Annette Bening: A Private Star
"In retrospect, it's all sort of hilarious," says Annette Bening of the media circus in which her current life as star, mother, and wife of Warren Beatty began. Here she opens up about why she dislikes feminist complaints about Hollywood, what actors intimidate her, and just how unlikely it is her husband would approve of her doing a nude scene like the one she did in The Grifters.
She wanted to meet at a restaurant, but with all that I had been reading about Annette Bening and how she drove frustrated reporters to write about their experiences rather than what she didn't have to say, I certainly didn't want to try my luck in a public place.
She's married to Warren Beatty, so she obviously has been learning from the master of interview avoidance and nonrevelation. She agreed to come to my house and drove up in her white BMW dressed in white stretch pants and a loose-fitting white shirt. She looked good and seemed friendly. I told her I had once interviewed Warren many years ago--I didn't tell her 20 years ago, because that would make her 16 and I didn't want to seem that old. She was still in high school in San Diego then.
The Bening family was originally from Wichita, Kansas, but Annette was seven when they moved to California. She grew up in San Diego, where her father was in the insurance business. She had a normal, unremarkable childhood, went to the local junior college where she began to act, and ended up at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT). She got married and she and her husband moved to Denver to do theater.
Later, in New York, she landed a play called Coastal Disturbances and was nominated for a Tony. She made a TV pilot but she was dropped when the show got picked up. Then she auditioned for a John Hughes movie, The Great Outdoors, and won a part opposite Dan Aykroyd. Mike Nichols cast her in a cameo in Postcards From the Edge. Milos Forman cast her in Valmont. Then Stephen Frears put her in The Grifters and Annette Bening was noticed. Big time. Her cunning role earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Other parts came readily: she played De Niro's wife in Guilty by Suspicion, Harrison Ford's wife in Regarding Henry and Bugsy Siegel's girlfriend Virginia Hill in Warren Beatty's Bugsy. She and Beatty fell in love, and the Playboy of the Hollywood World became Mr. Annette Bening.
Bening won the plum role in Batman Returns as Catwoman, only to give it up when she became pregnant. Other films were offered to her, but the one she waited to do was a remake of Love Affair (which was already remade once as 1957's An Affair to Remember), in which she starred with her husband.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Reading about some of your past interviews made me a bit wary. Are you amused or annoyed when you read how you seem to journalists?
ANNETTE BENING: Oh, neither. I feel bad, because I don't want to annoy people, or make it frustrating for them. If anything, I want to please people too much. But the fact is, there are some things I just can't talk about, because then they somehow become less valuable to me.
Q: What reporters have said about you has also been said about your husband over the years. Has Warren ever talked to you about dealing with celebrity?
A: Sure, yes, he's very helpful about that, because he's real smart about it. It happened to him so young.
Q: What did he talk to you about?
A: How it affects your life and your friends, your family, which I was very naive about. I didn't understand the ripple effect and what it does to your siblings.
Q: Did Warren talk to you about how to handle the press?
A: Yeah, we're kind of similar in that way. I have mixed feelings about it, as does he.
Q: Your feelings about Love Affair, I assume, are also similar. As the producer, did Warren have to talk you into doing it the way he did Katharine Hepburn?
A: No, he didn't have to talk me into it. I remember him being away, in New York, I think, when I was watching the original 1939 version, which is the one I really love and was inspired by. I got to the big moment, before they come together, and I was totally engrossed in the movie, sitting in our kitchen crying, when he called. Which I thought was a nice synchronistic kind of thing.
Q: How did you feel about updating Irene Dunne's performance?
A: Somewhat in awe. Her performance was so luminescent. I felt a bit intimidated by that.
Q: And your feelings after you saw what you and Warren did?
A: Proud. It's entertaining, it's the kind of movie people have a good time going to see.
Q: Warren's courtship of Hepburn caught the attention of the press. Did you think he would get her?
A: No. It's a great, great movie itself: his determination, and her reluctance, and yet her delight in being courted. I was as into it as he was, because the scene between these two women is the center of the picture. It has to do with passing on wisdom. I felt we really needed someone people would sit up and listen to when that moment came. If there's anybody people are going to sit up and listen to, it's her! Talk about movie star quality. I've never seen anything like it. All of the talent is still there.
Q: Did you get to know her at all?
A: No, I was intimidated by her. She's tough. Tough. Everybody told me how much she liked me, but I was very reluctant to make any demands on her, like ask her, "What was The Philadelphia Story like?" I just stood back, waiting for anything she needed.
Q: Did you say anything at all to her?
A: I offered an answer to a question once, and she said something to me like, "Why would you know all the answers?"
Q: I can see why you stood back. How about Warren, how was he with her?
A: In heaven. He completely doted on her. They were adorable together. He's nuts about her and she really likes him. She would make jokes that cut him down to size, right? And he would always be very good-natured about it. It was a whole other drama in itself.
Q: What about acting with Warren--did he ever surprise you?
A: All the time. Warren never talks about his acting. He's not selfconscious about it in the way that some actors are. He's one of those people who's very subtle and doesn't seem to be acting.
Q: With Warren as producer and your co-star, how were you able to separate your professional and your personal lives?
A: It's all the same... it's all life.
Q: Did you talk about it at home?
A: All the time. We even rehearsed a bit at home.
Q: How about in the editing room? Were you welcome there?
A: Oh yeah, sure. I might say, "I would prefer the other take." Didn't mean it got used, just meant I had a chance to make my case. It was very humbling.
Q: Did you work your schedule around your second pregnancy?
A: No, I got pregnant at the very end. What happened was, we had our first baby and then it was a year-and-a-half later when we started the movie.
Q: So you were basically on hold for those 18 months?
A: Yes. There was one film, and possibly two, that I would have done had I known.
Q: Which films were they?
A: I don't really like to say because it's kind of bad form, but there were a couple of pictures I was offered and because of Love Affair I didn't do them. And then it turned out I probably could have. Then by the end of the movie I got pregnant, so it all worked out fine.
Q: Didn't the big earthquake happen while you were making Love Affair?
A: Yeah. It was supposed to be the last day of shooting and we were just finishing up the last scene, so it was dramatic. Warren had gone to bed very early and wanted to get away so he could have quiet, so he was in another part of the house. When it hit we were both coming for the kid from opposite directions.