Spitfire, unapologetic, idiosyncratic, complex and sexy. These are some of the femme archetypes that Annette Bening has portrayed on screen and built a solid cinematic canon upon, from the Marquise de Merteuil in Milos Forman’s feature adaption of Les Liaisons dangereuses, Valmont, to neurotic materialist housewife Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty, one of Bening’s four Oscar-nominated roles, and beyond. This season she plays a film diva in her twilight, the late Gloria Grahame (It’s a Wonderful Life), as an aging starlet who finds love with a young Liverpool actor as she battles breast cancer in Paul McGuigan’s feature adaptation of Peter Turner’s memoir Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.
You were approached with this project some years ago. What changed between now and then?
It’s been 20-plus years. Why I was thinking about it then, I don’t know. I wasn’t the right age. I wasn’t thinking, Oh, she should be in her 50s. It was a different writer and iteration. It was good, but it didn’t come together. [Producer] Barbara Broccoli knows Peter Turner and before that Gloria Grahame. She’d always been working on the project. She lost the rights for a while. It was bouncing around and Colin Vaines had been obsessed with the book. A few years ago Barbara got the rights back. At the same moment, it was, “Let’s get this together and hire a writer and director.” It’s a very beautiful book. Anyone who reads the books becomes enwrapped from the way Peter writes. It is tastefully written. All these years, it was sitting on my shelf.
Why did the role of Gloria Grahame speak to you?
There’s a certain mystery about Gloria. She was a great film noir femme fatale and there was a period of time when she was very successful and she had a scandalous life. A lot about her isn’t known, which is interesting. It’s not easy to find out details about her life. She called herself “The Replacement” or the second-tier. I find that intriguing, combined with the fact that she lived in Liverpool where she was in love with a young man who was a really great person. I wanted to respect the privacy of her family. She had four children and this complicated life.
Given the way she’s separated from her family, it’s as though she’s an island.
I love that idea. She’s in England, floating out there like an island. She didn’t know anyone. Her mother and father were both English. She acted in plays there like The Glass Menagerie, and she wasn’t in a posh West End theater. The level of denial that Gloria possessed was epic. Toward the end she was incredibly ill, and she was doing a play and collapsed onstage. I don’t know at what point is that heroic? Nothing was going to get her down. She was literally dying.
There’s a great part in the movie where Gloria recalls the advice given to her by Humphrey Bogart. One of your early films was Milos Forman’s Valmont. What wisdom did he impart to you early on in your career?
He taught me so much. At the time, I’d only done one movie. He was incredibly tough and we all bonded together—Meg Tilly, Colin Firth and I. Milos wasn’t from the touchy-feely school of directing. If you were doing something phony, you’d hear about it. I auditioned for him over months. I read with many people in his apartment: I read with Val Kilmer, I did a test with Kevin Spacey. When we would rehearse you’d say a line like, “My, that tree is beautiful over there,” and Milos would say, “No, just be natural.” Then he would say the line and give you a way of doing it. He was right. It was a period thing and we were stiff. He was always right and knew the elements of the story that needed to be told and seen. He knew a story’s point of view: He ultimately has to cut the action of the person. Valmont was being made in the wake of Dangerous Liaisons. I was up for that movie too. Valmont didn’t do well at the box office except in Finland. It was really hard for Milos, but we put our heart and soul into it and he never blamed anyone. Our shoot took forever and when I got back to America, Dangerous Liaisons was already in the theater.
With American Beauty you took a chance on a young Sam Mendes, who had never directed a film before, but had an excellent reputation in the theater. Would you take a chance again on someone who hasn’t stepped behind the camera?
Absolutely. It’s an intuitive thing when meeting a new director. Having done a lot of auditions, I know how vulnerable one is when they’re trying to get a job. People in the theater are verbose: playwrights are writing lines for people to speak, actors are always talking, and directors are pontificating. Really good movie directors don’t talk a lot because they’re telling a story with a camera. But it boils down to the material. If there’s problems in the narrative of the screenplay, there will be problems in the film. So, the narrative has to be strong. One thing I know from experience is that if the narrative isn’t working, then I can’t make that work. I can only address this issue beforehand.
Your cameo on The Sopranos in Tony’s dream, playing yourself, continues to linger. How did you become involved with the show?
It was David Chase who called me out of nowhere to do that part. It was so fabulous and weird. When he sent me the part, it was just those pages of the episode. When we spoke, he said that he really liked Bugsy. John Heard was a detective in the scene and there was another girl, who was a hooker that Tony killed. One minute in the scene, it was the daughter, then the hooker, the whole thing was surreal. It was really fun and a pleasure to work with John Heard.