Saturday, December 22, 2012

Annette Bening in American Beauty

Annette Bening is not a really lucky lady in terms of Oscar wins. She came incredibly close to winning the Golden Boy not less than three times (well, it might be four if we count The Grifters as well) and she was upstaged by the same person twice. And she's Hilary Swank. There was enough sentiment both times to reward Bening, she was the more acclaimed and respected actress, a true diva. However, like Great Glenn, Annette has never been good at having the critics on her side, which eventually led to her being Oscarless. Of all her nominations, the loss for American Beauty was the biggest and yet personally, it might probably my least favorite of all her nominations.

The roots of all my problems with Bening's performance are in the movie itself. Although at the age of 14, it seemed to be the best movie ever, nowadays I find American Beauty to be pushy, overcooked and even manipulative. First of all, it's so obsessed by the aesthetics and just tries so hard the communicate all the beauties of life. That being said, I'm still stunned by the genious Conrad L. Hall's great cinematography (that 100% deserved the Oscar though it had some serious competition from Sleepy Hollow) and the wonderful art direction (which deserved a nomination at the very least). I can even praise Thomas Newman's catchy, heartbreaking score and yet I feel that Sam Mendes wasn't able to use all these wonderful things properly to have a great effect. But don't get me started on Alan Ball's screenplay, because I'll get really mad. 

There's something similar about Annette Bening's performance here: Bening is a natural source of greatness and brilliance (even though it took me some time to see it). In American Beauty, she stuck with a part that many people imagine would be an actress' dream: for me, however, it's nothing but an overwritten, gross, one-dimensional caricature of the suburban lady who doesn't even get as much screentime as I remembered. In fact, I thought that most of the time, Carolyn Burnham was present in the role of a court jester with over-the-toplines that would make even Diana Christensen blush in comparision. She cries, she screams, she laughs, she's SOOO mean she's VERY pretentious, she' REAAAALLY phony and all she needed was REALLY being nailed by a real estate king and taking shooting lessons. While Kevin Spacey is provided with an arc for her character, Annette is left with some crazily exaggerated, over-the-top scenes. 

This could have been one of the worst performances ever that people still would have loved if it wasn't for Annette Bening. As I said (and I want to emphasise over and over again), Bening is a natural resource of acting greatness and she's excellent even under the most awful circumstances. What I appreciate the most about this performance is how dynamic and vivid Bening actually is in the role. She actually was able to make the screenplay work in her favor in many ways: she didn't decide to tone down the character a little bit and instead, she chose to go all the way with Carolyn. It was a very risky move on her part though I'd say if she hadn't done crazy overacting here, this would have turned out even shakier than it is. 

As I've previously mentioned, Carolyn is written as a gross caricature, which would be fine considering the subject of the film (the pretentious and empty life of the American suburbs), but Alan Ball forgot about something: writing Carolyn as an actual human being. She's such an unbelievably consistent bitch that you'd hardly find one person like that in real life. There's absolutely no color and texture in her and yes, she's only there as a court jester. That being said, Annette (with her over-the-top acting) makes you remember Carolyn and in a way, added some humanity to this humanoid character and also made her, one of the better aspects of this movie.

If there's nothing else about Annette in this movie, she's memorable at the very least. She pulls off the entertainment part of this performance beautifully: she's nothing short of amazing in her deliveries of those crazy lines and she says them like nobody's business. Her "I will sell this house today" scene is, quite simply, brilliant. Her breakdown in the end is just brilliant: she really is like a baby whose candy was taken from her. The hysterics of Carolyn are played so brilliantly by Bening that sometimes you even ignore those major gaps in the character. In my humble opinion, if there's anything you can rely on in case you hate American Beauty, it's probably Annette. Weirdly enough, she gives the least pretentious and most honest performance of the cast despite playing the "obvious" #1 phony of the story. Just like Carolyn is a shameless phony, Annette is just shamelessly over-the-top here, not sweating (like the rest of the cast) to make this movie "mean something" to the audience.

I'd like to ask Annette privately what she herself really thinks about this character and the movie. I'm quite certain that she considers it one of the high points of her day career. I wonder, though, if it is about the richness of the character or the acclaim and the awards she received for it. It's neither her most demanding nor the most rewarding (both are easily be Being Julia in my view, that was tailor made for her and she was brilliant). She gained lots of fans with this role and I also bow before her talent and her ability to save the movie. However, that's because she so wonderfully saved the movie with her crazy acting and she was the only character that eventually carries some emotional weight. With all the exaggerations and the hysterics, Bening showed a more human side of Carolyn that the story so carefully concealed.

While this might be my least favorite of her nominationsI really admire this performance of La Bening, partly because of the previously mentioned movie-saving and partly because we got to witness what a brilliant comedienne she really is. Her scenes are unforgettable and not only because of the hysterics, but also her amazing skills. She's doing some crazy overacting and goes way over the top, but I feel her acting seems even better compared to the rest of the movie.

What do you think?


Louis Morgan said...

I quite agree here. It really is a thankless role with all the over the top scenes but she does her best to make something out of it.

Anonymous said...

I feel like I'm one of the few internet American Beauty fans left, so I guess I'm sort of biased to this performance....yes i agree, she is shrill and over the top and times, but I think her unrestrained acting works well within the context of the film and she always stops before her Carolyn becomes a full blown caricature. A solid 4.5/5 for me....

Anonymous said...

^ Mark
Sorry I don't know what is with me, I keep forgetting to sign my name

dinasztie said...

Mark: I actually agree, I just cannot give her a higher grade for it. :)

joe burns said...

I like the movie in parts, but it seems phony, and i need to see it again. I think she is great though, and not too over the top at all, but my IMO!!! I'd actually call this her best performance much better then Being Julia or The grifters, and better then The Kids Are All Right, though she's good in that one too..

mrripley said...

Simply fantastic delivery of lines and i like her slap to thora birch,i think that shows she does care but the line deliveries are phenomenol and at the end i pittied her,have you seen election,holy smoke or a map of the world the 3 leads in those films were tops.