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At the top of her field: why Annette Bening may be Hollywood's grandest dame

Her name may not always be mentioned in the hushed tones as Meryl Streep, but each performance is a polished gem — even when the movies aren’t as good as she is

In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening serves up trademark density to her free-spirited character Dorothea. contributed

contributed

In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening serves up trademark density to her free-spirited character Dorothea. contributed

Meryl Streep has a body of work that speaks for itself and, as she proved last Sunday night from the stage of the Golden Globes, is unafraid to challenge the status quo. But last week while the world formed opinions about Streep as she mouthed off about Donald Trump—She’s an icon! She’s overrated!—I had my eye on someone in the audience.

During Streep’s speech the camera landed on Annette Bening, who, for my money gives the Grand Dame a run for her money acting wise.

This weekend Bening adds 20th Century Women to her already stellar IMDB resume. As free-spirited single mother Dorothea she is, as writer David Edelstein wrote, irreducible. In other words she’s complex, loving yet stand-offish, warm but steely, a hippie who studies the stock market and Bening brings her to vivid life. 

It’s that density of character that sets Bening apart from her peers, Streep included. Warren Beatty, her husband and sometimes director says she has, “talent, beauty, wit, humility and grace," a combination that makes her “the best actress alive."

Biased? Likely, but the evidence is on the screen. Bening works sporadically, sometimes taking years between projects or taking small supporting roles in idiosyncratic independent films like Ruby Sparks, but her characters are always compelling.

She became a star playing femme fatale Myra in 1990’s con artist caper The Grifters. Gleefully embracing her character’s deviousness, she stole the movie away from vets John Cusack and Anjelica Huston. Then came intricate portrayals of everything from a muckraking lobbyist in The American President and neurotic real estate broker in American Beauty to Bugsy’s tough-talking Hollywood starlet and In Dreams’ psychic vigilante. Each performances is a polished gem even when the movies aren’t as good as she is.

The last of her Best Actress Oscar nods came with 2010’s The Kids Are Alright. At the center of story are Nic (Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a long time lesbian couple raising their two kids. It’s a happy family until their daughter contacts her biological father Paul (Mark Ruffalo) via the sperm bank.

A scene near the movie’s end displays the complexity of Bening’s work. Nic and Paul sing a Joni Mitchell song at a dinner party. Their wild act is joyful, ridiculous and poignant simultaneously and is a perfect microcosm of Bening’s performance. Bening is unpredictable, sometimes funny, sometimes not, just like real life. It’s her well-drawn character that keeps the basic story afloat with its lived-in, realistic feel.

Less known is Bening’s fine work in The Face of Love, a 2014 film about a widow obsessed with a man who looks exactly like her late husband Tom. Trouble is, she never tells him about his resemblance raising the question, Is she in love with Tom or a memory?

Another question: Is she a selfish conniver, a grief stricken widow or one brick short of a load? The movie allows for interpretation, but regardless of your take, Bening’s performance is so raw and vulnerable it’s difficult to completely condemn her behaviour.

Bening’s name may not always be mentioned in the hushed tones as Streep, but I suspect she doesn’t care for the accolades as much as shattering the clichés of how women are portrayed on film. On that score she is at the top of her field.

Richard Crouse's weekend ratings:

Patriots Day: 4 STARS
Paterson: 4 STARS
20th Century Women: 4 STARS
Live By Night: 3 STARS
Monster Trucks: 0 STARS
Bugs: 2 STARS

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