Annette Bening Opens Up About Hollywood’s Sexist Past and Brighter Future

The Oscar-nominated actress sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss her excellent turn as screen siren Gloria Grahame in ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,’ and Hollywood scandal.

Jon Rou/Loyola Marymount University

“I really had to pee.”

That, as the terribly charming Annette Bening tells it, is how she landed the role of Gloria Grahame in director Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.

It actually took Bening twenty-three years to play the scandal-ridden screen siren. That was when producer Barbara Broccoli, current gatekeeper of the Bond films, first floated the idea to the actress. Broccoli is longtime friends with Peter Turner, and, having witnessed his affair with the much-older Grahame firsthand, wished to adapt his 1987 memoir chronicling their Liverpool-set romance during the Oscar-winning actress’s final years. It was a labor of love. But Bening was far too young, and the script far from ready.  

Cut to the UK’s BAFTA awards seven years ago. Bening is there, nominated for Best Leading Actress for her dazzling turn as one-half of a lesbian couple in The Kids Are All Right.

“It was this ceremony with no bathroom breaks,” she chortlingly recalls, so Bening absconded to the loo, where she ran smack-dab into Broccoli, whose bladder also overfloweth. The two got to talking and agreed that the time was finally right to adapt Turner’s tome into a film.

After several stops and starts, it’s finally here: a sensuous production featuring yet another stunning performance by Bening as Grahame, who reached the height of her fame in the 1950s with the films In a Lonely Place, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Heat, and Oklahoma!, before her career was tarnished by tabloid scandal after romancing and later marrying Tony Ray, the actor-son of her second husband, Nicholas Ray.

Following their split in the ‘70s, and having failed to find work stateside, a 58-year-old Grahame moved to England, acting in stage productions and falling for the decades-younger Turner, a mild-mannered Liverpudlian played in the film by Jamie Bell.

Over coffee, The Daily Beast chatted with Bening—a four-time Oscar nominee—about capturing the essence of Grahame, the current Hollywood #MeToo reckoning, and much more.

It’s a fascinating story, Gloria Grahame’s. So many crazy highs and lows.

An amazing story. Crazy highs and lows—and lots of scandal. I recommend the book. It’s this tasteful, impressionistic memoir, because Peter Turner had this relationship with her, they’re thirty years apart in age, he’s from Liverpool, she’s this ex-Hollywood star. It’s this weird confluence, but they had this very real connection.

In the film, we greet your Gloria Grahame after she’s experienced so many hardships. After she allegedly experienced electroshock therapy following a mental breakdown.

It’s interesting: I don’t know if that actually happened. I met Tim—her oldest son, the one who’s in the film—in England when we did our premiere. I didn’t want to invade his privacy since we were at the premiere, but I wanted to ask him a million questions, and that would have been one of them. Because there are a lot of stories about her that just aren’t true. There’s a really trashy book about her that you can’t trust. I’m not saying none of it happened, but we’re not sure.

Does it go all the way up to the presidency? Well, we’ll see if people have to answer for their behavior.
Annette Bening
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One of the things alluded to in the film is her crippling anxiety over her looks—particularly her lips.

That’s true.

There was so much sexism within the old studio system, as far as the way these studio heads treated women like props and constructed them whole cloth—like how Harry Cohn Anglicized Rita Hayworth via a name change and plastic surgery. These studio heads used to bully actresses into surgery or fill them with such anxiety over their looks.

And that’s not that old. I know on a studio film I did, I remember the director telling me about the studio giving notes, and he said, “They always talk about the men’s performances and the women’s appearance.” And they were putting pressure on me to get on the case of the people who were doing my makeup, and the lighting, and everything. It’s like, I didn’t want to worry about that stuff. It’s still there.

Was it Mars Attacks!? Or what film was it?

Nah! They wouldn’t do that to Tim Burton. Tim Burton they left alone! But [Grahame] had surgeries done on her upper lip.

There were stories that Grahame would kiss her costars with cotton balls lodged in her mouth.  

Now, that’s something I don’t know is true. It would be great to know but I don’t know it’s true. I do know that she had surgeries on her lips. She was very self-conscious about it. She wanted to make them look fuller. And now people are obsessed with that, putting things in their lips.

In my inexpert opinion, it doesn’t seem to have a very high success rate.

[Laughs] I know! It ends up looking kind of goofy!

How do you see Grahame? On the one hand she’s a sort of tragic character but on the other there’s something quite lovely about the way she was able to live out her final years.

I don’t see her as tragic. I mean, the story is very sad, but for all of her faults and frailties—and she had them—she was a survivor. And she didn’t take her life or herself as an actress that seriously, and it’s a beautiful thing about her. She was a live wire. She was someone you met and would be like, “Hey, I’m going to this thing tonight. Are you around?” and she’d be all, “Yeah, let’s go! Let’s do it! Let’s have fun!” She was all about enjoying life and letting go of the pain and the difficulties, because she had them for sure. And her relationships were very tempestuous. That’s why I think meeting Peter, a decent guy from Liverpool from this huge family, was such a positive experience for her.

In the film, she swings back and forth between crippling insecurity about her age/career and beaming confidence. There’s that sequence where she’s just finished performing in the play, is gliding through backstage, and Peter turns to her and says something to the effect of, “That guy wants to sleep with you,” and she turns to him and is like, “Honey, everyone wants to fuck me.”

“Everyone wants to fuck me!” That’s a great line. It’s a kind of contradiction, isn’t it? Because on the one hand she seemed like, fuck it, I don’t care! I’m living my life, doing theater in England, living with this young guy I like; and then on the other hand, there was the part of her that was conscious about aging, conscious about not being the star that she had been.

One of the things she did that I found out about that I know is true is, when she went back to New York she took acting classes with Stella Adler, who’s this legendary, brilliant woman that my husband studied with. Robert De Niro studied with her too, and he’d told my husband that [Grahame was there]. I called De Niro and asked him about it and he said, “Yeah. I was in class, like 18 or 19, and I didn’t even know who she was. I was a kid, and was ignorant about it. But someone said, ‘Gee, you know who that is?’” He said that she didn’t get up and do scenes, but I thought that said a lot about Gloria and her craft. She’d won an Academy Award but was trying to get work, couldn’t get work, so went to England.

Your first film ever was The Great Outdoors, written by the late, great John Hughes.

Written by John Hughes! I was so excited to just get a movie, and The Great Outdoors was like my dream come true.

I love that scene where [John] Candy takes down “The Old 96er.” That massive steak.

[Laughs] I was just remembering that we were on a lake kind of near Yosemite, and we were living in these little cabins—which I thought was the neatest thing in the world—and we’d have to get up and drive around the lake. So it took about an hour to get to set, so we’d be leaving at around four in the morning, and I remember thinking, “This is so great! Oh my god!”

I mean, you started off your career with The Great Outdoors, Valmont, Postcards from the Edge, and The Grifters. That’s a pretty good run.

Miloš Forman never mentioned The Great Outdoors! The entire time I was filming [Valmont] I was thinking, “Did he know I made that movie?!” Because I don’t think he would’ve ever hired me for Valmont if he knew! [Laughs]

Grifters was a Harvey Weinstein movie, of course. What was your experience with Harvey like? I’ve had my own experiences with Harvey, although it’s pretty clear that he acted very differently toward men—particularly men who are reporters—as opposed to up-and-coming actresses, which you were at the time.

I didn’t have any serious issues with Harvey. I had a couple of not-serious moments with him. I mean, I was 31 and I was married. I don’t know. I think I was lucky. Harvey sort of put the feelers out for most people—well, that’s not fair. But I didn’t have any issues with him.

How do you feel about this long-overdue reckoning in Hollywood? It’s an industry that’s always been pretty outspoken when it comes to progressive causes but its treatment of women has long been its glaring blind spot. The “casting couch” goes back to its inception, and was almost treated as a punchline when it’s anything but.

It seems like a tipping point. That’s how I think of it, is there’s been this incredible buildup over such a long time, and it’s a tipping point. People can focus on it because it’s happening in show business with a lot of famous people, but now it’s rippling out into your business, journalism, and into the tech world. It’s in all the businesses, and that’s why it’s so significant: it’s become a tipping point for the whole culture. The hope is that it not only changes things in my business and your business and the more high-profile businesses, but what’s really important is that it changes for the average working women who have no clout and no leverage. A single mom working for low wages who cannot miss a day of work or a paycheck, is it going to change for those women? Or those men, too? I think it’s as difficult—or sometimes more difficult—when it happens for men, as there can be an added level of shame involved. But that’s really the measure for all of us: Does it really go down to average working people? And does it go up to members of Congress? And does it go all the way up to the presidency? Well, we’ll see if people have to answer for their behavior.

Right. We’ve recently seen Donald Trump’s sexual-assault accusers make the news rounds, and senators like Kirsten Gillibrand call on Trump to resign from the presidency over the allegations. 

And his own ambassador to the United Nations [Nikki Haley] has said that these women have a right to be heard. So, this is serious stuff.

It does seem to be a reaction to his election, doesn’t it? It seems like more than a coincidence that the Harvey Weinstein story broke on the one-year anniversary of the Access Hollywood tape. When you elevate someone like Trump to the highest office of the land—and really, make his the face of the nation—it forces the country to do a lot of soul-searching.

Yes. This can’t be the symbol of the free world—of the leader of the free world. No, I agree with you. I think all of us are doing a lot of soul-searching just generally, in your job and in my job. What are we really doing? Because, with these forces of nationalism, populism, xenophobia, racism and ugliness becoming more culturally acceptable, what happens to the culture? Culture tends to shut down and people tend to get discouraged. So I think those of us that are trying to entertain people, we have a responsibility not to lose hope and not to become cynical. The whole thing you’re talking about is part of that—including the reckoning on sexual harassment, and being able to have a nuanced conversation about the inappropriate sexual come-on or groping, and harassment and assault, right? They’re not all the same thing. There needs to be nuance.

My take on it is that there was just never any sort of accountability here, and since bad men were able to act with impunity for so long, when the reckoning comes—which appears to be now—there’s going to be an overcorrection. So I generally think it’s good that there’s increased accountability on behavior that went unchecked for ages.

Clearly. I mean, it’s a little scary—the sheer number of people in our world that have been taken down, and whose behavior we had not known about.

The Kevin [Spacey] stuff was pretty shocking.

Yes. Absolutely.

In the wake of the allegations, reports surfaced that several of his productions had been plagued by his sexual misconduct issues. There were numerous stories from the set of House of Cards, and Gabriel Byrne also came forward and said that production on The Usual Suspects was halted over Kevin’s “inappropriate sexual behavior.” Were there any such problems during the filming of American Beauty?  

No. We didn’t have any of those problems. He was completely professional. I considered him a professional colleague, and we got on very well. I had no issues—and didn’t see any problems, either.

Coming back to the film, one of the things that I really enjoyed about it is that it does provide a frank depiction of an older woman’s sexuality. There aren’t nearly enough of these stories being told by Hollywood, an industry that’s not very kind to women past a certain age. You’re really an exception to the rule, having managed to carve out a great space for yourself.

Yeah, I feel really lucky. It’s an extension of love—sexuality is—and it doesn’t stop at a certain age, and Gloria was someone who that was very true for. I do think it’s something that a lot of people would leave out of stories, the fact that women far older than Gloria maintain and have active sexual lives. People don’t really want to dramatize that. But now, that’s changing. Helen Mirren is an example of someone who’s playing very complex women. Judi Dench. That notion that women’s sexual lives stop when they start having children is just a myth. Women have sexual relationships into their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties. Hello? This is what happens! This is true for a lot of people. We, as women, want to play real-life people. We need these kinds of characters who have nuance, and faults, and strengths, and weaknesses, and sometimes they feel sexy, and sometimes they don’t, just like all of us. It’s a relief to see that happening.

One scene that I really loved—and that I feel conveys Gloria’s emotional quandary—is that early one where she and Peter have just returned from the bar, they’re a bit liquored up, and she sits on the bed and takes her top off. She’s feeling very empowered and sexy but then she senses some apprehension on his part, and even though it’s just nerves, she’s overcome by insecurity, and then covers herself up.

In trying to find the moments for a character that are truthful, you get to explore some of your own true feelings in a way that’s safe. I appreciate you saying that. I think she was. In one moment she’s feeling really confident and hey, I can do this! I can flirt with this guy! And then in the next moment she’s like, wait a minute…what am I doing? I’ve exposed myself. I need to cover myself up, literally. When you meet someone you really like that maybe you’re attracted to, part of you is like, yeah! And then maybe you think, well, I have this roll here and…am I appealing? I think that’s something we all go through.