Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Annette Bening: A Woman Among Women
Expanded Edition of 8-12-08 Chicago Tribune Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Bening at The Women premiere, on-screen with co-star Meg Ryan, out with husband Warren Beatty
Nearly 60 years after director George Cukor’s classic comedy The Women featuring an all female cast appeared in theatres, a new
version, written and directed by “Murphy Brown” creator Diane English opens today. Annette Bening, two time Academy award
nominee (for American Beauty and Being Julia), wife of Warren Beatty and mother of their four children, returns to the screen after a
two year hiatus to play Sylvie, a magazine editor and best friend of Meg Ryan as Mary Haines, the title character, whose husband
Stephen is involved in what becomes a high profile affair with Eva Mendes as Crystal Allen, the “spritzer girl” at Saks. Bening, who
was last seen as the depressive mother from hell in Running with Scissors enjoyed the chance to play a comedic role with a cadre of
veteran actresses that included Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cloris Leachman, and Candice Bergen. Bening recently chatted
with freelance writer Richard Knight, Jr.
KATM: Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford – those were some pretty tall high heels to fill (AB laughs). What was it
about Diane English’s script that made you sign on? It’s got to be a little daunting to remake a classic.
AB: You know what? I thought it was so different. The original play and movie are so mean. It’s sort of a celebration of people
being horrible to each other and I know that it’s funny and I the original movie is a cartoon kind of. So I would not have wanted to
remake it if it was like that, quite frankly. I’ve always found it kind of misogynistic. I liked this because I thought it was
contemporary and I just laughed at it. I thought it was entertaining and I could imagine that if it was done well that women and
other people – men (laughs) – would just enjoy it. That it would be a good laugh and that there was something very contemporary
about it. I liked the writing.
KATM: In some ways the most painful breakup in the movie is not the one between Mary and Stephen, it’s between Sylvie and Mary,
the rift in their friendship.
AB: Yes, yes.
KATM: This was very interesting to see the material shaped in that direction. Have you had a similar experience in your own life,
AB: You know what? I haven’t, I’ve had friendships that ended but not nearly as dramatically. I think it’s a natural thing in life that
some friendships wane. But I haven’t had a terribly dramatic thing like what happens in the movie. But I’ve had certain
circumstances where you’re with someone that you see a lot and then you kind of grow apart. Maybe you move; one moves to a
different city and it’s not quite as tight but I haven’t had anything where somebody’s betrayed me or I’ve betrayed them and then
some horrible rift.
KATM: Your character also has a very strong bond with Mary’s adolescent daughter and boy does she have a whole set of issues –
the movie hints at anorexia and she’s into that juvenile stage with the smoking and you think maybe drinking and drugs are next.
As a mother of three daughters around that age that must have resonated with you?
AB: Yes. We all grew up with sex, drugs and rock-n-roll but it’s a different world now and neither my husband or I grew up in
Hollywood, obviously. We were from a different kind of world. So I try to talk to my kids and they really are…I guess we all feel this
way about our own children…but I don’t know, they have good heads on their shoulders and we talk and try to educate them as much
as possible and keep that line of communication open as much as possible.
KATM: Go ahead, you can say it – they’re perfect (laughs).
AB: They’re not! They’re not and I feel protective of them. I’m always afraid to say anything because I don’t want to idealize them
nor do I want to…it’s hard because basically I want them to be private. They deserve it. They deserve to be private and not really to
be discussed and yet I kind of want to brag about them. (laughs) I’m like most parents but because I’m a public person I have
this extra layer as do they.
KATM: And they’re getting the double whammy because you’re both so famous.
AB: Yes. I mean in a way they’re quite sensible about it all and I respect that and I try to discuss it with them. Just to be able to
talk with them helps a lot whatever the issue is. If you can try to be able to communicate about it, it does help.
KATM: First we’ve had Sex and the City, then Mamma Mia!, now hopefully three times the charm with The Women. I know you’re not
supposed to say “chick flick,” it’s this dirty term for some reason (she’s laughing). I don’t quite understand why that is.
AB: It’s like, “Is that politically incorrect?”
KATM: Yes? According to the New York Times. I don’t understand why. I think it’s a badge of honor but I’m a gay man who loves
any chick flick. So…are those kinds of movies back? Is this a trend that’s here to stay? Are you hopeful because this means more
roles for women?
AB: Well I hope so. This business, like I mentioned a minute ago, is so driven by economics, number one. And then number two,
it’s driven by people’s perceptions of what could be economically successful. That’s the harder one because sometimes in the minds
of people who are greenlighting movies, people think a certain movie would or would not be successful based on whether a woman
are in it. I’m sure that’s true and I think that that was true with this picture. I think part of the reason she (Diane English) had to go
around and had a hard time getting it together – which was kind of surprising to me. I was surprised by that but I guess that’s just
my own naivete. So, I really enjoyed Mamma Mia! I thought it was so much fun and so well done and such a kick and that was
directed by a woman, too, which I thought was fun. Anyway, I hope that people see it and I don’t know. I have to say, I’ve been
around long enough…I mean I want people to see it and I hope they enjoy it. The movie business in general is in a pretty tough
place right now. Just getting pictures made in general that aren’t big box office kind of boffo sort of things…there are just fewer of
them and there are so many people that want to make them. You have to really have heart right now and I think that’s true for a
lot of men, too, quite frankly. Guys that want to make pictures that have more substance or that have a political message or are
about something socially complicated or however you want to put it. Anything that has more of an adult content is just harder than
ever because they’re constantly trying to get that big audience. But the fact is you don’t have to get a gigantic audience to make a
successful movie, you just want to get a nice, healthy one.
KATM: That’s what Ryan Murphy told me when I talked to him about Running With Scissors. He said, “You don’t understand Richard,
no one makes dramas anymore.”
AB: Yes, yes. Yes, he’s really trying.
KATM: Which reminds me, what about Dirty Tricks, the movie about the Watergate ladies that he’s been trying to get made?
AB: Well, I know. I hope he makes it. He’s got so much going on and I know he’s been adapting different things and there have
been a couple of different projects that he’s tried to get off the ground that he’s been unable to and then he’s been successful with
his television show. I think with Ryan it’s just that he’s got such a plethora of ideas and things going on that it’s really a question of
focus. I know he’s doing some other things right now that are very interesting to him so I hope he makes it.
KATM: Will you still play Helen Thomas if he does? Everybody wants me to ask you that.
AB: I’m not sure. You know what, I may not be. The true answer is I don’t really know. We’ll see what happens.
KATM: “The Women” by my count is the second time you’ve been involved in the remake of a classic.
AB: Oh, okay.
KATM: Well, Love Affair being the first.
AB: Oh, right.
KATM: Is there another you’d like to take on?
AB: What an interesting question. No, I can’t think of one. If anything, I’m very skeptical about that idea. This to me made sense
because it was so different and was such a modern retelling of something that was a success but that original movie really is a
scream. I was watching it with my kids and we were all just sort of in shock just at fast they spoke and how Cukor rehearsed.
Theywerealltalkingsofast and it was cutcutcutcut. It was like a cartoon, kind of but fun.
KATM: Well he told Rosalind Russell in the dressing room sequence to stay by Norma Shearer’s ear at all costs. He said, “Stay by
her ear, like a fly buzzing around her, don’t get away from her ear.”
AB: Yes, and you really see her doing that.
KATM: That poor Norma Shearer who can’t escape from her buzzing around her (laughs). I actually have three suggestions for you.
You’d be great in Sorry Wrong Number.
KATM: Summertime, the Hepburn picture.
AB: (tantalized) Oh, right…
KATM: You sort of already did the Crawford movie Possessed (she laughs). Okay, here’s an inevitable question, being married to
Hollywood’s one time legendary lothario. You’ve probably been asked this several times today. What happens should Annette
Bening find herself confronted with Mary Haines’ situation? What happens if Mr. Beatty should happen to step out?
AB: (delighted) No, no one’s asked me that! You know what that has not crossed my mind. You’re actually the first person that’s
asked me that. I have no idea. That’s just not even on my radar screen.
KATM: Okay, good! (laughs). Can you talk about playing scenes with some of those women? There you are with expert laugh
getters like Meg Ryan and Cloris Leachman and Debra Messing? Is it wonderful to work with a female cast?
AB: It’s wonderful to work with them because they’re all such pros. I mean I always feel that. I love people who have got it
together and they’re on time and ready to go. These women are all like that. There’s nobody that doesn’t have themselves
together and Cloris Leachman…I’m such a fan. I mean I remember her from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and of course she was a
big Broadway star when she started. She’s 80-something! She’s amazing and she’s also a real character, let me tell you. She’s like
the biggest character on the set when she comes on she’s a real scream. I really liked working with these people because like I said
we were all in it for the fun and in it to try to make something that was enjoyable and a good, solid comedy. I really liked it and
Meg and I got on very well. We continued to once the movie was made and just the whole process I really enjoyed.
KATM: A lot of times in the movie there are jokes and references to plastic surgery, Botox, this kind of thing. I recently had the
chance to talk to Debra Winger about her book.
AB: Oh yeah.
KATM: It’s a great little, interesting book.
AB: You know what. I have it. I saw it in the bookstore. I didn’t even know about it and I saw it in the bookstore; I picked it up
and it’s very interesting, isn’t it? I haven’t read the whole thing.
KATM: Yes it is. Now I don’t know if you’ve gotten to her piece she does about women in Hollywood and women in general. She
talks about women literally being forced to erase their faces by removing the lines. That phrase has really resonated with me.
There’s also a recent documentary film called America the Beautiful that delves into how women are forced into the whole make-up,
plastic surgery thing. Was this subject ever talked about with other actresses on the set?
AB: Oh sure. I think women in general talk about it; the social pressure. But the bottom line is we’re not forced. The bottom line
is like anything in life: you choose. Definitely there is a kind of cultural pressure and certainly in the business that I’m in, being an
actress or anybody who’s in front of the camera. But you know what? What I notice is there are a lot of women who aren’t in the
business that feel just as pressured. In fact I find that interesting that a lot of the women who are my age who, even if they’re not
professional women or not in my business, yeah there is something to that. I guess because it’s available to people. I don’t know.
I guess there are degrees. I’m not into it; I don’t do that stuff but I can understand why people do and I’m sure that some people
look like…you know, like we don’t know if they’ve had this or that done and they look terrific. I don’t know; I don’t really judge other
people. For me personally? I always imagined myself playing the age that I was. In fact, I don’t want to be younger. I don’t want
to play younger. I don’t feel that. I want to feel and play the age that I am and reflect in the best way that I can given whatever
role I’m doing to reflect where I am and then maybe people could relate to that.
Maybe I’m also lucky because I started on the stage. I wasn’t really focused on how I looked, to a degree you are but not to the
same degree as being in a close up on a big movie screen. It’s just such a different orientation. If anything, I had to get used to
seeing myself and I still do. It’s weird because for so long I didn’t think about that. I didn’t think about what I looked like when I
was doing a given thing. I just was doing it. So, I don’t know about the whole aging thing. There are days I look at my face and
say, “Oh my God, I’ve got wrinkles and I’m older” and that happens. It’s not like a big celebration every day, “Oh yeah! I’m older”
(laughs). But on the other hand I would rather adjust to it or try to. Also, my mom who is almost 80 is so beautiful and sparkly and
it would never cross her mind to do something to her face so I don’t know, I guess it’s one of those things you have to do the
adjusting yourself. I guess the sad part is if you feel bad about yourself because you’re aging. I mean, aging is normal and so that’
s the part of it that’s internalized and I do see people doing that and then if it’s internalized then you don’t find a way to kind of
cope with it in an accepting way then all kinds of strange things happen – like people trying to dress younger than they are or feel
that there’s something wrong with being the age they are. That’s just sad.
KATM: Because we’re in a political season and one of your most popular movies is The American President I’m wondering. Michael
Douglas got your vote and your heart in the film and I’m wondering would either Obama or McCain have a chance with the character
you played, Sydney Wade the lobbyist?
AB: (laughs big) That’s right! I know John McCain. We’ve been friendly with the McCain’s over the years and I have enormous
respect for him and I just like him a lot as a person. I don’t agree with his politics but I think he’s an amazing human being and I
have enormous respect for him. I think Senator Obama is inspiring so many people. I was just at the convention and it was really
quite something but I think both of those men are such upright individuals that they would not allow a lobbyist (laughs) like Sydney,
wasn’t her name Sydney?
KATM: Sydney Wade I believe.
AB: Yeah, Sydney Wade. I think they’re both married so they wouldn’t stoop to that level (laughs) and neither of them would need
to, either. They both have these formidable wives who are really something. I find them both attractive, frankly (giggles).
KATM: Interesting things in both men. Now I hate to bring this up but I can’t help myself because it’s the coolest but most terrible
movie trivia of all time which is that you must be the only person in the history of the Oscar to lose to the same person twice.
AB: Ooh! I never thought of that but maybe that’s true.
KATM: Do you just hate Hilary Swank (laughs hard)?!
AB: No, I don’t hate Hilary Swank. No. I think she’s a good actress.
KATM: Is there a role that you want to play that maybe will point in that Oscar direction again?
AB: You know what? No. No. That’s not the way it works and I don’t think of it that way. No, no. I just try to find interesting work,
do what I can, raise my kids, and keep my life as simple as possible. So no, that isn’t in the cards or anything.