Annette Bening likes complexity, at least in the characters she chooses to play.
Bening, 47, is considered one of America's finest actresses, with a career defined by emotionally complicated roles: sexy con artist Myra Langtry in The Grifters; the chilly, driven Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty; and stage diva Julia Lambert in Being Julia.
But in HBO's new Mrs. Harris, Bening takes on the role of a woman of true contradictions: socially prominent Jean Harris, convicted of murdering Dr. Herman Tarnower, her longtime lover and creator of the Scarsdale Diet.
Late on a March evening in 1980, Harris - then headmistress of the exclusive Madeira School in suburban D.C. - walked into Tarnower's Westchester, N.Y., home. A short while later, Tarnower was dead, shot four times by Harris.
The resulting murder case evolved into one of the first modern-day celebrity trials, a media circus that attracted reporters from across the country and mesmerized the public.
Much of that fascination stemmed from the contradictory portraits of Jean Harris that emerged during the trial: Was she a woman scorned who never meant to kill her lover, or was she an aging femme fatale who committed premeditated murder?
What pulled Bening into Mrs. Harris was that the writing - by noted playwright Phyllis Nagy, making her film debut - "was so original even though it was a story that could have been sensationalized so easily."
Bening started out with no intention of trying to speak with the 82-year-old Harris, out of prison after serving 12 years for Tarnower's murder. "I didn't want to pry," she says.
But Harris decided she wanted to have a few words, and, "I just thought, 'Well, if she wants to talk to me, I'll talk to her.'"
Bening says that Harris talks about Tarnower "like you would expect someone in their 80s to talk about someone who they had been married to and who passed away."
In the end, Bening came away convinced that Harris "found herself living a nightmare. It was that kind of relationship that you feel is out of your hands, something you're not the author of. It just takes hold of you."
While the film has its flaws and tonal problems, Bening captures much of that in her lovely performance. Her Jean Harris is self-aware, yet out of control; brittle and ready to snap, yet sympathetic and moving.
With solid support from Ben Kingsley (very convincing as Tarnower) and a fine ensemble - notably veteran scene-stealer Cloris Leachman as the good doctor's reptilian sister - Bening provides the spark that drives Mrs. Harris, keeping its darkly funny irony from degenerating into campy humor.
Mrs. Harris premieres at 8 p.m. tomorrow on HBO.