Annette Bening, wearing the most elegant tuxedo suit, stood next to her smiling husband Warren Beatty Saturday evening at the world premiere of 20th Century Women, the centerpiece selection of the New York Film Festival.
“20th Century Women” is written and directed by Mike Mills, whose last film, “Beginners,” was inspired by his father, who came out as gay late in life. (Christopher Plummer nabbed a supporting actor Oscar for that role.)
In his new film, Mills turns the camera on his mother, Dorothea, played by Annette Bening in a portrait so textured and nuanced it could finally land her a well-deserved Oscar after four nominations (“American Beauty,” “Being Julia,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and “The Grifters”).
The director told journalists at the press conference the previous day, of Dorothea, “The character is a lot of my Mom, so it comes from trying to make a portrait of her and trying to remember her correctly.” He added, “You all should make movies about your mom, because it’s really a trip!”
Set in 1974 Santa Barbara, Bening anchors the coming-of-age comedy-drama as a chain-smoking bohemian who’s fiercely protective of her son (Lucas Jade Zumann in a breakout performance).
Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and Elle Fanning as a precious and promiscuous teenager round out the terrific ensemble.
At the press conference, Mills told journalists, “For this film I’m really interested in how our emotional lives are sort of historical and influenced by the prevailing winds of whatever time we’re in, so 1979 and all the contents therein is sort of like the fifth Beatle of the movie in a way,” he said. “For me it’s not just the punk scene or whatever was incorporated, it’s sort of like the 1979 emotional accuracy, like what are the interior concerns? What are the thoughts and feelings that go on? That was hard and interesting to try to research and place.”
Bening, who grew up in San Diego, which is close to Santa Barbara, said she was fascinated by the world portrayed in the script. “My world was a different world than this world that I grew up in, but the time was the same, so that’s why I loved the script, because I thought it contextualized that period for me in a way that I have never seen. So that’s aside from acting or anything, but just to read what Mike had put together and the images as well as the cogent lines every now and then is this film. There’s something he’s written that pops out and just snaps me in the head, like that’s smart and hasn’t really been said before, so that was thrilling to be able to be a part of that.”
In his introduction to the film at the 6 p.m. screening on Saturday, Mills told the sold-out house, “It means a lot to me to screen it in the city, because it’s a very California film but it has a New York heart in it. I moved here when I was 18 and lived here for 15 years, and I figured out I was a filmmaker in the city, and partly I figured that out by going to the New York Film Festival.”
On the red carpet, I asked how closely the movie portrait is to his mom.
“There are a lot of facts that are her in her biography and the way she died – 1999 of lung cancer – and some personal things. But, ultimately, it’s Annette. It’s not my mom. It’s Annette’s creation and Annette’s body and intelligence and heartbeat.”
As to whether he wrote the part with Bening in mind, he told me, “No, I’m not that powerful. For a director to assume that’s going to happen is crazy, so I tend to write with nobody in mind and definitely not that prestigious.”
Some of my favorite scenes in the film are set in the punk clubs of the late 70’s, which Mills said he spent a lot of time frequenting. “That’s how I kind of discovered myself, in the California punk scene, but the beautiful photography is from the real time and we’re really lucky to have all those photographers in the film. There’s Patti Smith, I love that shot. We had some amazing Richard Verdi shots and I just interviewed him and met him.”
Annette Bening completely won over journalists on the red carpet, where she spoke to everyone, even those at the end of the line.
She spoke about how being a mother of four informed her performance as Dorothea. “Every time you approach a project, the context is your own map of the world. That’s the point of departure. And then you get to leap a whole other reality, which is the fun part – fun might not be the right word, but what the hell, we’re going to go with it for now – but to be able to depart from one’s own experience and relationships and you see things that you definitely key into, that you intuitively connect to, and then there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s different and that’s where the fun comes, being able to leap out of your own identity and the way you present yourself, the context in which you were raised and find this other place.”
I asked Bening what was key to finding her way into the role. “It doesn’t ever really do that,” she said. “When you’re working, you’re constantly in a place of sort of not really knowing, but in movies, when you have a very, very good director that you trust, then you can – from take to take – turn to him and say, ‘So, is that it? Are we finding it? Can we go more this way? Should we go more that way? It’s in those details that movies get made and moments are found – one take that’s different from the other that happens to work better. It’s a thing you explore so it’s never an arrival. Very rarely do you feel like, ‘Ah! That was it!’”
“20th Century Women” opens in limited theaters on December 25 and wide on January 20.