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Annette Bening Turns On Last-Minute Oscar Charm

Annette Bening
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Annette Bening glittered at Monday's Music Hall tribute, and she stole rival Natalie Portman's thunder at the Oscar nominees luncheon -- but can she grab that gleaming doll this late in the game?

Bening got more applause than Portman at the Oscar luncheon, but that doesn't mean she's sure to upset Portman's predicted victory on Oscar night. Oscar sage Steve Pond argued that noms were announced in alphabetical order, and applause fatigue set in, so people in the "B's" fared better than the "P's." I counted 10 big whoops for noms in the first half of the nom parade (Javier Bardem, Bening, Ethan Coen -- a slightly louder whoop than Joel Coen's -- Roger Deakins, Colin Firth, Debra Granik, John Hawkes and Melissa Leo) and only six in the second half, including Randy Newman and Christopher Nolan before Portman and Geoffrey Rush and Mark Wahlberg after.

And in a two-faced town, who knows how Bening's whoops translate into Oscar votes?

Still, Bening, who perched regally on 2010 Oscar winner Jeff Bridges' thronelike lap at stage center for the Oscar noms photo, was still aglow seven hours later at her Q&A with Jenelle Riley at Beverly Hills' soon-doomed Laemmle Music Hall Theatre, her grin as radiant as her glittery dress, standing in the lobby with Warren Beatty, near a poster for Portman's aptly titled The Other Woman. "It's like having children," Bening said of having four Oscar noms. "The more you have the better it gets." And was it easy to walk away from her career to raise babies? "Yes. It was very easy." Even relinquishing the Catwoman role to Michelle Pfeiffer after getting pregnant? "Yeah, that was the one that got away. Oh, well! I have a 19-year-old instead." So getting cast as Catwoman instantly makes you pregnant? "Anne Hathaway -- I thought I should give her a call and tell her to be careful."

If Bening's not-blue Monday means she wins the Oscar, it won't really be for the excellent The Kids Are All Right, it will constitute a de facto career Oscar for the still more incandescent films that should've won: The Grifters, American Beauty and Being Julia, whose tale of a stage diva crushing a rival ingenue echoes the Bening-Portman showdown. Irascible gay matron or bi babe psycho in a tutu? Oscar will choose one. At 30, Bening had done superb stage work and John Hughes' $41 million, not-great The Great Outdoors; at 30, Portman's done dozens of films grossing more than $3.8 billion. The shortest book in the world would be My Struggle, by Portman. If Bening wins, it will be for old-school, conservatory-trained stage talent triumphing against all movie odds.

Bening winningly shared her loser moments. At one audition for a "terrible, tacky" movie, they told her to come back and dress sexy. "I thought I did! It was horrible, it was always about being sexy. There was a television show called ... I can't remember. Even thinking about it now I can feel the like nervousness in my throat. I was very naive. I was the bad guy's girlfriend, so this actor was supposed to kiss me and he kissed in this absolutely -- just totally took advantage of the situation and the moment. It was really awful, and I didn't know how to handle it. I remember being just really humilated in front of this crew, and no one said anything. So yeah, there was a lot of that in the movies and TV for actresses."

Her next break was a role as "the girl who gets the letter written on her ass" in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeifer and insta-star Uma Thurman. There was another version of the same story, Milos Forman's version, Valmont. "I was up for both movies, [the ass girl in Liaisons] and the lead in the other. I auditioned with Kevin Spacey. I was in the bathtub. Colin Firth and I did the movie, and now here we are 20 whatever-plus years later." Frears' flick hit, Valmont bombed, but Forman showed Frears Bening's performance, so she got Frears' immortal noir The Grifters, her career catapult. She loved her not-quite-lovable wife role in American Beauty. "It's very liberating not to have to try to be liked all the time, and that's not very interesting."

And she loves her splashy re-entry vehicle The Kids Are All Right, for which she made her role less likable. "It was very important that it not be earnest. ... The worst thing that could happen would be if it became sincere or a message or noble." Was it fun? "We had a hard time getting it financed. ... It is fun and I wish I could say it was more fun. Because when you're working, you're in a constant state of searching and questioning. So that fun thing comes later, 'cause in the midst of it you want to find something that hasn't happened. It takes a kind of delicate concentration. It's like staring at something too long, if you stare too long you can't see it any more. You have to kind of look away and then look back and sorta fool yourself into believing what you're doing. which is of course pretend. This isn't really your house, your partner, your children. If you didn't know that you'd be insane. You have to know that but at the same time invest it with all the love--." She means the love you feel for the unlovable once you've fully inhabited that character's head.

The key to great acting -- like, when she finds a telltale male pubic hair in Kids -- is to attain what Stanislavski called "the moment of tragic inaction." "There's this moment of nothingness, where your adrenaline starts to rush," said Bening.

Adrenaline will rush from now to Oscar night, when a Bening upset could be the headline of the whole show. If not now, when? But Bening seems surprisinglly zen. Her Oscar campaign has been a jujitsu strategy: Hang back for months, stroll into the spotlight in the last laps of the race, and bet that decades of universal respect will beat the extreme heat of Portman's sexy, audience-polarizing horror show. It could be Portman is a bit overexposed, with a string of mediocre movies. Her camp is reportedly relieved that No Strings Attached made $52 million -- not a flop, but not a $467 hit like The Hangover that might cast a bright sleazy light on Portman's image and change it at just the wrong moment.

Bening will win if the Academy focuses on the holy actor's moment she craves. And if the Oscar slips through her fingers, she probably won't slash her flesh like Portman's mad dancer. Reminiscing about her days doing repertory theater, Bening said, "I'd sure like to do that again."

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