to defend themselves. I think everybody agrees with that idea; women and men who have been subject to this must have a place to be able to do that. For people who are accused, they also have to have the opportunity to defend themselves, if they choose to.
It’s such a polarising time and I think that measured intelligence is very important at a time like this. What does intelligence mean to you?
Let’s see. Certainly having a sense of humor is a vital component of intelligence. Education, being aware of what is going on around you politically and culturally, and I guess emotional intelligence has a lot to do with it as well. The thing that we all seek is to know ourselves and to be able to see ourselves as we really are and find a way to live in an authentic way.
Annette Bening with her husband of 25 years Warren Beatty. Photograph: AFI
Outside of the acting world, what do you like to do?
I don’t know if there’s anything very interesting there. I read a lot and when I’m not working that’s one of my great joys.
Do you have a favourite book?
I have so many. I like contemporary fiction although I’m pretty tough on it. Right now I’m reading a book that I never read, which is A Portrait Of A Lady.
I love history and I love non-fiction so I’m reading all over the place. One of the ones in my stack of books to read that I really want to get into is the Winston Churchill book Hero Of The Empire, which was written by an American woman. Have you read that?
No, but there is a real buzz and interest around Churchill right now, with a couple of movies coming out, so I’m wondering why all of a sudden that’s the case.
Right, so this book is the story of his early life as a reporter and when he was taken prisoner in the POW camp in the Boer War. Apparently it’s a very successful book and I happened to hear the author interviewed and it was so great, she was really fascinating. I didn’t know about this chapter in Churchill’s life, like many Americans I was more aware of his role in the Second World War and his dealings with Roosevelt.
It was a pleasure to talk with you Annette.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is out in UK cinemas today, 16th November.