Oscar Actors: Bening, Annette–Bad Luck?

Annette Bening received this year her fourth Oscar nomination, and third in the lead league (Best Actress) for playing a lesbian doctor-mom in the serio romantic comedy, “The Kids Are All Right.

The high-profile film, released by Focus Features, has received good critical response, and commercial appeal has not been bad either (about $20 million).

Her main competitor for the Best Actress Oscar is Natalie Portman as the paranoid dance striving for perfection in Darren Aronofsky’s ballet melodrama-horror feature, “Black Swan.”  Portman won the Best Actress from the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), which has a pretty good record in predicting the ultimate Oscar winner in this category, as well as the kudo from her colleagues in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).  Bening has received one major award, Best Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Does Bening have chance to beat the odds and go home with the Oscar statuette?

The Role’s the Thing (or Not)

 

Several actresses playing lesbians have received Oscar nomination, usually in the supporting category, but if memory serves, no thespian playing a lesbian has won the Oscar—yet.

In 2004, Annette Bening (“Being Julia”) joined the ranks of Gloria Swanson (“Sunset Boulevard”), Bette Davis (“All About Eve”), Simone Signoret (“Room at the Top”), Geraldine Page (“Sweet Bird of Youth”), and Dianne Wiest (“Bullets Over Broadway”)?

All of these women were nominated (and some won) for playing aging, flamboyant actresses.  My book, All About Oscar, shows that the two most prominent professions among the female Oscar roles have been actresses and prostitutes.

You don’t have to be a sociologist to see the link between the two occupations or to understand the sexism that explains their prominence among Hollywood’s femme roles. Both acting and prostitution are service-oriented professions that rely heavily on physical looks and the desire to please, sexually and otherwise.

Actresses playing actresses stand the best chance to receive Oscar nominations and awards for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, the Acting Branch has the largest number of members (about one fourth of the Academy) and is easily biased toward portraits of eccentric showbiz personalities (actresses, singers, dancers).  Second, playing a performer, preferably one afflicted with a problem or disease, provides a meaty, juicy part that lends itself to histrionics and wide gamut of emotions.

In “Being Julia,” an old-fashioned star vehicle, Bening plays Julia Lambert, a beautiful and beguiling actress at her peak.  However, her successful theatrical career and marriage to impresario Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) are becoming too familiar and even stale.  Julia’s rapidly maturing adolescent son is yet another reminder that her best years may be behind her. Julia is smart enough to know that she’s becoming a woman of a certain age, that as her youth and celebrity fade, she would have to relinquish the romantic leads and be relegated to supporting parts.

Longing for novelty and excitement, Julia falls for Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), a callow youth half her age who pretends to be a fan.  Julia surrenders to a passionate affair that makes her feel more beautiful and vital, and proves to be the best antidote to a mid-life crisis—until she discovers that Tom is courting a younger actress and potential rival.  Summoning up her considerable powers, Julia masterminds a brilliant revenge that places her where she belongs, center stage and in the spotlight.

Valmont

Despite an inauspicious film debut in the comedy “The Great Outdoors,” Beining quickly proved her ability with a stunning performance in Milos Forman’s “Valmont” (1989).  Unfortunately, the film was a big failure.  It had the misfortune of being released after “Dangerous Liaisons,” which was based on the same source material and proved to be a hit.

The Grifters

In 1990, Bening received a supporting actress nomination for “The Grifters,” playing Myra, a con artist and the center of triangle between a small-time grifter (John Cusack) and his shrewd mother (Anjelica Huston).  Always on the lookout for easy hustles, Myra is easily able to ply with her siren’s body, which she unabashedly reveals.  Bening stole every scene she was in with co-star Cusack, confirming her talent as a solid, dependable performer.

 

Bugsy—Enter Warren Beatty

In the following year, Bening joined Hollywood royalty when she married former playboy, actor-director-producer Warren Beatty.  They met on the set of “Bugsy,” a stylish crime-gangster film that was nominated for Best Picture and reenergized Beatty’s career but didn’t do much for Bening.

Bad Choices or Bad Luck

Talent and intelligence have never been in doubt in Bening’s case.   If her career is not as stellar as it should have been, it might be a result of some bad choices–and bad luck.  “The Siege,” an actioner co-starring Denzel Washington, became controversial and was removed off the screen due to the negative portrayal of Arabs.  The romantic comedy “The American President” didn’t perform well at the box-office and again served better Bening’s co-star, Michael Douglas.

American Beauty Vs. Boys Don’t Cry

Then came the high-profile “American Beauty,” directed by Sam Mendes, in which Bening was cast as Carolyn Burnham, a brittle wife-mother pathologically obsessed with making everything just right, but   falling apart under the gleaming and grinning surface.

Bening gave an over-the-top performance that denied her critical acclaim.  She didn’t win any critics awards, and on Oscar night, she lost the Best Actress to a newcomer, Hilary Swank, who gave that year’s most stunning performance in “Boys Don’t Cry.”

In “Being Julia,” Bening is outright marvelous, playing the kind of juicy role that theater critics tend to describe as delicious.  Nothing I’ve seen Bening do before matches the exuberance of this performance. Bening breaks all the sacred rules of screen acting.  She doesn’t internalize anything.  She is not content merely to “be” Julia or let the camera “discover” her character.  She projects big, attacking the role the way a stage actress reaches for the top balcony. Bening has always been too theatrical for the big screen, perhaps a result of her formal training and extensive stage experience. In “Being Julia,” she puts her theatricality to good use.

The relish with which Bening feasts upon her role is contagious.  She thoroughly invigorates what could have easily been a stock role. Watch the scenes in which, with uncharacteristic humility and selflessness, Julia agrees to showcase the ingénue in her new play, or presumably deferring to her rival in rehearsals.  In the big climax, set on opening night, Julia reveals she is more a formidable presence than anyone ever imagined, turning her fading actress into her greatest triumph.  More beautiful and more compelling than ever before, Julia is now in control of her career and her life, fully accepting her newfound maturity.

Bening possesses the self-assurance of an experienced performer, showing facets that previous roles have left unexplored.  There is an entire universe in Bening’s face–bemusement, bafflement, comic hauteur, rudeness, gleaming pleasure, and disdain–that’s intoxicating to observe. Gaining audience sympathy from the start, Bening gives Julia style, snap, social history, and the right brittle and irony. Her histrionic intensity elevates her work to a high level of exuberance.

Bening is perfect in a highly entertaining turn of a woman who never doubts for an instant that she’s meant to be the center of attention, on stage and off. Bening races through the motions with reckless assurance, turning temper tantrums into opera arias.            She comes close to kidnapping the whole picture in a beautifully realized role that’s adroitly written. The role and Bening’s temperament as a star are inseparable–that’s what makes “Being Julia” an effective throwback to the romantic star vehicles of yesteryear.

Lynda Obst, who produced “The Siege,” once observed: “Annette is a good girl who can so easily be a bad girl.  I haven’t seen an actress since Bette Davis who can indicate such autonomy, independence, and intelligence.” Comparing Bening to Davis might be quite relevant this awards season: Julia Lambert in “Being Julia” was cut from the same cloth as Margo Channing.

It may be a coincidence, but Bening had lost the Oscar twice to a younger actress playing an edgier role in a high-profile picture: Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” and again Hilary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby,” which was directed by Clint Eastwood and swept the most important awards in 2004, including Picture and Director.

If Bening loses this year the Oscar to Natalie Portman,  as most Oscar gurus seem to think, it would be sad but déjà vu.

If Bening, who is 52, grabs the Best Actress Oscar, she will become one of the older Academy winners, joining the ranks of Shirley MacLaine and Geraldine Page, both of whom had been nominated multiple times before winning.