Professionally, there's nothing Annette Bening likes more than a challenge.
The three-time Oscar nominee found one in her rare television appearance as the perpetrator of the so-called Scarsdale Diet Murder in "Mrs. Harris," a seriocomic HBO movie debuting Saturday, Feb. 25. A distinctive patchwork of time-shifting scenes, the film recounts the true events that drove Jean Harris to shoot her paramour, weight-loss expert Herman Tarnower (played by Ben Kingsley), in 1980.
Harris maintained the murder was an accident, saying she intended to kill herself instead of Tarnower, but prosecutors charged her with premeditation over his involvement with another woman.
Writer-director Phyllis Nagy's impressive cast also includes Cloris Leachman, Mary McDonnell, Bill Smitrovich ("Life Goes On"), Chloe Sevigny, Brett Butler, Frances Fisher, Michael Gross ("Family Ties"), John Rubinstein, Larry Drake ("L.A. Law"), Lisa Edelstein ("House") and Ellen Burstyn, who herself played Harris in a 1981 TV movie.
Bening is pleased to add "Mrs. Harris," based on Shana Alexander's book "Very Much a Lady," to a resume that boasts such acclaimed projects as "American Beauty" and "Being Julia." She says, "The script was so eccentric, that was what caught my eye. It had a sense of humor and took what was an extremely complicated, weird situation and managed to tell the story in an original way. Phyllis is a playwright, and she ended up directing the picture as well, which was a wonderful coup for her."
Especially appealing to Bening was how Nagy "juxtaposed the real courtroom testimony with fictitious interviews and also with dramatic scenes. The way that was all cut together was really interesting. You can't shoot a picture in order, so you do have to have some sort of framework in your head. You don't really want to plan it; you want to be spontaneous and in the moment, but having said that, you have to have a timeline. Because Jean Harris had this journey, that was particularly important."
Firsthand information was supplied in a phone call between Harris and Bening, although the actress resisted at first.
"I felt that since the movie is not a glowing review of her, it wasn't appropriate. I also had a lot of information to go on, including extensive interviews done by Barbara Walters. (Harris) did find out about the film being made, and she had two stipulations: that HBO would donate money to a foundation she runs for educating children of female prisoners and that she talk to me. I found myself feeling very nervous, but she was still sort of surprised that people would want to make a movie about her and Hy (Tarnower)."
Bening admits she didn't know all the facts of the Harris case before signing up for the HBO film. She reports that at the time the events happened, "I was in acting school in San Francisco, so maybe it was because I was in my own little bubble. I knew about the story, but I wasn't one of those people who were completely hooked on it -- and there were a lot of them. As I got farther into this, the fascinating contradictions that were obviously inside her were compelling. There's no question this was a woman who ended up in a sad situation."
Also to be seen this year in the feature film "Running With Scissors," Bening is open to worthwhile work, even if it takes her away from husband Warren Beatty and their four children. "Mrs. Harris" gave her the bonus of filming near her Los Angeles home.
"I was managing to still live in my house and have my life going on. Trying to see the world as I perceived Jean Harris saw it was pretty grim. At that time, she was a person in a downward spiral, and that's a very sad place. I believe in being able to do your job, then get on with your life; I don't think you get any points as an actor for being unable to get out of character."
Kingsley also was among Bening's co-stars in "Bugsy," the 1991 movie on which she met Beatty, and she found working with him again helpful.
"He's a friend," she says, "and when he comes into whatever he does, he's devoted to it in a completely professional way. He only wants to do what is best for the story, so there's no power trip. He just wants to make it work. I'm completely comfortable with him."
Since Burstyn was on the "Mrs. Harris" set just for one day, Bening didn't have much chance to compare notes on their Jean Harris portrayals.
"I am a huge fan of hers," Bening attests, "so I was just happy to be around her a little bit. We had a conversation similar to the one I think most people have about this, just a bewilderment and fascination with [Harris]. We didn't sit around and chat a lot because frankly, making this movie was like, 'OK! Let's go! Let's move!'"
While she enjoyed making "Mrs. Harris" on a schedule she deemed "hard but not impossible," Bening concedes she isn't much of a television viewer.
"I keep thinking, 'Oh, I've got to TiVo some of these shows that are supposed to be so good,' because I don't really sit and watch them. We watch 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,' because that's how my son is getting his political education. I told Jon that when I was on the show, actually. It's a great way to educate kids, because it's funny, yet they really are dealing with the nuts and bolts of what's going on."
Oscar winner and Kennedy Center Honors recipient Beatty is famous for taking plenty of time to formulate his screen projects, so Bening says there isn't much conflict over being home with their children.
"Making it all balance out is the deal," she reflects, "and it's a good problem to have to solve. I'd much rather juggle that than a lot of other things people have to juggle in their lives."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun