NEW YORK, Jan 11 ― The new film 20th Century Women begins in 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, where Dorothea, a free-spirited mother played by Annette Bening, has just watched her Ford Galaxie burst into flames. She hates to see her beloved clunker burn, but born in 1924, she has survived worse. So she thanks the firefighters and invites them over to the house, mortifying her teenage son, who complains, “You know, when the firemen come, people don’t usually invite them over for dinner.”
Dorothea, unconcerned by what other people do or don’t do, simply says: “Yeah? Why not?”
A few scenes later, when a school official says her son can’t just stay home, she asks: “Why not? Why can’t he skip school? If he has a legitimate need to be away?”
It may be impossible to draw a single thread through every performance to neatly cinch together a great actress’ legacy. But if one thing connects Bening’s many onscreen women, it is the mischievous confidence she brings to that simple, irreverent question, “Why not?”
She broke through in 1990 with her Academy Award-nominated turn in The Grifters as a sexy, unapologetic con artist who figured: Why not use what Mama gave her? In Bugsy, her brassy dame wondered: Why not double-cross a mobster? In The American President, her spitfire lobbyist asked: Why not fall in love and spar with the most powerful man in the world? In American Beauty, Being Julia and Mrs. Harris, Bening’s women ultimately concluded: Why not fight to be free, even if it means finally owning up to an affair, destroying a young rival onstage or killing your beloved?
“I’m always trying to get out of clichés of portraits of women,” Bening said over kale and eggs on a December morning at the Bowery Hotel in New York, adding that she is uninterested in “idealising women” because “that’s so boring.”
Like Julianne Moore, her co-star in The Kids Are All Right, Bening has both restlessly pursued idiosyncratic parts and complicated otherwise conventional roles with unpredictable, layered performances. From The Grifters to 20th Century Women, Bening’s women typically cannot be bound by the roles society expects them to play, just as Bening, 58, has outgrown the conventional roles of the screen actress: whether the sexy ingénue, the romantic lead, the classy prestige star or, in recent years, the movie mother. The same can be said for her role as a celebrity spouse.
“People think what they think,” Bening said with her husky voice. She was a study in contrasts, dressed in a soft cream-coloured cashmere sweater and a rugged brown leather biker jacket, eyes oscillating between twinkly winks and amused scowls. “I know what’s true for me.”
To read through Bening’s 25 years of interviews is to hear her consistently and artfully deflect questions about her life with her husband, Warren Beatty (who recently directed her in Rules Don’t Apply) and insistently make the same point that, in her life and art, she is most interested in complex women, rived with contradictions — or, as she described such women, “human beings.”
Dorothea is based on a real human being, Jan Mills, the mother of the writer-director Mike Mills (much as the filmmaker’s 2010 film Beginners was inspired by his father, Paul, who came out after she died). Mills wanted to be a pilot for the military but missed her chance when World War II ended. Instead, she became the first female draftswoman in her architecture firm and raised three kids in Santa Barbara. Mills likes to call her a mix of “Amelia Earhart and Humphrey Bogart — but more Humphrey Bogart,” he said in a telephone interview.
In the film, the fictional Dorothea is a widow who rents out rooms in her ramshackle home. Struggling to understand her son and worried that he needs more guidance, she boldly asks two young women, her son’s teenage crush (Elle Fanning) and her punk-loving, pink-haired boarder (Greta Gerwig), to teach him how to be a good man — because, well, why not?
The question of how much we ever know anyone, even the ones we love the most, is the melancholy core of her new film, and it has provoked some introspection.
“I’m very close with my kids and my parents, but there’s still that essential unknowingness, and maybe that’s about how we’re all alone,” she said.
As she has watched her children grow up — they are 16, 19, 22 and 24 — she has been struck both by how much the culture has changed and how much it has retrenched. “I like being older — I don’t feel the same pressures,” she said, but with her two daughters she is aware of the pressure to live up to all the old roles expected of women and the new ones, too. “You have to be hot — that’s the No. 1 thing,” she said, “a certain face, certain breasts, certain body. You have to be desirable from the male point of view. Then of course you have to go to college, and of course you have to have a really good job that looks right. And then on top of that, of course you’re going to get married and have children and manage it all, and you’re also going to be really happy and fulfilled because if you just had kids, that wouldn’t be enough, and if you just work.”
Nearly running out of breath as she trailed off, Bening sighed. “How does that reflect on where we are with feminism, the women’s movement, and freedom for women?” she asked. “How does that coexist with these advances in women’s abilities to make their own choices? The objective is to be free, to be able to do what you want to do, and not be bound by cultural barriers that are unfair!”
Over the past few years, Bening’s transgender son, Stephen Ira, has spoken about transgender rights for organisations like GLAAD. “He’s more articulate than I am. All of our kids are teaching me so much right now,” Bening said.
But she worries that President-elect Donald Trump wants to roll back protections for transgender children put in place under the Obama administration. “Speaking as a mom, I felt a chill down my spine,” she said referring to recent political broadcasts.
She said she had sensed a “new urgency” in the arts world and was gratified to bump into the filmmakers behind Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, a tender coming-of-age drama, on the awards circuit. “I feel good that a lot of the movies this year point to these issues: homophobia, poverty, xenophobia, sexism,” she said, adding that Moonlight put viewers “right inside someone’s heart. God that makes me feel really good about what movies can do, especially right now.”
Despite the view of 20th Century Women that everyone is unknowable, Bening said she still had the same aim with every role: “I’m trying to get out what’s inside in a true way.” ― The New York Times