Chances are, the last time you saw Annette Bening was on Oscar night in 2000. Nine months pregnant and nominated for Best Actress for American Beauty, Bening crammed herself into a narrow seat at the Shrine Auditorium and tried her darndest not to look completely miserable. Though Beauty won five awards that evening including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Original Screenplay Bening herself lost to Boys Don't Cry's Hilary Swank.
''Yeah, I was disappointed, sure,'' Bening now admits. ''There was so much hype on that one. When there's a lot of expectation, it's harder, I suppose. In a way, I also remember it being a huge relief. It was the end of that time of being so much in the public eye. What I really wanted was to go home, put my feet up, and clean a few drawers.''
Four years later, her drawers are apparently spotless. After her solid supporting turn in last year's earnest Kevin Costner Western Open Range, Bening, 46, is finally back above the title with Being Julia, a W. Somerset Maugham adaptation about a 1930s British theater actress named Julia Lambert, whose offstage antics are as dramatic as her crowd-pleasing stage performances. ''She's so wicked and so devilish, and she's flawed. That's why I love her,'' says Bening, relaxing in a simple green blouse and clogs in Manhattan's West Chelsea neighborhood. ''Some great stories are about very ordinary people, and I like that. But this isn't about that.''
Indeed, as Julia, Bening, a theater veteran herself, speaks in the throatiest of voices, recklessly takes a lover half her age, and impulsively slaps her husband (Jeremy Irons) when he gives her a bad postshow review. ''The most important thing was to have a great charismatic face who is great in movies but on the other hand a great theater actress, because there are a lot of scenes on stage,'' says Julia director István Szabó (Sunshine). ''So the role was really for Annette, because she has this double talent.''
Still, Bening wasn't daunted by Julia's often duplicitous deeds. ''As a woman, when you're starting out and auditioning for things and dying to get them, [characters] tend to be really evil, or they're all virtuous,'' she says. ''It's the people that teeter on the edge that are interesting. Somebody the other day asked me about American Beauty, 'How could you play someone so unsympathetic?' And I said, 'Oh, I loved her!'''
''She's one of my favorite kind of actors, who really understands that the role she's playing is not her,'' says American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball. ''She's not afraid to go places that might be a little crazy or a little off. I think she enjoys playing women who are on the edge because she's so not that in her real life.''
It was her real life, specifically her four children with husband Warren Beatty, that led to her three-year absence from the screen. ''I had an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a newborn baby, so the idea of trying to go somewhere [for a film] was overwhelming,'' she explains of her situation after the Oscar loss. ''But it felt very right. I don't remember there being some horrible dilemma about something that I was being asked to do that would have taken me to the Amazon in January. It worked out fine. By the time I was ready, something interesting came along, which was Open Range.''