Annette Bening and Mike Mills Talk '20th Century Women'

Annette Bening and Mike Mills Talk '20th Century Women'

With Oscar buzz and numerous Golden Globe nominations, the director of '20th Century Women' and its legendary starring actress sit down to discuss coming of age 
in California and the joys (and perils) of motherhood.

With Oscar buzz and numerous Golden Globe nominations, the director of '20th Century Women' and its legendary starring actress sit down to discuss coming of age 
in California and the joys (and perils) of motherhood.

Photography: Mark Abrahams

Text: Joseph Akel

The relationship between mother and son is undoubtedly a source of both creative inspiration and emotional introspection. It’s been a dominant cultural trope from the time of the ancient Greek tragedies—Oedipus Rex, natch—to the heyday of Freudian analysis and its various maternal complexes. As the 19th century French playwright and novelist Honoré de Balzac wrote, “The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.”

Diving head first into such depths, filmmaker Mike Mills’s latest feature, 20th Century Women, takes its cues from the auteur’s relationship with his mom, casting legendary actress Annette Bening in the role of a single mother navigating the tribulations of her own late-in-life identity crisis.

“My mother was a complicated woman,” Mills notes, “and I didn’t want to polish off the edges or do anything to dampen that.” Indeed, for Mills, an underlying motivation when writing the movie’s script was to lay bare the realities of motherhood while also remaining true to the affection he holds for his own mother, who passed away in 1999. When asked about his relationship and its influence on the script, Mills replies, “You could be mistaken in thinking I knew her well when actually the drive to make the movie is interwoven— we were close, but there’s so much I don’t know about her. She’s 
a mystery to me, especially as she was a person from a generation that didn’t share their life as openly as we do today. I really wanted that, and I never really got it. ”

For his part, Mills is no stranger to crafting autobiographical storylines that examine the dynamic between parents and children. His 2010 film, Beginners, tells the story of a father who comes out to his son. Mills’s own father came out to him at the age of 75. With Christopher Plummer starring as a recently widowed father alongside Ewan McGregor as the son, Beginners was a 
critical success, earning an Academy Award for Plummer. Fueled by the film’s critical approbation, Mills’s interest in a follow-up of sorts took flight—inspired, in part, by the relationship he had with his mother—with the film’s story set in the Santa Barbara of 1979, the backdrop to Mills’s own childhood. When it came time to cast the lead role, Mills quickly decided on Annette Bening to play it.

“The script came from my mom,” Mills explains, “but when I watch the movie I am seeing Annette—I’m seeing Dorothea—not my mother.” Key for Mills in Bening’s portrayal was the desire to highlight the societal demands and interior conflicts that confront mothers, eschewing whatever personal nostalgia or reverie Mills had for his own. “Annette showed me my mom as a woman,” Mills candidly offers.

“I just got really wrapped up in it,” Bening notes of her time spent playing Dorothea. Having lived in Southern California in the ’70s herself, many of the film’s historical and cultural touchstones were resonant for her. “I’ve done a lot of films in different periods and places, places I’d never been to. But with Mike’s film, that’s a time and place I’ve lived in...I felt like he was contextualizing the time in a way I’ve never seen anyone do. I felt like I knew the people. I wasn’t any one of those people, but I was sort of a combination of them.”

For Bening—herself a parent of four—the opportunity to play the role of a single mother attempting to reconcile her own values with the energized feminist zeitgeist of the ’70s was especially intriguing. “We don’t know our mothers fully,” Bening points out, and it was the promise of exploring that interior mystery that drew her most to the role. “There was a lot of talking to Mike about his mother,” Bening notes, “but, at the same time, I’m hearing Mike’s version...and I know there were 
elements to her that Mike did not see. When it comes to children and their parents, there’s a healthy dose of narcissism on the part of the kids. And they have to [have it], that’s the way human beings are designed.”

The resulting film is at once a compelling ode to a time and place in American cultural history and an emotionally raw, often wry, portrait of motherhood. 
“I tried very hard,” Mills underscores, “to have the film not feel nostalgic. If anything, it’s mourning my mom and a specific era that has since ended.” While 20th Century Women may be, in the eyes of its director, an elegy to people and places long gone, it is also a celebration of their legacy.

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