The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, at least in modern times, rather prefers its lead actor and actress performances to hit an electrifying emotional chord that can neither be ignored nor, seemingly, denied. The heroes, the handicapped, the monsters, the innocents, the leaders, the literary, the redeemed, the doomed, the artists, the doomed artists — captured in that moment of overcoming or unraveling — have become nearly impossible to resist.
I'm not arguing that any of these performances were undeserving; the movies live and breathe on the viscera of blood and guts and tears. Few would question the artistry of this year's front-runners and two of my favorite performances: Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" and Colin Firth in "The King's Speech" (his achingly ordinary "A Single Man" was passed over last year). But in these roles, obscurity is not the mien; understatement is not their métier.
Standing in quiet contrast is Annette Bening's tour de force of the everyday. In "The Kids Are All Right," a best picture nominee, the four-times-nominated and still waiting actress delivers the very epitome of what an Oscar-winning performance should be. She has made real the essence of an undistinguished life, and done so beautifully.
The paper cuts inflicted by parenthood, the monotony that nags long-time love, all of it Bening shrugs on like an old sweater. Most of us can see reflected inside her Nic — who is provider, mother, significant other — a million little pieces of ourselves, and others we know perhaps only too well. She rocks along, then is rocked to the core, by the terribly familiar and not terribly exciting realities of strapped finances, teenage rebellion and flagging affections. That she is a lesbian in a committed relationship with two kids conceived via an anonymous sperm donor (or at least he was until the kids contacted him) become incidental details, not definitions, of who she is, or how we relate to her.
It begins, of course, with the material. Director Lisa Cholodenko and her co-writer, Stuart Blumberg, have created a script, also nominated, overflowing with humor, heart and the pure prickliness of human nature. In doing so, they have given Bening a wonderful stage on which to play. That texture is only enhanced by the cast's two other leading practitioners of life ordinaire in Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, a nominee himself in the supporting actor category.
That Bening is stretching by, in a sense, retracting for this more interior role is emblematic of the career chameleon she has become. It began with her 1990 breakout in "The Grifters," with a calculating cleverness hidden by bouncing curls and a bodacious body, most of which was exposed. Heat turned into ice for the repression and resentment she needed in "American Beauty." (She's also managed to make a dream Hollywood marriage, raise a family and still come back to acting, always testing her mettle, sometimes failing, never making the easy choice, including the brave one to leave life's traces on her face alone.)
We see that again in "The Kids." She could have chosen to make Nic softer, easier to embrace, but that would have felt like a cheat. I could write many more words on the many grace notes to be found in scene after scene in the film, but there is a dinner that says it all.
Ruffalo's donor dad Paul has charmed everyone else in the family but Nic. But she doesn't like the family tension that's resulted and wants to make another attempt, so a dinner at Paul's is arranged. Over the course of the meal Nic goes from resistance to acceptance to complete devastation — all of it playing across her face accompanied by a few words and an unforgettable rendition of Joni Mitchell's "Blue" that you love for its flaws rather than its perfection.
In Nic, Bening has taken the unremarkable, molded it, and made it transcendent.