Oh, Oh, Annette! Why I Get a Bang Out of Bening

Seeing Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right—seeing her face register a spectrum of feeling as if it were

Seeing Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right—seeing her face register a spectrum of feeling as if it were the evening news—I was more than ever convinced that she is one of the greatest ever American film actors. And it’s all in that magnificent face, which is arguably the face of our moment.

Every great Hollywood face has a distinguished genealogy. In Ms. Bening’s, you find a strong echo of Ida Lupino’s determined toughness and the faintest trace of Jean Seberg’s waifish androgyny. But Ms. Bening has her unique quality: an unforgettable indistinctness. What is special about Ms. Bening’s face is that it is a series of almosts. The nose is too strong to be demure, and too delicate to be large; the chin stops just short of being either rounded or dramatic; the mouth could be full or thin, depending on her mood or yours.

Crazy, mobile, ever-shifting American truth now resides in Ms. Bening’s 52-year-old face.

Part of the genius of director Lisa Cholodenko in this small masterpiece is to capture an elusive butchness in her star. Behind Ms. Bening’s presentation of heterosexual beauty is a robust laughter at men and at the comedy of sex with men. Ms. Bening’s short hair, with its meticulous dishevelment, with its punkish and puckish tufts, seems to be hinting at another identity altogether, the way V.S. Naipaul’s African jungle is always about to reclaim civilization, or the way an expensive perfume so subtly hints at a primal scent. The crux of Ms. Bening’s artistry is the way she expresses a startling simultaneity of antithetical qualities. In what is perhaps Ms. Bening’s most playfully autobiographical role, Virginia Hill, Bugsy Siegel’s lover-Bugsy played by Ms. Bening’s real-life husband, Warren “12,775” Beatty-she shocks you by revealing the sudden vulnerability and fear underneath the callous seductress, and then shocks you again with the revelation of ruthless amorality underneath the vulnerability and fear.

Of course Ms. Bening, like all great American actors, is telling us what we think we know about her real-life story as she is performing her character. Any wife of Warren Beatty who has had four children with him has got to have reached a level of irony about custom and conventional appearances that is somewhere at the elevation of the Hubble Space Telescope. And since we are all, on the social and the personal level, moving through what seems like some daily realignment of everything we thought we knew to be steady and true, Ms. Bening’s distillation of her experience into her characters’ faces has a universal quality.

There is one exemplary moment in Ms. Bening’s film career that captures this environment of blurry, running certitudes. It occurs at the end of Mrs. Harris, another one of those tiny gemlike films with prismatic themes and characters that Ms. Bening is drawn to. She plays Jean Harris, the prim, neurotic, dreamy, obsessive headmistress of an exclusive private school who has fallen in love with the egomaniacal Herman “Hy” Tarnower-performed to perfection by Ben Kingsley-a Westchester cardiologist who wrote the best-selling Scarsdale Diet book. For years, they have been torturing each other, with Jean getting the worst of it, as the Beatty-like Herman betrays her again and again. Having just discovered yet another betrayal, Jean confronts Herman on a stormy night in his bedroom. They argue, she pulls a handgun from her purse and shoots him four times. As he lies dying on his bed, Jean tries to call for help, but she can’t get through. “Hy,” she says, “it’s broken. I think it’s gone dead.”  “You’re probably right,” he mutters. Sitting on the edge of the other twin bed, resting her chin in her hand as if bored by the same old quarrel between them, she replies, almost in exasperation, “That’s the only civil thing you’ve said to me tonight.” 

Ms. Bening delivers the line with such exquisite, balletic poise that it is impossible to describe using a single quality. Just when you think it might be deadpan, you realize that it possesses an inflection of meaning, but you cannot fathom just what that meaning might be. It is a sincere reproach, which makes it absurd and perhaps insane, given the fact that she has just fatally wounded him; it has a hint of self-conscious malice; it has an import of irritation as if she, the murderer, has been genuinely put out by having to drive five hours in the rain to shoot her lover only to encounter rudeness and a lack of generosity. Underneath all that, there is a kind of cosmic laughter emanating from the actress herself, as if she had experienced in her very bones the fact that all the world is a stage.

Or in a different emotional key entirely, watch the expression on Ms. Bening’s face as the regretful, embittered, broken, surviving character in Mother and Child witnesses her elderly mother suddenly die in her hospital bed. The mixture of surprise and disbelief and pain slowly expanding through fascination into horror strikes me as utterly contemporary, precisely the response of we who, cushioned by technological wonder, are possibly more removed from the reality of death than any previous civilization, until it suddenly arrives.

Crazy, mobile, ever-shifting American truth now resides in Ms. Bening’s 52-year-old face. Her age is significant, just as the fact that she seems not to have done any cover-up work on her face is significant. The Kids Are All Right is like a defiant gesture to an industry that discards actresses at the age of 40, as well as to a culture that has every woman, young and old, walking around tormented and stuck inside the burqa of a commercialized ideal of feminine beauty. To top it all off, Ms. Bening’s postmodern simultaneity reaches the pitch of perfection in this film: She is the masculine-feminine harmony that, in Aristophanes’ old parable, got tragically split into the two sexes. Yet her character is essentially, timelessly conservative. She is a lesbian Father Knows Best.

Along with the superb Julianne Moore’s unabashedly ripening face, Ms. Bening’s deepening lines and the loosening skin on her neck and her life-heavy eyes tinted with wisdom and humor compose a kind of quiet militancy. The Russians once had Anna Akhmatova, the symbol of strong, enduring Russian women who kept their families and society together as their men were executed or disappeared into the gulag. We have Annette Bening. If she can flip the bird to shallow aesthetics, flaunt her beauty through her aging and survive even Warren Beatty, then America has a future in its decline.

editorial@observer.com Oh, Oh, Annette! Why I Get a Bang Out of Bening