Being Bening

Annette Bening is a picture of poise and reserve. She's warm, yes, but not one to use an interview as therapy. She'll chat forever about the brilliance of Maggie Smith or Frances McDormand, ask about the state of the media or discuss a novel, but questions about, say, why she's drawn to certain characters elicit polite deflections. So it's a shock when Ryan Murphy, the director of "Running With Scissors," announces, "Annette is really dishy, which nobody knows. She's hilarious. When I met with her to discuss this movie, one of the first things she said to me was 'The most important thing we can do on this movie is get the wigs right. If the wigs are wrong, we're f---ed '."

They got the wigs right, and Bening took care of the rest. She has been nominated for three Oscars--for best supporting actress in "The Grifters," and for best actress in "American Beauty" and "Being Julia." This year she's almost certain to get another shot at the gold for her performance as a narcissistic, mentally ill mother in "Scissors," based on Augusten Burroughs's best-selling memoir. Her character, Deirdre, gives up teenage Augusten (Joseph Cross) for adoption to her quack psychiatrist (Brian Cox), while she dreams of becoming the next Anne Sexton. The boy, grappling with abandonment, ends up being seduced by one of the shrink's adult patients (Joseph Fiennes), while Deirdre slips deeper into psychosis.

At turns hilarious, vicious, gorgeous, hideous, imperious and pathetic--often in a single scene--Deirdre is the kind of flashy role that allows an actress to chew serious scenery, but Bening doesn't do it for a second. "It's all in the eyes," Burroughs says from his office in Amherst, Mass. "So often in movies, when someone is playing 'crazy' there's a lot of screaming and sobbing and falling on the floor. Think Barbra Streisand in the movie 'Nuts.' But that's not what it looks like. You look at a person who's psychotic, and her eyes are not the same. It's almost like a pupil dilation or some kind of hyperawareness. That's what Annette captures. That's the genius of her performance."

What may be most remarkable is that her performance made it to the screen in the first place. For years now, the received wisdom in Hollywood has been that there are no great parts for women--and that actresses over 40 might as well put r.i.p. on their résumés. It's a story that gets trotted out almost every year at this time, thanks to the dearth of potential best-actress nominees. A woman older than 39 hasn't won the Oscar in that category for more than a decade. But this year, Bening, at 48, may find herself one of the youngest in the group. Through some realignment of the planets, the best-actress race is shaping up to be a Battle of the Titans, with Bening joining Meryl Streep, 57, for "The Devil Wears Prada"; Helen Mirren, 61, for "The Queen," and possibly Judi Dench, 71, for "Notes on a Scandal."

How did this happen? "In this youth-oriented climate, maybe [maturity] becomes more special, in a way," Bening says. "It's like reminding people, 'See?' And maybe, instead of idealizing or stereotyping women, we're getting a bit better at telling the truth about what it's like to be a woman, how it's complicated and absurd and grandiose and funny and petty and grand." Even if this year's Oscar race turns out to be an anomaly, it's a thrill to watch Bening and her elders take center stage. "With most actors you get the feeling that they're blown around by the wind a bit, like they're just trying to survive," says Sam Mendes, who directed "American Beauty." "Annette knows who she is, she knows the roles that attract her--and the rest of it? Frankly, she'd rather stay home with the kids."

Bening has three daughters and a son, ages 14 to 6, with Warren Beatty. She and Beatty met making "Bugsy," and married soon afterward. "We were a scandal for about two minutes," she says, lightly. "We're an old married couple now." Motherhood has kept her screen appearances to an average of one every two years. "Even though there are times when that's frustrating, it's a controlling factor in a good way," she says. "I can't do things casually, so I can be an incredible taskmaster with myself." Ask Bening what kind of mother she is, and you sense immediately that you've veered too close to therapy again. She declines to roll around in maternal guilt. "Oh, I'm imperfect, like we all are," she says. "I think I'm good enough. I'm incredibly involved, that's for sure. But like any creative work, I'm sort of just stumbling around, figuring it out as we go."

On screen, at least, she's been pitch perfect. Bening has consistently elevated women who would have been easy to dislike--the image-obsessed mother in "Beauty," the self-absorbed actress in "Julia"--and makes them, if not sympathetic, then at least understood. Time and again, she emphasizes the quiet pain underneath all the histrionics. "You walk away from 'Running With Scissors' feeling enormous empathy for her, and that's Annette's doing," Burroughs says. "This movie could have been a disaster. It could have been 'Mommie Dearest.' But when you watch Annette, you can't help but fall a little in love with her." And a good wig never hurts.