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Annette Bening on Motherhood and Her Oscar-Bait Role in ‘20th Century Women’

20th Century Women” premiered at the New York Film Festival on Saturday to a standing ovation and Oscar buzz for Annette Bening’s performance as a bohemian single mother.

The actress walked the red carpet flanked by husband Warren Beatty, as a rainstorm raged outside. She told Variety that being the mother of four helped inform her work in the film.

“It’s the center of my life, so everything I’m doing emanates through that in a way,” said Bening. “For those of us who become parents, it becomes the linchpin of our lives.”

20th Century Women” was written and directed by Mike Mills, who plumbed his autobiography in “Beginners” to tell the story of his father’s late-in-life decision to come out of the closet as a gay man. Mills’ latest work turns the camera on his mother, but uses her story to look at what life was like at the tail end of the ’70s, when punk was emerging, the energy crisis was at full boil, and Reaganomics was on the horizon. Despite borrowing liberally from his own family stories, Mills said it was important that the cast bring their own personalities and perspectives to the film.

“It’s Annette’s body, soul, timing, and genius,” said Mills. “It starts from a real source, but then it becomes a performance, and it becomes something very different.”

It also meant schooling Lucas Jade Zumann, the film’s young star, about what it was like to come of age in the pre-cellphone era. Mills gave the actor, who plays his alter ego in the film, a box of documentaries and books to help him get into the historical mindset.

“I watched ‘The Seventies’ by CNN,” said Zumann. “Every time they made a pop culture reference, I’d pause and look it up, so I could have an understanding.”

Bening has been nominated for four Oscars for her work in “The Grifters,” “American Beauty,” “Being Julia,” and “The Kids Are All Right,” but has yet to take home the prize. If distributor A24 campaigns her in the lead category, she will face fierce competition from Emma Stone (“La La Land”) and Natalie Portman (“Jackie”), but “20th Century Women” may represent her best chance of victory. She’s earthy, funny, and wise in the movie, and she gets most of the best lines. Awards glory aside, Bening said she was drawn to the story, because Mills captured family dynamics so sensitively.

“There were a couple of things that he wrote that when I read them, I was like, ‘oh my god,'” said Bening. “As a mom, I thought nobody ever said that, and I found that very moving.”

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