Annette Bening On Disco Dancing, Loving Greta Gerwig And Warren Beatty's Oscar Flub

In her new movie "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool," Bening plays Old Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame.
Annette Bening in "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool."
Annette Bening in "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool."

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 mother whose marriage was threatened by an interloper (“The Kids Are All Right”) and a late-’70s Californian struggling to grasp the changing times (“20th 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 almost British. With that accent and corresponding accoutrements, Bening is, once again, a marvel. 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 sexual misconduct firestorm, and one key similarity between “Film Stars” and last year’s “20th Century Women.” 

My new favorite beat is Annette Bening dancing in movies set in 1979. In “20th 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 “20th 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 neighbor, 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 see 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.

Annette Bening in "20th Century Women."
Annette Bening in "20th Century Women."

Before we say more about that, I want to know about the dancing. In both movies, those scenes are electric. Does the choreography, so to speak, unfold organically?

It is so fun. A lot of the work in this film was really quite heavy because of the nature of the story, so having this moment to play and have fun ― I could have done it all day long. Jamie was also really making me laugh because he’s kind of like a peacock in the scene. He kind of shows off. He makes me laugh anyway — he’s a really good guy. We got on great. So that was so fun, that day. Yeah, we just improvised. The camera operator moved around us, and it was really a kick. It was good fun.

Gloria Grahame is someone who thirsts for validation, yet it feels like that’s something you never needed to look hard to find. Once “The Grifters” opened in 1991, you never stopped working, aside from a few years when you opted to take a break.

I think that was really a big thing for her, struggling to, first of all, just find work. I mean, once she got past “Oklahoma!” a film she did with [director] Fred Zinnemann, she did a lot of B movies as well. But she did a number of great movies: “Bad and the Beautiful,” that’s when she won her Academy Award. But there’s no question that when it got into the ’60s and the ’70s, she couldn’t find work. She really did care about her craft. When she came back to New York, she was going to Stella Adler acting class. Robert De Niro was in those classes; he saw her. He told me he didn’t know who she was at first, and somebody else was like, “You know who that is? That’s Gloria Grahame.”

Gloria, I think, was really pragmatic. First of all, she just needed to make a living, quite frankly. It was just as simple as that. ... And I don’t think she took herself that seriously. Do you know what I mean? I think she had a good time in life. She embraced the moment, and she didn’t care. If other people made judgments about her personal life, well, that was their business. I mean, really, in a remarkable way, obviously: She married her stepson. She did what she wanted, and God love her for that. I respect that.

She did things that other women wouldn’t do at that time, and because she was so typecast as the bad girl or the femme fatale, in a way I think she accepted that. But in another way, people thought that’s who she was. Well, that wasn’t who she was. That’s who she was playing. But she had stormy relationships, and she was married four different times, with four different kids. She had a very colorful life.

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool."
Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool."

Am I right to assume your Hollywood trajectory was more seamless? It seems like once “The Grifters” hit, you had it made.

I would say I was really lucky because I didn’t start doing movies until I was almost 30. And then I made “The Great Outdoors,” which is this completely goofy comedy. I was so grateful to get a film and to work. I remember we were working on a lake up towards Yosemite, and we were all staying in these little cabins, which I thought was the coolest, best thing in the world. And then we had to go around the lake to start, and we would of course have to get there very early. We would literally leave at 4 in the morning to drive around the lake, and I remember thinking how exciting it was to get up at 4 in the morning.

I did that film, which was totally fun. Then I did this gigantic period drama in Europe for six months, “Valmont,” which is another story I won’t go into.

Was it not as fun?

Super fun! No, I learned everything. I’m so grateful. I made one of my best friends in life, Siân Phillips, who’s this superb actress. Miloš Forman taught me so much. But what happened with that was it also didn’t really have much of a life after we put it out. “Dangerous Liaisons” had come out, and our movie was the second one [based on the French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos]. So I’d done these two movies, and nothing happened. But I’d had an incredible experience being in them and trying to learn about it.

So then “The Grifters” was the first one that was acclaimed, with Academy Award nominations and lots of attention and respect. It was like, “Oh! I see! That’s what it’s like when it’s well-received.” So the worst that can happen is that it’s not well received, and that’s still pretty fucking good.

You still made the movie. You still did the thing.

You still have the process. And I don’t mean to sugarcoat that, but you know what? On a certain level, that is the case as an actor.

I wanted to have babies, right? So I was stopping and having babies, really. I’d made a handful of movies, and then I started having kids. And then I would stop, have my kids, not work. I know with my last one, it was a couple years I didn’t work because I didn’t have time to take a shower, let alone make a film. That was 17 years ago. For me, it was what I wanted to do at the time. And every once in a while, I would think, “Well, I hope there’s still stuff going on for me when I’m ready.” But I didn’t want to miss out on my kids, so I would take time off.

And you know what? It’s such a relief when you get out of the craziness of show business, basically. You just kind of keep things quiet, you sit on the floor, you have your life. For me, that was absolutely key. And then I’ve been able to just keep going when I’ve been ready, and I’ve felt like there have been interesting things out there for me. I’ve been able to only do what I love.

If I didn’t have the kind of career where I could just follow my heart, by the way, I’d do that. I have no problem with that. When I was starting out and auditioning, I would audition for anything. I’m pretty proud of all that.

Annette Bening in "American Beauty."
Annette Bening in "American Beauty."

And yet you’ve been able to make movies that aren’t getting made a lot anymore. “The Kids Are All Right” came out in 2010, when Hollywood studios had officially gone franchise-crazy. Yet you aren’t getting sucked up into the corporate, big-budget machine.

Yeah, there’s a lot of that. You know, sometimes I pass them by, and sometimes I’m not asked, quite frankly. But I’m able to do what I love. I’m not saying the movies are always good, but at least you’re following your heart, and you’re working with other people you really love being around and that you learn from. That’s about as good as it gets.

In thinking about “Film Stars” and actresses who dream of finding work in Hollywood, do you expect a sea change now that so many men in power are being outed for who they truly are? Will it become easier for young women?

Well, this is certainly a tipping point ― I don’t think there’s any question. I think this behavior will still go on, and people will still harass other people and, sadly, assault people. But I think maybe the good part is that all of these people who are coming forward don’t have to live with this kind of secret ― men and women. And we can have a nuanced conversation about this so that we’re able to really distinguish between unwanted touching, come-ons, etc. We have to distinguish between that and harassment and assault. These are different things, and we can talk about them in a nuanced way.

But for the people who’ve been traumatized, if this gives them some relief, I think it’s fantastic. And also because hopefully it started in show business, what looks like is happening is that it’s percolating out into the workplace. Those are the people that I’m worried about the most: the woman who’s working at the McDonald’s who’s a single mom who can’t quit whose boss is harassing her.

Who has no mass media platform.

Who has no platform and no leverage. So that’s what we really hope it percolates into: the broader community.

Have you witnessed power structures that support environments that let such harassment happen?

Sure. It’s in your business, it’s in my business. It’s in all businesses, quite frankly.

Do you think Hollywood is equipped for the changes necessary to ensure moral corruption is targeted? In other words, can women finally achieve parity? Just yesterday, there was a lot of talk about the Golden Globes not nominating a female director, especially when your “20th Century Women” co-star Greta Gerwig was a front-runner for “Lady Bird.”

Well, I hope so. I guess it’s very much going to be back and forth. I was really surprised that she wasn’t nominated. I was really surprised that Patty Jenkins wasn’t nominated [for “Wonder Woman”] — that’s another one where I thought, “Wow, that’s shocking.” I know there’s a lot of good work being done, so it’s tricky. It’s as though there’s a glut. You know because you’re watching a billion movies. ...

But I do think, overall, more women are directing, more women are producing, there are more women’s roles. There’s also just more work because of the screen — it’s becoming one screen. There’s so much good television. There’s a lot of good stuff. I can’t keep up. Can you? I can’t keep up with the amount of stuff that I really want to see on television and in the movies. There’s so much good stuff, so I do think it is changing. I think the culture is changing, but then we also have these weird moments like what you just raised. I can’t explain that.

Have you seen “Lady Bird”?

Oh, I love it. It’s superb. Absolutely. Greta was preparing that film when we were working on “20th Century Women.” She’s just so impressive. I love what she did in “20th Century Women.” I loved watching her. I found, in watching her, that I really feel like I learned something from her. And I think she was doing a different kind of acting work than I’d ever seen her do. And then she’d mention, “Oh yeah, I’m making this movie.” And I’m thinking, “God, you’re writing and directing a film?” I mean, she’s amazing.

Your casting as Kathleen Blanco in the Hurricane Katrina edition of “American Crime Story” is inspired. Where does that project stand, now that it’s been postponed? 

Thank you, I was also very excited. To prepare for it, I read “Five Days at Memorial.” It’s a genius book by Sheri Fink that basically goes into Memorial hospital [in New Orleans] and uses that as a microcosm for all of Katrina. It’s disturbing, clearly, but it is so minute-by-minute fact-based, and it’s an incredible read. And then there’s another book, which is a general overview, called “The Great Deluge” [by Douglas Brinkley], which basically takes you through the entire Katrina. It’s also a great read.

So what ended up happening, from what I understand, is that, as [TV producer] Ryan Murphy approached trying to do Katrina and really trying to do it right, he found that he didn’t feel right about the way in which he originally was going to approach it. So he said, “Wait a minute.” He wanted to hit the pause button because, you know, he does so many things. He wanted to be able to stop and go back, and I think he’s just going to focus on “Five Days at Memorial,” from what I understand. I think I’ve got that right. Forgive me if I don’t. So I’m not in that. That’s OK. I mean, I’m disappointed, but I get it, totally. He needs to get the story of Katrina right. We need to be told that story as a country because there was so much suffering and death because of poverty and racism. And that’s the real ugly story behind Katrina that needs to be told. I know he wants to do that.

Finally, I have to ask you about the Page Six report from earlier this year, when you called Warren Beatty and told him to come home after the “Moonlight” Best Picture fiasco at the Oscars.

Oh! I was at home with my daughter watching the show. We looked at each other, and it was like, “Is this really happening? Is this real?” I thought he handled himself with such grace in such a difficult situation.

I was on the board at the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] for many years, so I know the protocol. I know how those things go. I’ve also presented many times, and it’s very clear what they do. They hand you the envelope. They usually show it to you in the dark. They usually shine a flashlight on it, and it says on the outside what it is. So how that didn’t happen, I don’t know.

They feel very badly about it at Pricewaterhouse, and they went into this whole gigantic explanation to the academy as to why it had happened. But the bottom line is my husband sort of saved the day, and I was proud of him. But then it was over and I was like, yes, “Come home. Come home!”

I’m sure you had a lot to discuss.

We did. We did.