Over the course of her 30-year career, Annette Bening, 58, has never been easily categorized. She’s earned four Academy Award nominations for playing a variety of complex women: a stage diva (Being Julia), a seductive long-con artist (The Grifters), a lesbian mother (The Kids Are All Right), and an unhappy real estate agent and disgruntled wife (American Beauty). But until now she had never played a woman who came from the same sun-drenched California coast as she did, and it has already earned her a Golden Globe nomination.
With 20th Century Women, writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners) investigates his mother’s life through Bening’s character, Dorothea, a woman who came of age in the wake of WWII with aspirations of becoming a pilot before struggling with the demands of motherhood. For Bening, who grew up in San Diego, it was a chance to infuse her own history into the part. “This story was unlike any screenplay I had ever read,” Bening says. “This was where I was from. Mike was putting into Technicolor something I had experienced.”
In Bening’s previous roles, Mills saw evidence that she could inhabit the contradictory nature and the internal struggle of Dorothea. “I love Being Julia and Bugsy,” Mills says. “My mom is this ’30s kid and talks like 1930s films. Plus, Annette can be androgynous [like my mother], and she’s got the emotional intelligence.”
In the film (in select cities Dec. 28), which also landed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, Dorothea is a single mother who enlists her younger tenant (Greta Gerwig) and the teen neighbor (Elle Fanning) to help raise her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Mills spent years crafting a story that would shed some light on his mysterious mother, a woman he describes as a “trickster figure, allergic to boredom and allergic to the obvious.” Setting the film in 1979 Santa Barbara, Mills flooded the set with artifacts from his childhood home, including his mother’s bedspread and her jewelry. Still, even with those pieces of real life at her disposal and her familiarity with her character’s background, Bening found playing Dorothea complicated. “I loved the fact that I didn’t quite know who she was,” Bening says. “Sometimes people jump off the page in more definition, but I would look at scenes and think, ‘This could go in any number of directions.’ ”
In one poignant scene, Jamie, thinking he’s got his mother all figured out, reads her an excerpt from Zoe Moss’ feminist essay “It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete,” and Dorothea cuts him down for his audacity. To Bening, the moment is indicative of the movie’s aspirations — divulging the inner life of a woman in her 50s who doesn’t fit into a particular paradigm.
“There is a mystery about her that is respectful,” Bening says. “She doesn’t fall into the good mother/bad mother stereotypes. We don’t want to accept this notion of women of my age as so defined, as dismissed and not very interesting. That is just not how women are.”
And it’s certainly not how you’d ever describe Bening herself.