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REFLECTIONS OF TWO GREAT BEAUTIES: ANNETTE BENING; Could Annette Bening's new movie American Beauty bring that elusive Oscar?

Warren Beatty was a self-confessed lothario, but it wasn't Julie Christie, Mia Farrow, Joan Collins, Diane Keaton, Carly Simon or even Madonna who tamed Hollywood's most lusted after leading man.

Step forward the deeply demure Annette Bening. Despite Oscar and Tony nominations, the acclaimed actress cannot help being known first and foremost as the woman who roped in and shackled the last of the redhot romeos.

"I can't really talk about that," she says politely. "I can't say anything."

She married Beatty in 1992, promptly had three children with him (Kathlyn, 7, Ben, 6, and Isabel, 2). She's due to give birth to their fourth child on March 26, the actual date of the Oscars ceremony.

There's every chance she might go into labour in front of the TV millions as she's expected to be nominated for her latest role in the dark comedy American Beauty.

"Each time I became pregnant, I was so happy that I couldn't have cared less about being an actress," she says. "I think my time away from films was very healthy. As a young actor, you're almost naturally narcissistic. Everything has to be about you and your career if you hope to get anywhere."

Being a mother has required that Bening "put my children's needs above mine and deal with much more serious issues than what my next job will be".

In American Beauty, the 41-year-old plays Carolyn, an iron-willed, suburban estate agent whose marriage to Kevin Spacey is falling apart.

"It's not a movie you can sum up in a sentence," Bening says. "A few people have said it reminds them of Ordinary People, but this movie is so much more irreverent, funny and edgy. It's not mainstream. It's not pitched to make people come and see it and be comfortable.

"I think some people find her unsympathetic," she says of her character. "I understand that. I think women feel more sympathetic to her while men are more critical. She's the one, they point out, who's really made the mistake. She's the one having the affair. He's just fantasising.

"When I was a teenager growing up in San Diego in the suburbs, I was watching all these women going through this. They were supported by their husbands, they went to church, they were charming and gregarious and outwardly they had the whole thing. But their lives were crumbling.

"There's this chase going on to acquire the right stuff. You get the right house and paint it the right colour. Then you get the right car and the right hair colour, and maybe that will fill a kind of emptiness inside that you don't even know exists."

Annette attended San Francisco State University, then studied at the esteemed American Conservatory Theatre before heading to New York, where she eventually appeared on Broadway.

Her first big screen role was in the ill-fated Valmont. Then she had a small part in Postcards From The Edge, then as Harrison Ford's wife in Regarding Henry.

"When I first started doing movies, it struck me as so bizarre that you would be acting for two minutes at a time - just walk through a door or scream, whatever those little moments were," she says.

"Because I came from that other perspective where you're doing 45 minutes of acting I didn't understand it. I thought I was going to be too big and too loud."

Beatty was supposed to meet Bening while casting his 1990 movie Dick Tracy, but when he got involved with co-star Madonna he cancelled one meeting, then Bening cancelled another. In the same year, Brit director Stephen Frears snuck in on the blind side and cast her in the smash The Grifters, playing a sexy con artist matching wits with Anjelica Huston. Her performance won her an Oscar nomination.

The following year, when Beatty was casting Bugsy, he was looking for an actress to play opposite him as Bugsy Siegel's girlfriend, Virginia Hill. The two finally met over a pizza lunch. She got the job and Beatty remembers he knew she was the one for him after just five minutes.

"The more I've done film, the more I am intrigued by it, the more I love it," she says. "There's this conspiracy of technology around you - lights, cameras, all these people, and what you're trying to capture is something that just happened in front of the camera, just like that.

"Everything conspires against spontaneity. You have to find a way to keep yourself in an emotional state where you're ready when they say, 'OK, go'."

Right now she's upbeat about American Beauty. "I know what it's like to work your ass off on things that don't completely come together. So when something does, it's a great, great feeling."
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Wallace, Richard
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 28, 2000
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