It’s hard to be one of the most infamously overdue actresses in modern cinema. However, Annette Bening isn’t about to tackle a famous historical figure or don significant old age makeup in her quest for an Oscar. Instead, as one can see in this week’s “20th Century Woman,” she’s continuing to do some of the most offbeat, challenging and rewarding work of her career. Rather than chase gold, she’s chasing the peak of her career, which seemingly is yet to come.
While now she is Mrs. Warren Beatty and the de facto regal Queen of Hollywood, it’s hard to believe, after a TV movie or two, her first film role came in “The Great Outdoors” with Dan Aykroyd and John Candy. However, it did not take long for Bening to show her promise. Her breakout came in 1990. In addition to a pivotal supporting role in “Postcards from the Edge,” she received her first Oscar nomination for her role in Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters.” As Myra Langtry, the bombshell manipulative girlfriend of a conman, Bening showcases the intensity and ferocity she brings to her comedy. Before getting nominated, Bening picked up a win from the National Society of Film Critics and a BAFTA nod. She lost the Oscar to Whoopi Goldberg for “Ghost.” Still, the nomination served as a call for people to be on the lookout for Bening.
The next year saw her in the pivotal role of Virginia Hill in “Bugsy.” The role is significant not just because the film was nominated for 10 Oscars. It was also where she met and married her current husband, notorious lothario Warren Beatty. Her part in “Bugsy” led to Bening’s first Golden Globe nomination. While the film did not net her an Oscar nomination, it was the role that launched her to the A-list. Pairing her with Beatty placed her in film history, a role she has relished.
Her true movie star role came a few years later in “The American President.” As a hard working lobbyist who falls for the President of the United States, Bening got to flex her muscles as a romantic comedy star. People fell in love with the film, and Bening in particular. The film was able to gross over $65 million at the U.S. box office. In addition, it landed Bening her second Golden Globe nomination. Unfortunately, the Best Actress lineup in 1995 was stacked (Sarandon/Shue/Stone/Streep/Thompson), so Bening would have to wait for her next opportunity.
Despite high-profile turns in “Mars Attacks!,” “The Siege” and “In Dreams,” the pinnacle of Annette Bening’s ascendance in the ’90s came in 1999 with the Best Picture-winning film “American Beauty.” As Carolyn Burnham, the overachieving and undersatisfied wife of a man going through a mid-life crisis, Bening was a force of nature. She utterly devoured the screen in a career-making performance. Many believed she was the frontrunner to win the Oscar, as the film swept up multiple trophies. She won the SAG and BAFTA prizes, as well as a slew of critics prizes. However, after a Globes upset, Hilary Swank was able to manufacture an upset at the Oscars for “Boys Don’t Cry.” This wouldn’t be the last time these two women were up against each other.
Their next face off came five years later. This time Swank was in the Best Picture winner (“Million Dollar Baby”) and Annette Bening was in the critical darling (“Being Julia”). As Julia Lambert, Bening played the aging actress taking on a dalliance with a younger man with grace and gravitas. She took home the National Board of Review prize and the Golden Globe for her performance. Yet, it was Swank yet again who prevailed for her second Oscar. This was the kernel from which Annette Bening’s overdue status grew from.
Over the next few years, Bening was in search of a role as indelible as Carolyn Burnham. She found success on TV in the TV movie “Mrs. Harris,” which saw her contend at the Globes, Emmy and SAG awards. She lost all three. She tried to play another complicated mother in “Running with Scissors.” However, the film bombed critically and commercially. Thus, she had to settle with only a Golden Globes nomination. A couple of bombs (“The Women”) and low profile indies followed (“Mother and Child”).
In 2010, Bening finally found the role she was looking for. In “The Kids Are All Right,” Bening plays Nic, the hard-edged lesbian doctor dealing with the fact her children have met their biological father. It was an unexpected, multi-faceted and warm performance from Bening. One sustained minute-long close-up shot only further exposed the fact that she is one of our greatest actresses at work today. She won the top prize from the New York Film Critics and Golden Globes. This was in addition to Critics’ Choice, SAG and BAFTA nominations. While she was up for an Oscar, she lost to Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) in a contentious battle.
Much like Swank over a decade ago, Annette Bening faces Natalie Portman yet again this year. Bening contends for “20th Century Woman” where she plays Dorothea, a new age mother raising her son in 1979. Portman stars in “Jackie” as first lady Jackie Kennedy in the days after the murder of JFK. Bening was once thought to be a possible frontrunner, but a shocking snub at SAG has placed her in the hunt for a nomination. Still, the talented actress has much to be proud of in her new performance. It will be exciting to see what else is to come.
Top 5 Annette Bening Performances:
“American Beauty” as Carolyn Burnham
“The Kids Are All Right” as Nic
“The Grifters” as Myra Langtry
“Being Julia” as Julia Lambert
“The American President” as Sydney Ellen Wade