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The Aura of Annette

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer. Her last story for the magazine was a profile of Kevin Costner

Oh, God! I wish I could show it to you,” Annette Bening says, her lush chuckle penetrating the restaurant din. The item in question is a pamphlet illustrating the marvels of an electric breast pump. The target audience: nursing mothers determined to have it all.

“There’s this hilarious picture of a woman in a suit,” she begins. “Her shirt is open. A tube hangs down from each side. You don’t even have to hold these things--apparently they attach themselves. So she’s sitting, hooked up to this machine--holding a Filofax and pen.”

Bening never figured out how to use the contraption. But, as a 40-year-old leading lady with three children under 8, she has learned a few things about coping--and herself. Beneath that composed, levelheaded demeanor, she tells us, is someone who favors chaos over routine. Someone who feels as if she’s always playing catch-up. And who, even though it can create problems, remains a dedicated practitioner of the “diving board” approach--walking to the edge and plunging in.

Putting theory into practice, Bening ends a 10-year absence from the stage next month in the Geffen Playhouse’s “Hedda Gabler,” Ibsen’s classic exploration of gender identity that boasts one of the most challenging female roles around. That the title character, a self-destructive, socially repressed victim of her times, has been defined by Bening role models Eva Le Gallienne and Maggie Smith ups the ante even more.

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Bening’s headfirst philosophy was also in evidence in June 1991, just after the “Bugsy” shoot. Hollywood, unaware that the actress and co-star Warren Beatty had become an item, was informed via press release that they were expecting a child. Daughter Kathlyn attended their wedding the next year. The co-venture was seen as a high-wire act, given Beatty’s well-documented passion for the opposite sex and penchant for control.

Ironically, the taming of Beatty, as the pundits characterized it, thrust the Oscar- and Tony-nominated actress into the mass consciousness far more than her considerable talent had. To a public consumed by the people behind the masks, the Bening-Beatty pairing made for a real-life soap. Would Warren take to marriage and fatherhood? Did Annette snare her prince only to lose herself in the end? Would Hollywood’s Golden Couple live happily ever after or, like the other royal family, grease the tabloid machine?

With the whole world watching, Bening waded in deeper. On a roll after starring in “Valmont,” drawing raves for “The Grifters,” and, of course, “Bugsy,” she passed on the leads in “Disclosure,” “Wolf,” and “Sommersby” and forfeited the Catwoman role in “Batman Returns.” If the clock was ticking in this most age-conscious of towns, she never heard it.

“When I was pregnant, I didn’t care about acting,” says Bening. “‘It was a wonderful relief to get away from the celebrity part of it, to kind of disappear. Still, my ‘who cares’ attitude also scared me a bit. Suddenly I’d lost my anchor. I’m losing my passion, I thought.”

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Her agent for part of that stretch took the hiatus in stride. “You could never appeal to Annette on the basis that something was good for her career,” says Ron Meyer, now president of Universal Studios. “She’s not about being a ‘star.’ Like Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and others today, having a family gave her another life and even more sense of herself.”

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Dubbed “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” Bening brings to mind such Golden Age actresses as Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert and Barbara Stanwyck--sassy, ready-for-anything heroines a half-step ahead of their man. As a foil to Denzel Washington’s sober FBI agent Anthony Hubbard in “The Siege” (“You know, Hubb . . . may I call you Hubb?”) or to Beatty’s Bugsy Siegel (“We traveled 5 1/2 hours to get to this . . . canker sore?”), the actress radiates spunk.

Off-camera, though, the comparisons stop. “With the possible exception of Irene Dunne, who was married to a dentist, it’s hard to think of a great female star of the classic era with a happily married family life,” says film historian Richard Schickel. “The choice was much cleaner then: essentially either/or.”

Bening brought Kathlyn and 6-month-old Benjamin on the set of “The American President,” and director Rob Reiner wrapped the action early so he could get home to his young kids. Beatty visited his family, a Hollywood practice his sister finds refreshing, during the Massachusetts shoot of Neil Jordan’s “In Dreams.”

“When I started, there were three people kept off the set: your husband, your child and the writer,” recalls Shirley MacLaine who--"determined not to give up everything for home and children like my mother did"--left daughter Sachi with her then-husband Steve Parker in Japan.

Bening listens intently to these observations on a topic she has visited extensively on her own. A few years ago, she offers, she stumbled onto an interview with Gena Rowlands that left a lasting impression. “She said there were movies she didn’t do so she could be with her children,” Bening recalls. “That you have to make choices. Though I agreed with her then, I don’t frame it that way now. I couldn’t be a person who’s peaceful, good at home, unless I stay engaged.”

In between family and filmmaking, the actress maintains her ties to the theater world. One fall evening while Beatty is away on location, she turns out for “The Inspector General” at the Actors’ Gang Theater, where she’s on the board. Dressed in slacks, silk blouse and a belted trench coat, she stands in line for tickets, surprised to find that seats have been saved.

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After the curtain, she lingers in the lobby with her theater pals. A few well-wishers extend compliments, but here, more than in New York, she’s just a part of the crowd. The actress says that she admires Liv Ullman, whose “internal strength” contradicts the stereotype of the “flighty, neurotic actress.” Staying grounded is obviously a priority.

Bening can pull off glamour (witness her at the 1992 Golden Globes in a clingy Armani gown, barely a week after giving birth). But her favorite labels, including Armani and Demeulemeester, get fewer showings than the mom-about-town uniform of sweater, faded jeans, silver bangles and clogs. In any guise, she appears reed-thin, taller than her 5-foot-7 and comfortable in her skin.

At lunch one day, Bening consumes chowder and a cappuccino along with her veggie salad, a marked change from the ‘80s, when an unhappy love affair triggered a 10-year struggle with “food anxiety.” “There’s a fair amount of eating disorder in my family--body image issues, classic woman’s stuff,” she says. “At 20, I started eating out of loneliness, experiencing inner turmoil. I shouldn’t go out to dinner, I told myself--I need to lose five pounds. Fortunately, I now eat because I’m hungry rather than because I’m empty inside.”

Her strong sense of self is also a late arrival. Until her early 30s, the actress says, she never addressed her needs. As the youngest of four children, she was taught to please. Confrontation, still a rarity for her, was nonexistent then. (“Good girls,” she explains, “don’t piss people off.”) Bening has since gotten good at drawing lines. “Annette can be the warmest person in the world or an ice queen--all in the same hour,” a close associate says.

On the publicity front, the actress is even more circumspect. Instead of airing her dirty laundry in public, she’d rather expose herself in her work. But holding back also works for Bening from a business point of view. “It’s the essence of stardom, " Schickel says. “Bening is good at creating that little bit of mystery which keeps people leaning in.”

Ned Bellamy, an Actors’ Gang founder who dated her when they were in college, puts it this way: “There’s a wonderful aura about Annette--an effortlessness. Though she never seems to hunt for results, she always seems to get them.”

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If only he knew, Bening says, amused. Nothing, in fact, comes easy. Neither she nor her husband are organized. To be honest, they’re a “mess.”

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Taking care of herself keeps her afloat. She walks a lot, and has practiced yoga almost daily for more than 10 years, which pays off in increased concentration and coping ability. Unlike the aerobic “power” variety favored by L.A.'s “young and gorgeous,” she says, her classes in Iyengar Yoga focus on precision and balance. “You use the body as a metaphor for principles you want to practice in life,” she explains. “Trying to master these difficult poses is a mental game: You’re face to face with yourself.”

Sister-in-law MacLaine believes Bening’s theater roots also contribute to her trouper mentality. “The show must go on--it’s about being there when you said you would. She detected that same trait in Warren. Annette knew what a Southern conservative father he’d make. She knew what she wanted in life, and he was a means to that end.”

Bening is loath to discuss her mate. She will say he’s a conscientious if occasionally permissive dad, very involved and caring. Their mutual desire for children brought them together, and the children are still the glue. “I knew in my gut Warren was someone completely responsible,” she says softly. “And he is . . . yes.”

By all accounts, Bening is a hands-on mom who plays chauffeur, bathes her kids herself and reads to them. An inveterate night owl, she wakes up early, before the rest of the household, to cuddle with baby Isabel. Though motherhood has decimated precious reading time, her conversations are laced with references to Carolyn Heilbrun’s “Writing a Woman’s Life” and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. His “good enough” theory of child rearing freed her of the need to be perfect, she says.

Though friends describe her as unflappable, Bening says the 1994 Northridge earthquake shook her. Bening can still hear the screaming alarms, the smell of shattered perfume and liquid from Kathlyn’s vaporizer. Plans to rebuild the Beverly Hills house have yet to get underway, and they live in a sprawling Mediterranean structure nearby.

Fortunately, says Bening, she’s not a “nester.” “While I have taste, I have no appreciation of objects--our walls are practical and bare. Pets, too, have never been my thing. Even as a third-grader I knew I was insufficiently moved when my fox terrier Spotty was run over.”

One key acquisition, though, was the Ford Expedition that now sits in the driveway next to the luxury imports. On New Year’s Eve, the whole family piled in to hit a string of parties--"waiting for meltdown,” in Beatty’s words. Director and close friend Henry Jaglom says, “I can’t think of a single party to which Annette and Warren haven’t brought their children--and without the baby-sitters or governesses you often see.”

Beatty says he changes diapers “more than you’d expect.” Bening begs to differ. “Could I please dispel that myth?” she pleads.

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“Warren is one of the smartest men I’ve ever met, incredibly well-read, politically astute--and a movie star since he was 22. Imagine the pressure of living with that. To make it work, you’d have to be a mindless idiot saying, ‘Yes, Warren’ all day, or someone who keeps up with him on his own terms. Annette, I believe, is the latter."--Michael Ovitz, head of Artists Management Group.

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Beatty and Bening were scheduled to meet in the late 1980s when he was casting “Dick Tracy.” The director, then romantically involved with co-star Madonna, canceled one meeting. Bening, in the waning years of her first marriage, canceled another.

Fast forward to early 1991, a few months before “Bugsy” was to get underway. The plum part of Virginia Hill, the title character’s actress girlfriend, had yet to be filled. Bening and Bugsy/Beatty lunched at Santo Pietro’s and connected immediately. “Warren was looking for someone to play ball with him--someone to come up against,” the actress recalls.

“Annette will hit back across the net as adroitly as anyone you’ll find--male or female,” Beatty observes. “What drew me to her onscreen was her energetic intelligence and refusal to rely on her good looks.”

The actor says this while sitting in a Japanese restaurant a few doors down from the pizzeria where it all began. His responses are bracketed by long pauses suggesting ambivalence, if not discomfort. “Do you want to be part of this story?” I ask. “I don’t want to not be part of it,” he says.

Part of the problem is that he’s reluctant to be “reductive” about someone so important to him, he explains. Another is “boasting” about her and, by implication, stroking himself. He’s also wary of being set up as a role model. In any “creative proposition"--be it movies or children--the outcome is uncertain, he notes. And, finally, one story extolling their marriage is sure to provoke another predicting its demise.

Beatty also declines to expound on the joys of parenting (“so obvious”) or to disparage the solo or childless life. He will say that entering into a partnership with Bening is the best decision he’s ever made.

For her part, Bening says she had so much confidence in the present that she never worried about Beatty’s past. “All romances are a leap of faith,” she says. “You either trust your instincts or you don’t.”

But even Beatty credits her with extraordinary courage--and chutzpah. “I wouldn’t have had the guts to enter into a relationship with me,” he quips.

The couple’s quick succession of children kept Bening away from a host of choice roles, Beatty recalls, but the professional sacrifices triggered “irony” rather than conflict. “Annette’s life isn’t about acting,” he says. “She’s working off her interest, not her principal. What you see is just the tip of the iceberg.” Of course, doing good work, tackling the “great plays"--Ibsen, Shakespeare, Chekhov--means a lot. But if fame and fortune were a big factor, she wouldn’t be doing “Hedda” at a neighborhood theater, he says.

A team of four assistants coordinates the couple’s lives. A cook prepares meals a few times a week. Nannies supervise Kathlyn, 7, Benjamin, 4, and Isabel, 2. Plenty of women do what she does with far less at their disposal, Bening admits. When a job offer arises, Beatty advises Bening to do whatever she wants. “The most important gift you can give your children is the knowledge that it is OK to be happy,” he says. “And they learn by example, not rhetoric.”

With a 21-year age gap, Bening and Beatty are at very different life stages, she acknowledges. But besides being funny and a great “foul-weather friend,” he’s as vital as ever. “Someone seeing ‘Bulworth’ might think it was done by a first-time director,” she says. “Warren has never gotten stuck.”

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Bening, a take-it-as-it-comes sort, actually devised an agenda in the late 1980s: Make a name for herself on the New York stage to gain a toehold in Hollywood. Tina Howe’s “Coastal Disturbances” was up to the task. The role as a flaky photographer brought her a 1987 Tony featured actress nomination and the prestigious Clarence Derwent Award as “Most Promising Actress on the Metropolitan Scene.”

She parlayed the notoriety into a TV pilot, “It Had to Be You,” opposite Tim Matheson. The show eventually went on the air--without her. “That confirmed every insecurity I had,” Bening says. “‘I’m not smart. I’m not sexy. I don’t know how to act in front of a camera.”’

It was a big disappointment for the Kansas-born, San Diego-bred actress whose career path had been relatively charmed. After high school, she had her pick of roles at San Diego’s Mesa College before getting a theater degree at San Francisco State. As a member of the Bay Area’s highly regarded American Conservatory Theater and its even more competitive repertory company, she landed roles ranging from Lady Macbeth to Emily in “Our Town.”

“Annette never took courses that would have permitted her to become a good typist or whatever,” says her mother, Shirley. “She always worked without a net.”

Shirley and Grant Bening, conservative Republicans and devout Episcopalians, had their four children in five years. He worked in insurance and taught Dale Carnegie courses and she became a professional church choir soloist in her 40s. The couple accompanied their youngest to the Oscars. “We’re not June and Ward, but we’re a pretty stable family” that has remained close, Shirley says.

In her mother’s wedding gown, Bening married former ACT actor/instructor Steven White in 1984. They moved to Colorado, where he ran the Denver Center Theatre and she starred in “The Cherry Orchard” and “Pygmalion.” Five years later, the couple came to a crossroads. She flew East, he flew West and they eventually divorced.

As Bening’s marriage spiraled down, her professional life took off. “Valmont,” the 1989 period drama directed by Milos Forman, provided a major showcase and, the next year, up she went. Watching her Oscar-nominated portrayal of a Marilyn Monroesque con woman in “The Grifters,” the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael labeled her “a stunning actress and superb wiggler.” The National Society of Film Critics tossed her a best supporting actress award. And being hoisted--stark naked--over John Cusack’s shoulder tested her “fearlessness,” Bening says.

“Annette can be a Midwestern rose and aggressively controlling at the same time,” observes producer Lynda Obst, who worked with Bening on “The Siege.” “She can be explicitly sexual without being trashy.”

After the arrival of Benjamin, Bening resurfaced in 1994’s “Love Affair,” a critically skewered remake of the classic “An Affair to Remember” in which she starred with Beatty. She rebounded in “The American President” as a feisty environmental lobbyist dating Michael Douglas’ widowed president. The actress has just finished “American Beauty,” a black comedy with Kevin Spacey. And this summer she expects to begin filming “What Planet Are You From?” opposite Garry Shandling. Even when the material is lacking, Bening manages to land on her feet. “I’ve yet to see Annette give a bad performance or even be ‘off,’ ” says Mark Johnson, a “Bugsy” producer.

Portraying a telepathic mother searching for her kidnapped daughter in Neil Jordan’s recent “In Dreams” sapped her emotions; the character goes insane. “Some actors can only play themselves,” says Jordan. “Annette brings a whole palette [beyond] her life experience.”

That experience should benefit “Hedda,” newly adapted by playwright Jon Robin Baitz. It’s not only a subject she has inhabited, but a discipline she knows well. Bening has longed for the “physicality” of theater, something lacking on stop-and-start movie sets. Still, eight performances a week amounts to a marathon, and she brought the play to the Geffen in part because it’s close to home.

Actress-director Eva Le Gallienne once said Ibsen is to women’s roles what Shakespeare is to men’s, Bening notes. And his Hedda is one of the most complicated. “To play her effectively requires a woman of immense strength and presence,” says Gilbert Cates, the Geffen’s producing director.

Hedda represents the first rumblings of the women’s movement, Bening suggests. “Ibsen was very prescient about the Industrial Revolution, the formation of a middle-class and what it did to women,” she explains. “The symbol of success became a woman--especially a fat woman--at home. It’s paradoxical that, despite all our freedoms, the dynamic is still the same. Women are taught to live for others, and that exacts a cost on their souls.”

Bening is certainly nourishing hers. The big question, of course, is whether more maternity leaves are part of her plan. “I don’t know if this is it,” says her mother. “And I don’t have the courage to ask.”

When I ask, Bening smiles and gazes into the distance. Her husband is leaving it up to her, she says, and she’s of two minds.

“I think about it--and so do the kids,” she acknowledges, a ripple of fatigue creeping into her voice. “When I’m having a really bad time, I have stern conversations with myself: ‘Don’t do it--you’ll be insane.’ I won’t say ‘no,’ though, until I can’t have any more. That’s the kind of person I am.”

A risk-taker who walks what she talks. Ibsen would be intrigued.

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Styled by Michael Eisenhower/Cloutier; hair: Cydney Cornell; makeup: Julie Hewitt; Valentino Boutique cashmere sweater and wool trousers; Talluleh for Jennifer Kaufman, L.A., earrings


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