Unlike writers and directors, actors don’t often have the privilege of designing their careers. They take the best roles that come to them, and somewhere along the way, we extrapolate narratives about their cultural significance.
Annette Bening’s coalesced sometime around “American Beauty, ” when it became clear that she was meant to portray go-getters whose tough facades hide vulnerable interiors. Before that 1999 drama about upper-middle-class suburbia, she was a tenacious ingenue wrapped up with the mob( “Bugsy”) and a lobbyist dating the world’s most powerful man( “The American President” ); after it, she was a theater star filling the voids of middle age( “Being Julia” ), a lesbian mom whose marriage was threatened by an interloper( “The Kids Are All Right”) and a late-’7 0s Californian struggling to comprehend the changing times( “2 0th Century Women” ).
Bening’s new movie, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, ” which opens in limited release this weekend, fits in nicely. She plays Gloria Grahame, the onetime luminary whose desire to keep working clashed with Hollywood’s obsessive focus on youthfulness. After years of success, the industry lost interest in Grahame; she spent her waning days sick and struggling to find parts.
“Film Stars” is based on a 1986 book of the same name, written by Grahame’s much younger lover, British actor Peter Turner, portrayed in the movie by Jamie Bell.
Bening adopts the wispy elocution of 20th-century actresses taught to speak with a posh affect that sounds virtually British. With that accent and corresponding accoutrements, Bening is, once again, a wonder. In her hands, Gloria is both fragile and steely.
Earlier this month, I sat down with Bening in New York, where we discussed her husband Warren Beatty’s February Oscar flub, the state of Hollywood amid the current sex misconduct firestorm, and one key similarity between “Film Stars” and last year’s “2 0th Century Women.”
My new favorite beat is Annette Bening dancing in movies set in 1979. In “2 0th Century Women, ” it’s “The Big Country” by Talking Heads. In “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, ” it’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by Taste of Honey.
In “2 0th Century, ” it was all about how Dorothea couldn’t really get into the groove. But she was trying to figure out, “What is the heartbeat and the meaning behind punk? ” So there’s that. And the disco, with Jamie Bell playing Peter, is just about trying to check out this new neighbour, and having a little disco to get the vibe and figure out what’s happening between us.
Jamie told me that he actually went online and looked at “Saturday Night Fever” to ensure what John Travolta was doing. I, however, lived at that time, so I was like, I remember coming to visit the Odyssey in New York. The Odyssey was one of the great disco clubs. It was a big club with huge risers. Everyone is dancing together, and I remember — because I was visiting from California, and I was still like, “Wow, New York! ” — there was a guy in there naked. For sure I remember that. Just wildly having a great time, full-on.
Like a go-go dancer? Was he employed by the club?
No, I think he was just a wild man who was very happy to dance and try to rub up against people. What can I tell you?
We’ve heard a lot about rubbing up against people lately.
We certainly have. It’s the theme.