20th Century Women: Annette Bening at her best

She only just missed out on being nominated for Best Female Lead at the Oscars, but Annette Bening has never been better than in 20th Century Women, IFFR’s concluding film.

By Bregtje Schudel

Say Annette Bening and you’ll probably think of American Beauty (1999) and her unforgettable role as Carolyn Burnham, the hysterical, sarcastic wife of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) complete with garden shears and clogs. However, Annette Bening has only improved in recent years. 

Her role in 20th Century Women by director Mike Mills is perhaps her best ever. Whereas Mills’ autobiographical drama Beginners (2010) was based on his relationship with his father who came out aged 75, 20th Century Women is a warm, melancholy ode to his mother who died from cancer in 1999. She combined Humphrey Bogart and Amelia Earhart, so says Mills. She grew up during the Great Depression and joined the air force when World War Two broke out. 

In 20th Century Women single mom Dorothea (in real life Mills’ parents were together until his mother died) lives in a crumbling Victorian villa in Santa Barbara together with her teen son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), two lodgers – hippy William (Billy Cudrup) and art student Abbie (Greta Gerwig) – alongside house guest Julie (Elle Fanning). ‘Uncategorisable,’ was how Bening summed her character up in an article for The Hollywood Reporter

Dorothea is a woman like no other. Eccentric, warm, wise. ‘Listen, wondering whether you are happy is the perfect short cut to depression,’ she tells Jamie when he asks her whether she’s happy. You’d love to join one of her many soirees at her tumbledown home. Though she does have her odd habits, like wearing Birkenstocks because that’s ‘modern’ (the film is set in 1979) and she smokes Salem cigarettes because they are ‘healthier’. She amply compensates for Jamie’s lack of a father with the large, surrogate family featuring everyone from colleagues to firemen. “Most people don’t invite the fire crew over after they’ve helped you out,” Jamie observes. Her answer: “Why not?”

Her ideas on raising Jamie are also pretty open (why shouldn’t he determine his class times?), but one thing is beyond question: her love for her son, who she understands less every day. She grew up in an era of jalopies and poorly looked after homes without luxury, the telephone or TV. When cigarettes were still cool and not deadly. Her son was raised in prosperity with nice cars, pointless wars, computers and boredom. Where fainting is seen as a fun way to pass the time and in which real punk is not about musical quality, but about the musicians’ passion. It’s a world Dorothea can’t seem to get used to.

As lost as her character is in the era she lives in, so spot-on is Bening in choosing roles in recent years (we’ll have to forgive her for The Women). “I enjoy being a veteran,” she explained to The Guardian in 2014 (occasioned by the Hitchcockian drama The Face of Love). “And I can’t complain: I’m getting interesting offers. Sometimes there are some duds though; they lack the complexity that makes this phase in life so hilarious, challenging and heart rending.” Bening’s characters display wisdom, depth, but also a vulnerability that is all too scarce among women over 40 in Hollywood. Let alone over 50. And Bening has never been more impressive. In comparison to her subtle roles in films such as Mother and Child (2009) and The Kids Are All Right (2010), Carolyn from American Beauty is almost a coarse caricature. Bening may well be a 20th-century woman herself, it is the 21st century that is truly hers.