"WAS it powerful?" Annette Bening's Deirdre Burroughs character in "Running With Scissors" asks her young and slightly baffled son after a risibly overdramatized but somehow elegant reading of one of her poems. "Was it emotionally charged?"
For anyone who's watched the best of Bening's performances over her 20-year film career dating to 1988, the answer is almost inevitably yes. Her irresistibly amoral vixen in "The Grifters," going-slowly-mad housewife in "American Beauty," narcissistic London stage star in "Being Julia" and now her portrayal of Deirdre Burroughs' "bipolar, borderline psychotic, bisexual," in the words of director Ryan Murphy, are the highlights of a successful skein of a career. It's a measure of the respect accorded Bening (who was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1991, 2000 and 2005 for, respectively, "Grifters," "American Beauty" and "Julia") that she chalked up a Golden Globe nomination for her "Running With Scissors" performance despite the film's generally anemic reviews.
That poetry-reciting scene -- set in 1972 in the Massachusetts home memorialized, controversially, by author Augusten Burroughs in his bestselling funny-sad 2002 memoir that inspired the namesake film -- marked the one shooting day Bening allowed her four children to visit the set, to see her in what Bening calls "a kind of Jane Fonda shag haircut." One minute she was oozing charm to a child actor and the next she was Deirdre, a character in the grip of mental illness who's impelled into a self-obsessed spiral. As a result, she parts with her unsympathetic husband (Alec Baldwin) and gives the care of her son (Joseph Cross) over to an eccentric psychiatrist (Brian Cox) and his rather bizarre family (Evan Rachel Wood, Gwyneth Paltrow and household lodger Joseph Fiennes).
Bening knew from her first reading of the script the fundamental truth of the role: "Deirdre is a survivor, which is I think a very important aspect of her particular character. She's somebody who always managed to persevere -- and at the cost, obviously, of other people."
The actress would indeed walk a very particular line in her portrayal, as evidenced by the fact that the reading scene has her reciting the real Deirdre Burroughs' poetry -- dramatically letting finished pages drift out of her hand -- while wearing the first of a series of wigs Murphy based on his own troubled mother's hairdos. With much input from author and director, she still needed to put her vision on-screen. "I don't consider myself to have done a documentary. This is my own creation of this woman."
Bening, 48, says she has extensive experience with friends and family who were troubled. Some 10 years ago, she grew fascinated with the work of psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, notably a study mixed with autobiography called "An Unquiet Mind." "She is a professor of psychiatry now at Johns Hopkins and she literally wrote the book on manic depressive illness, and then at a given point in her life, she wrote this memoir."
When Bening read the psychiatrist's account of her own bipolar illness, "I loved it and then I thought, 'Oh wait a minute, is this a movie?' So I contacted Kay. We became friends. I worked on it for a while, thinking maybe it could be." Bening pauses and gives way to a wistful nod and a half-smile: "It didn't end up that way. I kept having babies and I would be in and out of it and I would want to get a writer and then I didn't feel I could get the right writer and anyway, I hope maybe one day it will be made. But that's where my interest started -- so all of that research that I had done many years ago for something else served me very well."
Grounded in the theater
AS Bening talks, she's perched cross-legged (she's a yoga devotee) on an office chair in a nearly bare office with a generous view of sheltering trees and a busy side road to Mulholland Drive, near where she lives with her family. Numerous posters and paintings of her husband, Warren Beatty, in character -- notably a larger-than-lifesize one of him in a hoodie sweatshirt and wings from 1978's "Heaven Can Wait" -- adorn the hallway walls. "This is an office that he's had for many, many years and he edited pictures up here: 'Bulworth,' probably 'Dick Tracy' ... 'Bugsy'?"
A subtle brightening in Bening's features accompanies that last film's utterance -- it was the one on which she and Beatty met, acted and fell in love under director Barry Levinson's then-unwitting gaze. "Right, well it was when we were making the picture. But we kept it very quiet ... Barry didn't even know." She laughs, not the theatrical trill of her Julia character but something lower and more aware.
"She's the funniest, most polite, sweetest. She loves to laugh, but Annette is a tough cookie," says Murphy. "Annette has ferocity to her as a person, and that is about passion for her children, for her work, for her husband, for political things she does and that always comes through when you see her. Make no mistake, Annette's always the smartest person in the room."
Actress Sarah Paulson, who's currently seen on television's "Studio 60" but earlier this year was onstage in Los Angeles in a production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" with Bening, recalls how her initial feeling that the actress would be a "mysterious and intimidating" acting paragon gave way to a more everyday admiration as Bening dived into a series of acting exercises at the insistence of director Sean Mathias: "We were definitely taking our cue from her, and she just plunged right in."
"Scissors" costar Cox, a revered actor in his own right, didn't have the benefit of rehearsing extensively with Bening, but found her spot-on: "There's very little you have to say -- it's all in the doing, and that's what delivers it. She's a consummate actress because she prepares in whatever way she does, but what you don't get is the preparation -- what you get is the doing, and that's what's exciting in working with her. You can always tell actors whose roots are very firmly in the theater: Annette's one, Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren. It's sheer professionalism and mastery of craft."
After studying at San Francisco State, the San Diego-raised Bening served her apprenticeship onstage (mostly with San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, but also with a Denver company) and now wants to teach acting. Thus she comes honestly by quoting "the guy who articulated modern acting, Stanislavski" on how an actor's conscious mind feeds the unconscious instincts needed for a true performance so that for her, research "plants the seeds and hopefully something springs from it. And that's why you're such a neurotic mess when you're an actor, because you hope when they say, 'OK, we're ready for you now,' all that thinking and reading and questions and yada yada can add up to something."
"Annette has played a lot of people that are not necessarily likable," says Murphy. "The reason why I think Annette works in the movie and why I wanted her so badly is that even if you don't like her character, and there are maybe a lot of people who won't, you will understand why that character did what she did.
"Annette has four children and to every day play a mother who had to be so cruel to her child and give her child up -- I know she struggled with it. When she saw the movie for the first time she broke down at the end of it and she just said, 'So many times I wanted to stand up in my seat and say, "Don't give him away." '
"I just felt an incredible responsibility," says Bening, "to try to get the progression and the quixotic nature of that particular illness -- what was so painful to the child -- right. Because one minute you walk in the door, you're fine. The next minute she walks in the door, she's a mess."
Bening sought comfort in the universality at the story's core.
"Whether we've had childhoods like that or not," she says, "I think we all want to transcend what's happened to us and be able to create ourselves as we choose, be the author of our adult selves and not be living out these dramas over and over from when we were kids."
That said, Bening, who's extremely picky about her projects, now has two potential ones that will bring her "what I'm very much in need of, something that takes me in a whole different direction than this world of 'Running With Scissors.' "
One prospect is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance," an indie production to be directed by Bruce Beresford, now temporarily on hold after potential costar Pierce Brosnan dropped out; another is Murphy's still-gestating script for a grande-dame showcase about Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (with Meryl Streep as the choice for Graham), in which she'd play longtime White House press corps doyenne Helen Thomas.
Soon enough, it's easy to wager, Bening will take another plunge into something darker. "I'm pretty game," she says simply.
"I feel like you really have an actor's responsibility -- there's a lot of the psyche that wants to protect itself, just like in life, and so you have to work at it. You have to find ways to really reveal yourself, and that's the craft and that's the skill."