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Editor | Peter Bowen

New York Observer takes a close look at Annette Bening

Posted July 28, 2010


As Roland Barthes once did with Greta Garbo’s face, Lee Siegel over at The New York Observer does with Annette Bening as he registers the cultural and social meaning of her visage. In “Oh, Oh, Annette! Why I Get a Bang Out of Bening,” Siegel narrows his focus to her face: "Seeing Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right—seeing her face register a spectrum of feeling as if it were the evening news—I was more than ever convinced that she is one of the greatest ever American film actors. And it's all in that magnificent face, which is arguably the face of our moment.”

Moving from film to film, Siegel traces out a history of an actress who physically expresses  questions central to our culture’s identity. From Bugsy to Mrs. Harris to Mother and Child to The Kids are All Right, Bening, according to Siegel, continually mirrors back to us our own sense of ambiguity and yearning. He defines her singular look as that of “unforgettable indistinctness,” a face that is always somewhere between states: “the nose is too strong to be demure, and too delicate to be large; the chin stops just short of being either rounded or dramatic…” All of these comes together perfectly in her portrayal of Nic in The Kids Are All Right:

Crazy, mobile, ever-shifting American truth now resides in Ms. Bening's 52-year-old face. Her age is significant, just as the fact that she seems not to have done any cover-up work on her face is significant. The Kids Are All Right is like a defiant gesture to an industry that discards actresses at the age of 40, as well as to a culture that has every woman, young and old, walking around tormented and stuck inside the burqa of a commercialized ideal of feminine beauty. To top it all off, Ms. Bening's postmodern simultaneity reaches the pitch of perfection in this film: She is the masculine-feminine harmony that, in Aristophanes' old parable, got tragically split into the two sexes. Yet her character is essentially, timelessly conservative. She is a lesbian Father Knows Best.