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Annette Bening’s Move to ‘American Crime Story’ Makes Perfect Sense

TV is where the best roles for actresses are, anyway

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange — and now Annette Bening. If showrunner Ryan Murphy has a type (besides “camera-friendly stud”) it’s “best actress of her generation (or getting there).”

Bening is set to appear in Season 2 of the hit anthology show American Crime Story. The new season will tackle the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Bening will play Kathleen Blanco, the then-governor of Louisiana, who oversaw evacuation and recovery efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The character could go multiple ways. Blanco could come off as inept in the face of an emergency, or she might be portrayed more sympathetically: bad, but not FEMA bad.

The casting news is exciting for anyone who woke up on the morning of the Oscar nominations and was disappointed to discover that Bening, who gave one of the warmest and most gracious performances of the year in 20th Century Women, had been shut out of the Best Actress race. (She did, at least, get a nomination for a Golden Globe.) Bening is a bridesmaid in plain sight — no wonder she’s hopping over to television.

The movies-to-TV pipeline is real — especially, it seems, for actors who may not be getting their due in Hollywood movies. That’s the case for Viola Davis, who was always good, but whose adventures in Shondaland have allowed her talent to translate into awards and — more importantly — bigger, better roles. It’s the case for Taraji P. Henson on Empire, too, where she’s doing her liveliest work to date, and it’s about to ring true for the cadre of stars on HBO’s upcoming Big Little Lies, among them Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and Reese Witherspoon.

Murphy is the patron saint of this trend. On Glee, American Crime Story, Scream Queens, and most especially on American Horror Story, Murphy and his writers go out of their way to give extraordinary actresses room to flex. It was Murphy who gave Paulson roles in every season of American Horror Story (including a turn as conjoined twins) and the plum part of Marcia Clark on Season 1 of Crime Story that seems to have sparked an exciting mainstream phase in her career. And he’s behind what became a miniature renaissance for Lange, who seemed to delight in the chance to let her jowls and mean streak hang loose on Horror Story as a witch and a dicey neighbor. And how about Bassett and Bates? We could all have seen the Batesian grotesque coming thanks to her turn in the film Misery. But rarely have we gotten to see a black actress of Bassett’s stature let loose the voodoo, as she did on Horror Story.

Who knows if any of the industry logic about getting a career boost applies to Bening. It’s possible she caught the Crime Story bug like the rest of us and wanted in; she likely noticed, like the rest of us, that the actors seemed to be having the times of their lives. A Murphy project is an interesting choice for Bening, whose sharp sense of drama and mannerism seems perfect for the nighttime soap this show, being a Murphy production, will inevitably be. When I think of the high points in her work, I go back to her furiously scrubbing down windows in American Beauty: “I WILL sell this HOUSE to-DAY.” More of that, please — even if it’s on TV.