Reel Dad reflects on Annette Bening’s best performances
“Hope Gap” reminds us - as if that is necessary - how magical Annette Bening can be on screen. No matter the role, this wondrous lady makes each portrayal a compelling examination of a character’s behavior and reasoning. Here are, from the past 30 or so years, my seven favorite performances she has brought to the screen.
And, by the way, Oscar, why do you keep ignoring her?
The Grifters (1990)
Following a collection of strong performances on stage, Bening burst onto the screen in “Valmont” in 1989 followed, a year later, by what should have been her Oscar-winning portrayal as a manipulative moll in this study of greed. Bening is deceptively subtle in crafting his role, first teasing us with her engaging personality while hiding the layers of deceit thriving below the surface. It’s a classic study of world-class acting.
A year later, in another Oscar-worthy turn, Bening stands up to Warren Beatty in this captivating look at a gangster’s life. From their first moments on screen - meeting on a movie soundstage - the two characters smolder with chemistry, conveying a range of emotions without needing any dialogue. And it made no sense for the Academy to overlook Bening’s performance when the movie garnered 10 nominations including one for Best Picture.
The American President (1995)
Oscar could have smiled on Bening’s work in this delightful comedy. She reaches beyond the words on the page to make us believe in the agenda-free romance that emerges when a lobbyist charms the President of the United States. While Bening’s personality can naturally engage, she is too savvy an actress to rely on her charm to make a character work. As she demonstrates with such ease, the craft drives the performance.
American Beauty (1999)
One of Oscar’s unsolved mysteries is how the Academy overlooked Bening for this riveting portrayal of a woman pushed to the brink by a selfish husband and daughter. This winner of the Best Picture award takes an unflinching look at the results of excess in people’s lives. Within a landscape of exaggerated portrayals, Bening emerges as the most authentic character in the collection, a woman who simply wants to know why she wakes up every day.
The Kids Are Alright (2010)
A captivating Bening brings a seasoned edge to this unusual love story about two women and the children they share. Once again, Oscar ignored a breathtaking performance from a consummate actress; Bening breaks our hearts as a woman who loves her children so deeply yet finds it challenging to express how she feels. Without relying on dialogue to shape her character, she says it all through her eyes.
20th Century Women (2016)
As an ultimate earth mother, Bening brings her natural warmth to the role of a woman who wants to protect but not smother, encourage without being manipulative. While this lovely ensemble piece from writer/director Mike Mills may offer more a series of vignettes than a strong narrative, the texture gives Bening yet another chance to command the screen with her engaging sense of a character’s soul. And, of course, Oscar missed this one, too.
The Report (2019)
It seemed, for a short time last year, that Bening might get another shot at Oscar with her fascinating interpretation of Senator Dianne Feinstein in this brave look at the political ins and outs of today’s Washington. But the film got lost in the fall festival circuit and never grabbed the attention it deserved. The performance shows again what a chameleon can be as she submerges her natural warmth to authentically portray a character.