Film & Television

“20th Century Women”: The Role Annette Bening Deserves

The first, Abbie, played to perfection by indie darling Greta Gerwig, is a photographer and free spirit who also rents a room from Dorothea. A cervical cancer survivor, she has a bittersweet outlook on life. She lends Jamie a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which awakens his feminism and gets him beat up in a skateboard park when he tries to school a braggart on clitoral orgasms. “She must have been faking it,” he tells the bully. Suffice it to say, that doesn’t go down well.

The other woman Dorothea turns to is Julie, played by a dewy and intense Elle Fanning. Slightly older than Jamie, Julie is precocious, subversive and sexually active.  “Half the time, I regret it,” she admits. “Then why do you do it?” Jamie asks. “Because half the time, I don’t.” Julie sneaks into Jamie’s room most nights and sleeps with him although she rebuffs his advances. “It was so much easier before you got horny,” she sighs.

Meanwhile, Dorothea does the best she can. She chain smokes Salem menthol cigarettes (because they’re healthier), wears Birkenstocks, and works as the only woman in a drafting department. She allows her son to skip school when he feels he has better things to do, writing elaborate notes to his principal. (“Please excuse my son. He was in a small plane accident, but luckily he’s all right.”) She has big dinner parties that include everyone from the aforementioned firefighters to nightclub bouncers, as well as her inner circle. In one scene, Abbie is practically lying on the table and explains that she can’t help it because she’s menstruating. When Dorothea expresses some discomfort with that public announcement, Abbie takes charge and insists that all the dinner guests, men as well as women, repeat the word: “Menstruating.”

The movie is filled with short bursts of memorable dialogue, much of it driven by Dorothea’s unique outlook. She understands that Jamie loves Julie. “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world,” she assures him. When he asks if she’s happy, she warns him that, “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed.”

What we come to understand is that Dorothea is more concerned about Jamie than she needs to be. In fact, despite some interesting adventures, he doesn’t need Abbie or Julie; he and his mother are doing fine together. Mills uses voiceovers from both to let us know what happens in the decades to come. Some characters have happier endings than others. But, Dorothea’s love for and influence on her son is never in doubt. And, in the end, it’s what matters most.

In 1990, Barbara Walters interviewed Annette Bening before the Oscars (it was Bening’s first nomination for The Grifters). Walters began with a fairly dismissive quip, “If all she did was get Warren Beatty to settle down, that would be enough.”

Twenty-seven years later, I hope Walters is able to catch Bening’s wonderful performance in 20th Century Women. Her phenomenal work in this small gem of a movie is impossible to dismiss.

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