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Honing her edge

In her latest film, 'Running With Scissors,' Annette Bening diversifies with a role on the dark side.

December 31, 2006|Fred Schruers | Special to The Times

"WAS it powerful?" Annette Bening's Deirdre Burroughs character in "Running With Scissors" asks her young and slightly baffled son after a risibly overdramatized but somehow elegant reading of one of her poems. "Was it emotionally charged?"

For anyone who's watched the best of Bening's performances over her 20-year film career dating to 1988, the answer is almost inevitably yes. Her irresistibly amoral vixen in "The Grifters," going-slowly-mad housewife in "American Beauty," narcissistic London stage star in "Being Julia" and now her portrayal of Deirdre Burroughs' "bipolar, borderline psychotic, bisexual," in the words of director Ryan Murphy, are the highlights of a successful skein of a career. It's a measure of the respect accorded Bening (who was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1991, 2000 and 2005 for, respectively, "Grifters," "American Beauty" and "Julia") that she chalked up a Golden Globe nomination for her "Running With Scissors" performance despite the film's generally anemic reviews.

That poetry-reciting scene -- set in 1972 in the Massachusetts home memorialized, controversially, by author Augusten Burroughs in his bestselling funny-sad 2002 memoir that inspired the namesake film -- marked the one shooting day Bening allowed her four children to visit the set, to see her in what Bening calls "a kind of Jane Fonda shag haircut." One minute she was oozing charm to a child actor and the next she was Deirdre, a character in the grip of mental illness who's impelled into a self-obsessed spiral. As a result, she parts with her unsympathetic husband (Alec Baldwin) and gives the care of her son (Joseph Cross) over to an eccentric psychiatrist (Brian Cox) and his rather bizarre family (Evan Rachel Wood, Gwyneth Paltrow and household lodger Joseph Fiennes).

Bening knew from her first reading of the script the fundamental truth of the role: "Deirdre is a survivor, which is I think a very important aspect of her particular character. She's somebody who always managed to persevere -- and at the cost, obviously, of other people."

The actress would indeed walk a very particular line in her portrayal, as evidenced by the fact that the reading scene has her reciting the real Deirdre Burroughs' poetry -- dramatically letting finished pages drift out of her hand -- while wearing the first of a series of wigs Murphy based on his own troubled mother's hairdos. With much input from author and director, she still needed to put her vision on-screen. "I don't consider myself to have done a documentary. This is my own creation of this woman."

Bening, 48, says she has extensive experience with friends and family who were troubled. Some 10 years ago, she grew fascinated with the work of psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, notably a study mixed with autobiography called "An Unquiet Mind." "She is a professor of psychiatry now at Johns Hopkins and she literally wrote the book on manic depressive illness, and then at a given point in her life, she wrote this memoir."

When Bening read the psychiatrist's account of her own bipolar illness, "I loved it and then I thought, 'Oh wait a minute, is this a movie?' So I contacted Kay. We became friends. I worked on it for a while, thinking maybe it could be." Bening pauses and gives way to a wistful nod and a half-smile: "It didn't end up that way. I kept having babies and I would be in and out of it and I would want to get a writer and then I didn't feel I could get the right writer and anyway, I hope maybe one day it will be made. But that's where my interest started -- so all of that research that I had done many years ago for something else served me very well."


Grounded in the theater

AS Bening talks, she's perched cross-legged (she's a yoga devotee) on an office chair in a nearly bare office with a generous view of sheltering trees and a busy side road to Mulholland Drive, near where she lives with her family. Numerous posters and paintings of her husband, Warren Beatty, in character -- notably a larger-than-lifesize one of him in a hoodie sweatshirt and wings from 1978's "Heaven Can Wait" -- adorn the hallway walls. "This is an office that he's had for many, many years and he edited pictures up here: 'Bulworth,' probably 'Dick Tracy' ... 'Bugsy'?"

A subtle brightening in Bening's features accompanies that last film's utterance -- it was the one on which she and Beatty met, acted and fell in love under director Barry Levinson's then-unwitting gaze. "Right, well it was when we were making the picture. But we kept it very quiet ... Barry didn't even know." She laughs, not the theatrical trill of her Julia character but something lower and more aware.

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