In a business where divas are a dime a dozen, Annette Bening proves
that down-to-earth and movie star can be one and the same.
This past spring Annette Bening's performance as fading
stage diva Julia Lambert in "Being Julia" brought her a Golden
Globe, an Oscar nomination and a flurry of interviews with the press.
But before she can get back to being Annette, she is taking on another
new identity in "Running With Scissors," a film based on the
Augusten Burroughs memoir of the same name.
When SFSU Magazine reached Bening by phone in late March, it
was 6 p.m. and she had just finished a day of filming in the Los Angeles
area, not far from the home she shares with her husband, actor Warren
Beatty, and their four children.
"I like what I do very much," Bening says. "But after
this movie is over, I'll be very happy to not be calling attention to
In "Running With Scissors," Bening plays a delusional poet
who entrusts her only child to the care of a not-so-trustworthy psychiatrist.
Is it a difficult role for a devoted mom to step into? Perhaps if she
judged her characters, Bening says. And she doesn't.
"My job as an actor is to see through the characters' eyes, to
find the reasons why they do what they do," she says, adding that
she passes on roles that are polar extremes of Pollyanna or wicked witch.
"I'm attracted to complex people with lots of layers," she
In preparation for her latest role, Bening says she has been reading
the work of Anne Sexton, a poet who struggled with inner demons: "It's
harrowing stuff that will really curl your toes."
Acting chose her
The youngest of four children, Bening was born in Topeka,
Kan., and raised in San Diego. Her father managed an insurance company
and taught Dale Carnegie self-improvement courses. Her mother was a
professional church soloist. A teen-aged Bening was known as the best
babysitter in her neighborhood and worked as a secretary at her father's
office, as a Photomat clerk and as a waitress at Happy Steak.
As for acting, "I didn't choose it," Bening explains. "It
chose me." It was during a field trip to see Shakespeare on the
stage of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.
"I like the immediacy of acting," she says.
During high school Bening appeared in several plays, including "Godspell."
She graduated a year early, got her scuba certification and went to
work as a cook on a 65-foot scuba-diving boat. "Not a very glamorous
job," she says.
a stint at San Diego Mesa College, Bening enrolled at SFSU. She says
that she wanted to move to a city but not Los Angeles. "And I had
heard that State had a big, active drama department."
Professors at SFSU recognized a rising star in Bening. Professor Emeritus
Alex Flett says, "Some students really have it." What is it?
"A sensitivity, dedication and a drive. I think drive is the most
important, a determination that you're going to succeed. Nothing is
going to stop you."
Bening recalls that Flett and her other instructors, Jack Byers, Jack
Cook and the late Stuart Chenoweth, Robert Graham and Tom Tyrell, were
then nearing retirement age. "So I had great, smart, wise and seasoned
people to learn from," she says. "I feel grateful that I had
a chance to learn from veteran professionals."
Bening won leads in a wide range of roles, starting with "Tartuffe."
"It was exciting just because I got cast," she says.
Robert Merryman (B.A., '79), who played opposite Bening at
SF State in "Light Up the Sky," remembers that she was always
prepared and always first to audition. Professor Tyrell told their acting
class: "Annette is going places."
Laurel Ollstein (B.A., '80), today a theater professor at Loyola
Marymount University, acted alongside Bening in "Country Wife"
and "Mouse Trap." "For the age we were, Annette had an
incredible grace and confidence," she says. "You didn't want
to take your eyes off her."
Bad Girls, Beatty and Motherhood
After graduating with honors from SFSU in 1980, Bening
completed the advanced training program at the prestigious American
Conservatory Theater (ACT) and went on to join the theater's acting
company. There for the next five years she enjoyed challenging roles.
Proving her range of abilities, Bening played Emily in "Our Town"
and Lady Macbeth on alternating nights in her final season.
"I started in theater and I'm very proud of that," Bening
says. "Those few years as an actor on the Geary Theater stage grounded
me professionally and personally."
Former classmate Ed Decker (B.A., '81; M.A., '84), director
of San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center, has stayed in touch
with Bening and confirms that Hollywood has not changed her. "She's
still the same person I met
in 1976. Annette knows her roots and remembers her friends."
At ACT, Bening met fellow thespian J. Steven White. The two married
in 1984 and later moved to Colorado where White ran the Denver Center
Theatre. Bening continued her acting career on its stage, starring in
"Pygmalion" and "The Cherry Orchard."
At 30 Bening appeared in her first feature film, 1988's "The Great
Outdoors," a comedy with Dan Aykroyd and the late John Candy. Going
from stage to screen was an adjustment for the classically trained actress.
"I didn't know how to work with the camera. It took a while, sitting
down felt funny, and so did speaking quietly. I had always been taught
to project," she says.
After five years of marriage, Bening parted ways with White in 1989
and moved to New York. She quickly landed the lead in
the off-Broadway drama, "Coastal Disturbances," and earned
a Tony nomination for her performance when the play moved to Broadway.
A few career disappointments followed, including a TV pilot she would
shoot -- only to have it later air without her.
"Just to be a working actor is a success," she says. "It's
a terribly difficult, challenging, harrowing profession. You have to
be strong and willing to take lots of rejection."
Bening would gain added stature playing her first bad girl (first, if
you don't count her portrayal of Lady Macbeth). "Villains are fun.
Every woman who has been brought up to be a good girl wants to explore
that other side of herself," she has said.
During her prolific acting career, Bening has played the bad girls well,
starting with Myra, the ruthless hustler in "The Grifters,"
for which she received her first Academy Award nomination in 1990. Her
portrayal of the manipulative Myra also caught the eye of her future
husband, who cast her in another bad girl role opposite him in 1991's
Beatty told a reporter that it took only minutes for him to fall in
love. The two wed the following year and today have four children, Kathlyn,
Benjamin, Isabel and Ella.
"Motherhood came so naturally. I never considered whether or not
I'd do it," Bening says. "With four children, I'm wildly busy
but I like having a big, chaotic life."
Remembering Her Roots
In that big, chaotic life, Bening has made time for
her alma mater. In 1991 she returned to campus to break ground on the
addition to and renovation of SFSU's Fine Arts building.
During the dedication ceremony Professor Byers remembers that Bening
was impressed to see then-San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos among the special
guests. Byers recalls Bening gasped and said, "Wow, this really
is a big deal." Apparently Byers's former student didn't realize
that she was the big deal people had come to see.
In 1995 Bening was named SFSU's Alumna of the Year. After wrapping up
production on "The American President," she spoke at commencement
that year. "To come back and talk with students here is meaningful
to me," she told graduates. "When I was a student, I always
wondered what it was like to be in the business."
Bening recalls that Professor Tyrell once told a classmate to pursue
acting "only if you have to." Today her advice to students
is largely the same: "Try to do anything artistic and people will
say you're nuts. But follow what you love and you'll find yourself in
the right place -- -or at least in the right ballpark."
Professor Flett recalls Bening sharing her insight with students as
part of a conference he organized on campus in the 1990s. "She
was there with her agent who kept telling her, 'We have got to
go.' Annette just wouldn't go. The kids were thrilled," Flett says.
There were other visits that went undetected by the media, Byers remembers.
"Whenever Annette was in town, she'd call the [theatre arts] department
and see if there were any students who would like to talk to her,"
he says. And, Byers adds,"Annette always mentions San Francisco
State [during interviews]. A lot of stars don't bother giving credit
to their schools."
Bening has also provided financial support for both the University Scholarship
Fund and the theatre arts department.
Amorose (B.A., '80), the supervisor of SFSU's costume shop,
likes to tell her Annette Bening story to any student who complains
during a fitting. In the early 1980s Amorose was working as a costume
cutter for the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival where Bening performed
one summer. Amorose recalls that in one play "Annette had four
looks and one was so horrid -- I mean it was the ugliest thing I have
ever seen." Still, Amorose says she never heard any complaints
from the actress. "Every time Annette came in for a fitting, she
was gracious and chatty. She would always find something positive to
say. That solidified in my eyes what a consummate professional she is,"
Amorose says. "And I've seen a lot of primadonnas."
Back on stage
In 1999 Bening was nominated for both an Academy Award
and Golden Globe for her performance in "American Beauty."
She returned to the stage later that year for the first time in a decade.
Bening played the title role in Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" at
Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, and she did so under the direction of
another well-known alum, Tony Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan
(B.A., '75). The other cast members scurried out the door after
rehearsals, but Bening always stuck around to jot down notes about her
performance. "Annette took refuge in the rehearsal hall to perfect
her work. I rarely see that in actors," Sullivan says. She is not
only one of the best actresses around, he says, but is also "an
extraordinarily gracious and pleasant person who doesn't have the kind
of vanity that so many actresses have."
When the play premiered, Professors Byers and Flett were in the audience
to watch their former student's performance. After the curtain fell,
Bening greeted her professors warmly and invited them to follow her
to dinner. "When we were leaving it was like a dream I might have
had as a little kid, when anything associated with Hollywood was so
magical," Byers says. "We came out and a group of people were
waiting to get autographs. Annette did a little routine where she said
they must have confused her with someone else. She kissed us both and
then drove home to Warren."
Annette at a Glance