Annette Bening is a classy theater actress who came late to movies--she was almost 30 when she took her first lead role in Milos Forman's Valmont. She went on to work for future husband Warren Beatty on Bugsy and Love Affair, and had three Oscar-nominated roles, in Stephen Frears' The Grifters, Sam Mendes' American Beauty and Istvan Szabo's Being Julia before landing a fourth for Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right.
That career longevity--and her popularity as a class act in Hollywood--gives Bening a good shot at beating Natalie Portman for best actress, for playing a cuckolded lesbian parent in The Kids Are All Right (see our exclusive clip below). The Oscars can be a popularity contest, and the warmth in the room at Monday's Academy Luncheon and last week's tribute in Santa Barbara attest to the good will heading Bening's way. While Bening and Portman won Comedy and Drama, respectively, at the Golden Globes, Portman won the SAG Award for her best performance to date in Black Swan, which marks a high degree of difficulty. But Portman was snarky to the Academy lunch press about being asked sartorial questions, and is turning up in too many movies of late. The Oscar is hers to lose. But Bening could steal it.
"I know how fleeting it all is," she told moderator Roger Durling at Santa Barbara, where her Open Range director, Kevin Costner, presented her with the Riviera award that went to Sandra Bullock last year. "Some movies work out and sometimes they don't. When something comes together, the way [The Kids Are All Right] has, it's a great celebration."
Most Oscars come because there is a money scene that begs for recognition. Bening swiftly saw that the dinner sequence when she realizes her partner (Julianne Moore) has cheated on her could be key, "if we got the rest of the movie right," she said. "I remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach." She praised Cholodenko for keeping things "very simple. Lisa is so quiet with the camera. When the camera comes in [for a close-up] it's such a luxury. You can go inside somebody. A close-up is a joy. You do feel very exposed."
While she loved the dense, rich dialogue in Bugsy and Aaron Sorkin's American President, she has learned that film, as opposed to her first love, theater, is less about parsing the text and more about the visuals. "I love the athleticism of theater," she said. She has played Medea and Hedda Gabler on the stage of late. In film, "less is more." Silence is golden. "Great movie directors don't say a lot. They don't have to pull it out of you. They create an atmosphere where something feels organic." The practicalities of filmmaking dictate that "you have to learn to be ready when they are ready."
Clearly Bening is not worrying about how she looks in these films. She displays a lack of vanity in those close-ups. She has often played characters sans make-up and at age 52, has not resorted to any cosmetic surgery. "I never thought about what I looked like when I was acting. It's liberating to say, 'I'm not going to worry about it.'" She puts herself the hands of the director, character, story. "You are the character's advocate, their ally. You don't have to judge them, just get behind their point-of-view and empathize. All of us aren't always at our best. We sometimes have a hard time, a problem."
Bening thought less about the fact that The Kids Are All Right was about two lesbians than the story of keeping a family together, which "felt organic," she said. "I hope the movie opens hearts and minds." (Here's my earlier flip cam interview with Bening.)