Two Oscar nominations prove that Annette Bening is no slouch in front of the camera. But her accomplishments at home probably deserve their own statuette. Not only did she marry Hollywood's most notorious bachelor, Warren Beatty, and have four children with him—she even got him to change a diaper on occasion. "That was not his strong suit, let me just be honest about that," Bening says with a laugh. "There was always a great fuss made when it happened."
Diaper duty, however, has finally come to an end in the Bening-Beatty household. Now Bening, 46, is back on the big screen with her turn in Being Julia as an aging 1930s London theater diva who embarks on an affair with a younger man. Her funny, larger-than-life performance is expected to nab another Oscar nomination for Bening, her first since 1999's American Beauty, in which she played Kevin Spacey's frustrated wife.
Kevin Costner, who costarred with Bening in last year's Open Range, calls her "our generation's Katharine Hepburn," but in recent years she has focused more on family life than on looking for work. "I couldn't go from picture to picture," says Bening. "I'm too interested in the other things in life, like being with my kids and being with my husband." Says her friend and American Beauty costar Allison Janney: "She and Meryl Streep are cut from the same cloth. They're classy dames who love their families who just happen to be brilliant actresses."
The large, Mediterranean-style home in the hills above Los Angeles she and Beatty share is "oriented toward chaos and children," Bening says. And—diapers notwithstanding—Beatty, 67, is very involved in the parenting of Kathlyn, 12, Ben, 10, Isabel, 7, and Ella, 4. "He's a fantastic dad," Bening says. "He's just enthralled, very thoughtful, very communicative. All of us start with how we were parented, and I think he was parented very well."
Bening took their brood along when she shot Julia in Budapest and London over the summer of 2003. (Beatty joined them for two weeks.) "They get a chance to see the world in a way that you don't if you're just a tourist," she says. The movie, based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel, appealed to her because "it was so literate and smart," she adds. "Even though it's comedy, it has great depth." And most compelling of all, "it took place in the theater."
That's where her career began. "I never thought about being a movie actor," says Bening, who fell for Shakespeare on a junior high class trip while growing up as the youngest of four siblings in San Diego. "I loved the ferocity of the actors." Her parents, Grant, now 78, a former insurance salesman, and Shirley, 75, a church singer, "were really supportive," she says. "They always came to my plays and, believe me, I was in some really bad ones."
After earning a theater degree at San Francisco State in 1980, Bening enrolled in the city's prestigious American Conservatory Theater. She joined the school's acting company and met her first husband, J. Steven White, an actor and instructor. They married in 1984 but separated two years later when she moved to New York to pursue her stage career. "I'm still friendly with him," she says. "He's a great guy. I respect him enormously."
Her 1990 turn as a vicious con woman in The Grifters caught Hollywood's eye—and Beatty's. He was smitten after casting her as his girlfriend in '91's Bugsy. During filming, "we got interested in each other pretty quickly," she says. "We just fell in love. I knew something significant was happening."
One of the attractions was their shared desire to have children—and soon. Kathlyn was born a month after Bugsy opened. They married a couple of months after that, and Bening spent the rest of the '90s alternating between making movies (The American President, Mars Attacks!) and having children. "Every time I got pregnant, I always felt a great sense of relief that I could say, 'Okay, I'm gone now for a while,' " she says. "But after a certain amount of time if somebody asked me to do something, I'd be like, 'Ooh, that sounds interesting' and go back."
Next up for Bening: an already-wrapped turn as 1980s murderer Jean Harris in an HBO movie due next year. After that? She's weighing offers—while putting balance first. "When I was little, I wanted to have kids before I wanted to be an actor," she says. "Having a family for me is the best thing in life. It makes it all worthwhile."
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