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Annette Bening is hopeful about the changing tides for women in Hollywood. The five-time Oscar nominee, 65, was at Harvard University on Tuesday to receive the 2024 Woman of the Year award from the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the university’s prominent theater troupe. Flanked by two of the troupe’s cast members, who were dressed as a cactus and an astronaut, respectively, the Nyad star talked about the way women are depicted onscreen.
“I think things are changing,” said Bening, who was sporting a pixie cut and dressed sharply in a pin-striped suit. “I do think that our understanding of women is growing, given what we’re able to do in film and TV, and then the nuance that is afforded in the way things are written now. There’s a lot of talk about strong women and strong women’s roles, and that’s great. But when you think about it, a strong woman is also a flawed woman and is also a woman with weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And so it’s not a question of just strong women’s roles. It’s real women. And that’s what we want.”
Bening said that no age becomes the finish line for a woman’s evolution.
“Just like we see in real life around us, just as we see among the women that we know, there isn’t a point at which a woman stops evolving and changing,” she said.
That evolution is demonstrated in Bening’s recent role as distance swimmer Diana Nyad, who swam from Cuba to Florida at age 64. Bening’s portrayal of Nyad earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
“She certainly crashes any stereotype because of the way she lives her life, and because of her athleticism,” she added.
Bening made her film debut at age 30 in 1988’s The Great Outdoors, portraying the self-involved wife of Dan Aykroyd in the classic John Candy comedy. In the film industry, making one’s film debut in their 30s has always been considered late. Bening said that the role wasn’t a reach for her skillwise, but at the same time, she was thrilled to be a working actress.
“I played some of those parts,” she recalled. “When I was starting, to tell you the truth, I was grateful, grateful to work.”
She said that since she started in film 35 years ago, there are “fewer stereotypical pictures,” but that goes for roles for men too.
“I think a lot of people want to stay challenged as they grow older, not just in work, but in life and in relationships and in what they might do day-to-day,” Bening explained. “It doesn’t have to be a marathon swim to feel like you want to challenge yourself. You want to do something new, you want to change and grow. And that’s true of many of the women that I know.”
Bening, who has been married to actor Warren Beatty since 1992 and has four children with him, is also mindful about how much of her life she puts out in public. She said she once considered joining social media to boost some of the causes she’s passionate about. But ultimately, her children advised her against it.
“I did ask one of my kids, I said, ‘You know, should I start? Should I go on social media?’ And they’re like, ‘No, Mom,’” Bening laughed.
In a digital age when smartphones capture everything, Bening said, she would recommend that young actors and actresses maintain a sense of privacy. Looking back, that’s the advice she’d give herself.
“I would say to my younger self, keep something of yourself to yourself, and to the people that you love and the people that you trust,” she said. “And I would certainly say that to people starting out now. There’s so much pressure on young actors and actresses to make themselves public and to talk about events in their lives in their publicity. And obviously, some is OK. There’s not some hard-and-fast rule, but to always find a way to keep the things that matter to you most private.”