1990 was the year in which I saw the least amount of movies in theaters. I was overseas and when I returned I devoured everything. I don't recommend missing an entire year of cinema but I also can't deny that it's fun to catch up in massive marathons. My favorite shiny new plaything that year turned out to be Annette Bening. She had appeared in two movies before her breakthrough (The Great Outdoors and Valmont, the latter of which was barely released) but I wasn't familiar with her. In 1990 she ascended. She swiped a scene wholesale from Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge (in a way we didn't see again for another 18 years when Viola Davis rationalized away her son in Doubt) and sparkled and teased as Myra Langtry in The Grifters. She deservedly won her first Oscar nomination but the bid was doomed. "You in danger, girl" Ghost was a juggernaut and Whoopi Goldberg was impossible to deny..
Director Stephen Frears, then at his creative peak hot off Dangerous Liaisons, handed Bening The Grifter's pivotal centerpiece. It's not one scene exactly nor an unbroken monologue but a shifting series of impressions and exchanges in which Myra reveals her past (in voiceover flashback) and begins to rope in her future, altering the game board on which mother and son con artists Roy and Lily Dillon play (John Cusack and Anjelica Huston, the latter giving a mammoth Oscar-worthy performance.)
After Myra witnesses her boyfriend Roy "working the tat on those sailor boys" she drops enough strange lingo to choke a lesser actress in an effort to rustle his cautious feathers and reveal himself.
Oh come on, Roy. 'The tat,' what you do for a living.❞
Roy, you're a short con operator and a good one I think. Don't talk to me like I'm another square."
Roy still hesitates. No one yet knew, not even Warren Beatty, that resisting The Bening is an exercize in futiity. But Roy finally caves both from curiousity and Myra's (and Annette's) innate persuasive. "What's your pitch?" he asks finally against his better judgment. His (short) life will never be the same.
The long hand, big con. I was teamed ten years with the best in the business Cole Langley. It was beautiful. And getting better all the time! It's where you should be. What do you bring in -- $300 $400 a week? We use money like that for tips. And now, right now, is the perfect time -- the best time since I've been in the game.
Here the playful noir score kicks in as we move into an extended storytelling flashback which alternates between Myra in voiceover and Myra as "Mary Beth" with a faux southern accent and deeper voice. If The Grifters were a musical Myra would start singing right then illustrating her finesse as "a roper" (recruiter) for "the marks" (victims) as the big curtain-dropping show-stopping Act One closer. It's easy to picture since Bening's eyes flash and sparkle theatrically as she speaks with a sing-song girly cadence.
All over the Southwest you've got these businessmen. They were making money when everyone was making money. They think they're smart. And now they're hurting. When the price of oil fell, so did they. They've still got money. But they need more money. When the oil money was good they put up all these office buildings. Now they're half empty. They'll give you anything to move in: first two months free, redecoration, whatever you want. They help you set up the store. I'm the roper. I go out and find them and bring them in.
Once they saw that money they were hooked. And I made sure they saw it.
Then all Cole had to do was tell the story..."
Bening positions Myra as a woman who understands and exploits both her sexual power but her roping is brilliantly more than lust based. Myra also understands and exploits her contagious sense of delight. It's something Bening's star persona has often traded on. It's one reason why her fantastic turn in Valmont as the laughing sexy conniving Merquise de Merteuil is in some key ways a far more believable interpretation than Glenn Close's iconic work in the same role in Dangerous Liaisons. You always want to throw in with Bening because she's a kick to be with. Even if you know she's no good for you. Who then was ever a better fit to play a "roper"?
Myra's bouncy "Goodie!" when she sees a big stack of money -- and makes sure her mark sees it -- may be the most cheerful evocation of evil I've seen onscreen. She's about to swindle a man for all he's worth and she's bursting with pride, joy, and flirtatious good humor -- none of those chilling emotions we usually associate with crime.
People often like to pretend that Meryl Streep is the only female star who has ever broken age barriers in Hollywood and kept the public interested for multiple decades. Streep is unarguably the biggest example but she isn't the only one. Twenty-two years after The Bening's breakthrough she's still headlining motion pictures and still in demand at the age of 53 (she turns 54 next week). Consider that plethora of upcoming projects expected to arrive in just the next couple of years.
- Imogene (2012) as Kristen Wiig's gambling addict mother
- Ruby Sparks (2012) supporting role in a fantastical romantic comedy
- Untitled Sally Potter Feature (2012) a supporting role in a female-centric film
- The Look of Love (2013) lead role opposite Robin Williams and Ed Harris as a widow who falls for a man who resembles her deceased husband.
- Hemingway and Fuentes (2013) she plays the fourth wife of the famous author
- The Great (2013) lead role as a Russian royal considering the future of her country
...perhaps she'll win that Oscar yet.
Myra Langtry prides herself on her "long con" success but Bening's own long career is no con; she's never promised anything she hasn't delivered. She's been one of the cinema's best actresses from the very moment she traded the stage for the soundstage.