Caught Up in Annette
It's been almost a decade since ANNETTE BENING began her Hollywood career. Few who saw her burn up the screen as the femmes fatales of VALMONT and THE GRIFTERS figured her for someone who'd quickly marry, have three children and put her family ahead of her career without any regret.
Nine years ago, I couldn't stop talking about Annette Bening. Her portrayal of the Marquise de Merteuil in Valmont blew me away. I came out of the film thinking, who is this woman and where did she come from? (Broadway, it turned out, where she'd earned a Tony nomination for Coastal Disturbances.) Bening followed Valmont with an even better performance as Myra, the con woman without a heart of gold in The Grifters. When she sashayed across a room to kiss John Cusack, I realized that there wasn't another actress of her generation who could hold a candle to her. I couldn't wait to see her next film.
What a disappointment it turned out to be. I can believe Guilty by Suspicion seemed like a good idea at the time--she got to team up with Robert De Niro. But it sucked. So did Regarding Henry, in which she played Harrison Ford's uninteresting wife. Who was this bland woman impersonating the scheming minx who'd first caught my eye?
I let out a sigh of relief when I heard Bening was going to play Virginia Hill in Warren Beatty's big, glossed-up film Bugsy. And I wasn't disappointed. Her smart, smoldering gangster moll was easily the best thing in the movie. Little did I realize that this was the end of the Bening I loved. The chemistry that was obvious between Bening and Beatty on-screen was matched by a romance offscreen, and in an event that stunned Hollywood (and me), the habitual bachelor/womanizer Beatty asked Bening to marry him, and she did. Not long after that she turned down the role of Catwoman in Batman Returns because she was pregnant with her first child. Then she seemed to drop out of sight.
While Hollywood was clearly surprised at Beatty's move in finally getting married and starting a family, it was Bening's behavior that freaked me. Here she was, well into her '30s with no time to spare as far as prime screen years were concerned, and just as she was one hit from major stardom, she turned down some of the best offers in town in favor of settling down and playing house. When she did finally work again, it was with Beatty in the anemic remake of Love Affair. The film tanked and people grumbled about the lack of chemistry between the married stars. But offscreen Bening and Beatty were acting like teen sweethearts at the mall. They even dressed alike. Their interviews during this time were a marvel: they finished each other's sentences and between the two of them said absolutely nothing. And they'd already added a second child to their nest.
Bening's role as the feisty Washington lobbyist Michael Douglas falls for in the 1995 film The American President briefly reminded me what a superb actress she is. After that she did small roles in Richard III and Mars Attacks!, and in between those films had another baby.
Now, eight years after The Grifters, I hear Bening is putting her career back in motion. She's starring with Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis in director Ed Zwick's terrorism thriller The Siege, and she'll be in Neil Jordan's drama of the paranormal In Dreams early next year. The one thing I want to know as I set off to interview Bening is why she's spent the last several years behaving as if her artistic ambitions were best suited to reading bedtime stories to her kids.
As an assistant lets me into the office Bening shares with Beatty off Mulholland Drive at the top of Beverly Glen, I remember that someone told me this is the place where these two first met. Beatty has said he was floored by Bening the minute he was introduced to her. After talking to her about Bugsy, he took her next door for pizza. Just as I'm wondering if this is the kind of romantic move that got Beatty his reputation, Bening walks in. Dressed in pants, a T-shirt and sandals, she has no makeup on. She's almost dainty in the refinement of her features, but she has a handshake that could bring a wrestler to his knees.
"So," I say to her before she even sits down. "Since I know you don't like talking about your marriage, how about if from here on we refer to your husband as What's-His-Name?"
Bening lets out a high, infectious laugh. In repose, there's a kind of sadness to her expression, but make her laugh and it's as if you've pleased the gods--her whole face lights up. Maybe this is what happened to What's-His-Name in the pizza parlor.
"Isn't the house you had that got destroyed in the earthquake near here? Have you rebuilt it?"
Bening shakes her head no. "It's still just sitting there. It was totally destroyed in 45 seconds. Have you ever been in an earthquake?"
"Once. I was at the Chateau Marmont sometime in the late '80s, and I was in bed watching the news and I felt this jolt. The guy on the news got under the desk! I ran to the doorway."
Bening is banging on my arm, almost jumping out of her seat. "I was there, at the Chateau Marmont that night, too! And I was watching that news show. I remember that guy going under his desk. Isn't that amazing? Did it teach you anything?"
"Yeah--I never slept naked in California again."
Bening laughs her laugh, then turns serious. "The big quake was different. After it stopped, I was so grateful to be alive. For years, every time I walked into a room I looked around to see what was bolted down. But you stop being so vigilant after a while, you go back to normal."
"OK," I say. "Let's talk about your new movie The Siege. You play a CIA agent who goes head-to-head with Denzel Washington's FBI agent over an Arab terrorist threat in America, right?"
"Yes," says Bening. "I speak a little Arabic--" "You speak Arabic?" I gasp. "That's amazing--I never met anyone who wasn't Islamic who could speak Arabic. I mean--"
Bening is staring at me like I'm crazy. "I speak a little Arabic in the movie, Martha. I don't know a word on my own."
"Oh," I say sheepishly. "So what else did you have to learn for this part, besides Arabic?"
"I wanted to make sure that everything they said I should do was credible. I didn't want to be doing something that I thought was ridiculous or untrue."
At this point I'm thinking, "But Bruce Willis is in this movie!" Naturally I don't say this to Bening, who is earnestly explaining, "I got to meet a woman who had just stopped working undercover for the CIA. She was tremendously eye-opening. She works for the information arm of the CIA now. Somebody who was actively working 'not in true name'--that's their euphemism for undercover--could never talk to you about anything."
"Why in hell would someone in the CIA tell you anything, anyway?" I ask. "Don't tell me they're as smitten by Hollywood as the rest of the world."
"That's possible," Bening says indulgently, "although not likely. I think the point is that the stuff we use isn't anywhere near classified. You could do a lot of research on the CIA if you wanted to ..."
"No thanks," I say. "Can we talk about The Grifters for a minute? I loved you in that movie. What did you do to prepare for that?"
Bening thinks a moment. "One of the things I did was watch a lot of Gloria Grahame movies. She played these women who were from the wrong end of life, and as I looked at her stuff, I started forming an image of my Grifters character, Myra. I also found a book in a grocery store paperback section called Good Girls Gone Bad. In The Grifters Myra has a relationship with an older male mentor figure played by J. T. Walsh, and one of the chapters in Good Girls Gone Bad is about a con woman who had a relationship like Myra's with J. T.--"
Bening suddenly stops and just looks at me. I realize I have tears in my eyes. It's because I knew J. T. Walsh, but Bening doesn't know that, so I'm sure she's thinking I'm crazy. "I'm sorry," I stammer. "I'm a big fan of J. T. 's. I've seen all his movies. I was just remembering when they flashed his face on the Oscars as one of the people who had passed away in the last year--I didn't know he'd died till then and it was such a shock."
Instead of gawking at me in disbelief, Bening grabs a tissue, puts her arm around me and says, "Oh, you poor thing." Then her eyes well up, too. We sit there crying for a few minutes.
After I pull myself together, I realize it's kind of nice having the Annette Bening of Regarding Henry sitting next to me instead of the one from Valmont or The Grifters. "What's-His-Name often remarks in his interviews what a happy family life he shares with you," I say. "And I've read that you grew up in a happy family. I come from a warm family too, and I've always been shocked at how many people seem to hate their parents."
"I feel very, very lucky to have come from the family I did," says Bening. "We have our dysfunctions and our problems, just like any family. But my parents are extremely loving people. There's an underlying feeling that if anything happened, they would all be there for me. As I got older, I realized that's a very precious thing. Sometimes in a family you think, wouldn't it be easier to just cut that person off? Or wouldn't it be easier if you just have a really big fight--"
"Wait! Your family didn't fight either?" I interrupt.
"Fights are not for me," Bening replies. "When I watch my kids and I see the primal level at which the sibling relationships are formed, then I completely understand what these unresolved adult sibling problems are based on. You know, 'Mom liked you better' and, 'You got your own room and I didn't.'"
"Do your daughters share a room?"
"No. My daughters are five years apart. Isabel is the baby. Ben is almost four, and Kathlyn is six and a half. My son and my oldest daughter share a room. This way the baby doesn't bother them."
"Do the kids sleep in bed with you?"
Bening's eyes narrow, as if to say, "Why would you want to know this?"
"Hey, if the world can't sleep with What's-His-Name, at least they want to find out who is."
Bening swats my hand and laughs. "No," she says. "I'm pretty tough about that with my kids, because what happens is, if you open the door to that possibility, then it's forever. I sup¬pose if I was able to sleep well with that happening it wouldn't bother me, but as soon as they come into the room, I'm wide awake and I can't fall back to sleep. I also think because my par¬ents never let us sleep with them I don't feel conflicted about it. So I say to my kids, 'This is our bed, that's your bed.' There's plenty of affection in our house, so the kids won't suffer with a few boundaries. Plus, they realize, 'OK, I can stay in here and I'm safe, and it's OK.' Because that's what it really is: they discover they're safe."
I can't believe Bening has me listening to all this stuff about her kids. There's a reason I don't have any. But her maternal instincts are strong enough for the two of us. In fact, I've heard this from other actresses who've worked with her.
"Teri Hatcher told Movieline that you were very supportive of her when she was a student of yours the summer you taught at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco," I say.
Bening blushes. "Really, she said that? That is so sweet. I was just thinking about that experience the other day. I was telling the drama teacher at my kids' school about the summer I taught acting. I loved it so much, I might have to do it again. I feel so strongly that the impulse to act has to be honored, whether somebody is going to have a career in it or not. It's a hard enough profession, and everyone's always trying to dissuade you from it."
"Speaking of acting being a hard profession, there were critics who said you and your husband had no chemistry in Love Affair. How did that make you feel?"
Bening actually smiles at the memory of this movie. "Making Love Affair was such a wonderful, romantic time for me," she says. "We worked very closely together. At the time we only had Kathlyn and we could take her anywhere. We worked in Tahiti, New York, L.A. I guess I've done enough films to realize that there is one experience the actor has making a picture, and then, totally separate from it, there's what the audience experiences when it comes out. That doesn't mean I'm not hurt or saddened if a movie doesn't do well, but I'm a little bit more savvy about the realities of whether people like something or not. It just affirms my gut instinct that you have to do what you think is important to you."
"Why was making Neil Jordan's In Dreams important to you?"
"It's about a woman who experiences other people's thoughts," Bening says. "This has been happening to her all her life. She has dreams about other people, dreams that come true. It's about the shadow side of life. Ever since I've been an adult I've been interested in that, in dreams and the unconscious."
"Your character has visions of her own child being killed. Don't you have a hard time imagining that kind of thing?"
Bening shivers and says, "There's so much of our psychological makeup which is impermissible for us to explore because it's inappropriate or perverse or scary. I'm interested in exploring that in myself. I try to be honest with myself about everything that I feel. I'm not saying I'm able to do that all the time, but it's something I'm interested in. I think this movie definitely tries to invade the impermissible."
"So when they yell 'cut,' what do you do with that stuff?"
"It depends on the day. On good days, you feel OK. You've done it, and you're done with it. No more close-ups, no more takes. Sometimes you feel a catharsis, like you do in real life after you've had a good cry. And then other days you just feel really shitty and you want to go pound your head against the wall."
I'm wondering how you manage to be a loving mommy to three kids when you feel like pounding your head against the wall, so I ask, "Doesn't your character descend into utter madness? What do you do after a day of acting like that?"
"I don't know if I would call it madness," Bening says. "Let's just say her reality is altered in a way I hope mine never is. But I still immersed myself in her. I'm ruthless in terms of what I would use to get there."
"You? Ruthless?" The fact that I'm so incredulous makes me realize I've almost forgotten about the Bening of Valmont and The Grifters.
"Oh, but I am," Bening says emphatically. "Because the pressure's on when they say 'action.' They don't care where it comes from. And to that end, I will use anything from my own life, from anyone's life, if that will help. You have to come up with the goods when the camera is rolling."
"Do you respond better to directors who sweet-talk you or the ones who yell?"
"I've never had a director that yelled."
"Not even What's-His-Name?"
"I've made two films with Warren and he's not a yeller at all."
"What do you do when you don't like what's going on on a set?"
"I've had circumstances that were uncomfortable, but I am a total chicken about confrontation. I'm better than I used to be, but I avoid confrontation at any cost. I think generally it doesn't help. But that doesn't mean I don't get angry. I just don't do the confrontation part."
"Well then, either you have ulcers or a large therapy bill."
Bening smiles and shakes her head. "I go back to my trailer and chew up the carpet."
"And what about when you have confrontations with the kids?"
Bening looks at me like I've lost my mind. "With the kids? They're only babies--when I say, 'No,' at worst they wheedle and cajole and maybe cry a little, but then they're on to some¬thing else. Confrontation? No. I'm their mother, and they're still young enough that they believe I know what's right. Or at least that what I say goes."
I've talked to a lot of actresses who go on about their kids as if they're June Cleaver reincarnated. But most of them are off on sets a week later with a nanny between them and the slightest sniffle, and some of them would sell their kids into slavery for that nine-inch gold statue. Trust me, Bening's face changes when she talks about her children. She may claim that she'd use anything in her life to create her character and that she's ruthless, but I don't buy it. I think she'd turn down Scorsese, Spielberg and everybody else on the A list if one of her kids had a problem. No matter what she says, Bening is not ruthless.
Of course, since I'm a fan first, I kind of wish she were. I still wish she'd do whatever it takes to create another Myra or the Marquise. And so I find myself asking, "Don't you feel that the time you took to have your kids and be with them derailed your career?"
"Are you crazy?" Bening laughs. "Oh please, there is abso¬lutely no choice here. The time I spend with my kids informs every fiber of who I am. And believe me, it makes me a better actress."
As far as I'm concerned, Bening already was a great actress. So I'll be at both The Siege and In Dreams. After being nurtured by her for a few hours, I'm willing to go along with her on almost anything, just like her kids do.
Martha Frankel interviewed John Waters for the October issue of Movieline.