When Annette Bening was 35, she and a number of other female actors were the subjects of a magazine article that still baffles her to this day. "I hadn't been around that long," Bening tells Bustle over the phone, "but the whole notion of the [piece] was that we were all older and what’s it like to be older in Hollywood. I was 35!" This took place 25 years ago, but the article is still reflective of how sexism and ageism permeate Hollywood. Bening's latest movie, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, coincidentally tackles those same issues, with the romantic drama addressing how women are often criticized and held up to impossible standards by the industry.
And it's not just with regard to age. The film, out Dec. 29, is also reflective of the general gender inequality in Hollywood, and how female actors are frequently stereotyped and condemned. Telling the true story of Oscar-winning actor Gloria Grahame, best known for playing Violet in It's a Wonderful Life, and her May-December romance with the much younger Englishman Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), the movie shows how Grahame was typecast as a "bad girl" her entire career, and faced discrimination as she got older. Thankfully, Bening says, the industry has changed for the better — at least some of the time.
"The stereotyping of women," Bening says, isn't gone, "but I think that whole good girl or bad... either virginal and sweet or you’re the 'bad girl,' I think that's better now." The actor credits screenwriters for allowing women more nuance in film. "We’re not trapped inside those stereotypes as we used to be," she says. "Women have always been writing, but more and more women are executives, producing, and directing. That’s a huge part of it... as the culture changes it’s all reflected in the movies that are made and the stories we’re hearing."
It's not just the stories on screen that are changing the industry. As we all know, survivors of sexual assault and misconduct within the industry are speaking out more than ever; since the allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke, more accusations have shattered the silent complacency that Hollywood has been putting up with for years. It's a reckoning that, Bening says, she did not see coming. "I hope that it is a spark, and it seems to be, that shines a light on all of this," she explains.
Having starred in American Beauty alongside Kevin Spacey, who has been accused of sexual assault, Bening says she rejects the idea that "unspoken secrets" permeate the industry, and that not everyone hears rumors or knows of questionable reputations. "I have had a very good relationship with Kevin professionally," the actor says, "so I didn’t know." Nor did she have a sense that he was in any way an alleged predator. "I had considered him a respected colleague and we’d maintained a friendship over the years, not super close, but our paths would cross and we’d see each other," Bening says.
The actor adds that she is saddened by the current climate, but believes the revelations are obviously important. "There are so many of these stories now, so many of these profoundly talented people who have been doing these things for years and years and it’s all coming to light," Bening says. "All the pain that so many of these people have been through at the hands of these perpetrators is just absolutely heartbreaking. "
Bening isn't just focused on Hollywood — she wants the rejection of sexism and sexual misconduct to spread like wildfire through "not only in my business but in your business and in all of these other businesses where it turns out that it has been going on and been covered up," she says. "This is really rippling all over the world, it’s incredible." How the world continues to respond to all these changes, Bening adds, is the real key. "The larger and the more important part of it is how it ripples out and how this will hopefully affect the lives of the average working woman who doesn’t have any clout, or any support. Maybe she’s single, and maybe she’s raising children, and not working for very much money and she’s got this problem at work. Those are the women I really think about."
Which is why it's so important that movies like Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool tell the tales of women whose careers may have been affected by the very same things that are coming to light now. "[Gloria Grahame] probably had incredible stories," Bening says, but she was dismissed by a sexist Hollywood. Though silent suffering may have been the norm in the industry for decades, younger generations of men and women, Bening adds, aren't putting up with it any longer, and the issue can never be the same. "It’s not going to stop all of it, of course not. But the way in which men handle this and the way in which women handle this I think is going to shift. I really hope that’s the case." As do we all.