Role Recall: Annette Bening on Chain-Smoking in 'Bugsy,' Slapping Herself Silly in 'American Beauty,' and More

Kevin Polowy
Senior Editor

The “rules” of Hollywood stardom, as enumerated by Lily Collins in a scene from the new film Rules Don’t Apply, have never replied to Annette Bening.

The 58-year-old actress didn’t make her first movie (1988’s The Great Outdoors) until the age of 30. Her eclectic filmography, which includes neo-noir (The Grifters), biopics (Bugsy), sci-fi comedy (Mars Attacks!), crowd-pleasing romance (American President), period fare (Being Julia), and dysfunctional family drama (American Beauty, Running With Scissors) proves she has thoroughly avoided typecasting. And, most impressively, Bening has consistently scored stellar roles for the past three decades in an industry famously lacking in strong female roles… especially for women over 30.

The four-time Oscar nominee has two new films this fall that further state the case: the aforementioned Rules Don’t Apply, an old-school Hollywood tale written, directed, and starring Bening’s husband, Warren Beatty (his first film in 15 years), in which she has a small role as Collins’s overbearing mother; and 20th Century Women, a ’70s-set family dramedy from Beginners director Mike Mills, which could earn Bening (as the matriarch) Oscar nomination No. 5. Watch Bening reminisce about some of her most beloved performances in our latest episode of Role Recall above. A few highlights:

The Grifters (1990)
After starting her career in theatre and making her screen debut opposite John Candy and Dan Aykroyd in The Great Outdoors, Bening drew her first critical acclaim (and first Oscar nomination) for this twisty thriller costarring Anjelica Huston and John Cusack. The key to nailing down her seductive scam artist, Myra Langtry? Director Stephen Frears told her to study the work of film noir femme fatale Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat).

Bugsy (1991)
Bening met future husband Beatty on the set of Barry Levinson’s drama about Jewish mobster Bugsy Siegel. “I would say there was a pretty good spark there right away,” she recalled. She also met a whole lot of nicotine. “I smoked a lot,” Bening admitted (which this YouTube montage backs up). “I used to smoke, I have to admit, and that was a time when if I got a role and I had to smoke, I kind of secretly loved it because I had to smoke.”

American Beauty (2000)
One of Bening’s most powerful, emotionally grueling scenes came in this Best Picture winner when her cantankerous real-estate agent Carolyn Burnham has a breakdown that sends her into a fit of scolding and slapping herself. “When I first read the script, I thought, ‘That’s a great scene.’ You know intuitively from an audience standpoint… But then there’s another part of you that’s like, ‘Oh, but I have to do it.‘” Bening did it — and then had to do it again when director Sam Mendes broke the news to her that the lighting was too dark on the first go-round. “It was kind of like a nightmare,” she said. Bening was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

Rules Don’t Apply is now in theaters; 20th Century Women opens Dec. 25.

Watch Bening talk about working with Beatty again in ‘Rules’: