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Bening Speaks in Key of Joy

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"Make time for poetry" and never forget to revel in "the sheer joy of being" -- those were some of the words of wisdom Annette Bening shared with a ballroom full of high-powered executives Tuesday as the Oscar-nominated actress delivered the keynote address at the annual Women in Entertainment breakfast hosted by The Hollywood Reporter and Lifetime Television at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Bening's humanistic entreaties brought an uplifting tone to a morning that included a few emotional good-byes -- to outgoing Paramount Pictures chairman Sherry Lansing and Lifetime president and CEO Carole Black -- and a call for women to use their hard-won power in areas far beyond showbiz delivered by The Reporter editor-in-chief and publisher Robert J. Dowling.

"You have achieved parity" in the entertainment business, Dowling said. "Now you have to strive to do more, to be more, to deliver more. ... You are the power. What is that power? It's the power to influence people. It's the one power that truly rules and it's arguably the most sought-after power in the world. You make the products that not only penetrate the world but also have a profound influence on it."

On that note, Dowling urged his listeners to "create products that inspire, educate and inform at the very same time they entertain" and to never "be satisfied to simply deliver the same warmed-over mindless drivel that appeals to the lowest common denominator."

In her keynote, Bening delighted the crowd of 650-plus who gathered for the morning event, held in conjunction with the publication of The Reporter's 13th annual Women in Entertainment: The Power 100 issue, by reading bits of poetry and sharing anecdotes about her life as a working actress, wife and mother of four children with her husband, actor Warren Beatty. The breakfast also included a tribute to Lansing with the presentation of the inaugural Sherry Lansing Leadership Award to its namesake.

Bening, who is generating strong Oscar buzz for her role as a stage diva in "Being Julia," reminded the audience about the paradox that comes with success. "The irony of success is that you learn its gifts by having it, and you also learn the harsh limits of those gifts," she said, adding that the drive to stand out from the pack through personal achievement is "the sin we're cursed with and the virtue we're blessed with."

To reinforce her thesis about the importance of taking the time to stop to smell the roses, Bening read "The Waking," a 1953 poem by Theodore Roethke.

"I hear my being dance from ear to ear," Bening read with the emphasis of an actress reading a favorite passage. "I learn by going where I have to go."

Bening was introduced as "a great American actress at the peak of her career" by Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group chairman Amy Pascal. She received a round of applause when, in keeping with the occasion, she wryly observed that "a power list is best read like one reads one's horoscope -- with a certain amount of skepticism and humor."

Bening closed by citing a doozy of question that was posed to her not too long ago by her youngest child Ella in the matter-of-fact way that only preschoolers can deliver.

"So what happens when the world ends?" Bening recalled her daughter asking. "That is just the sort of big question a lot of us don't have time to ponder. I suggest we all might do well to stay close to those questions."

Bening was followed onstage by a special guest appearance from Nicole Kidman, who was granted a short leave from the set of "Bewitched" by Sony's Pascal to introduce the presentation of the Leadership award to Lansing. Kidman noted that she first met Lansing during the casting process for the 1993 film "Indecent Proposal."

"I didn't get the job, but out of that came a friendship," Kidman said. The actress praised Lansing's "talent, foresight, extraordinary professionalism, energy and of course, boundless enthusiasm" and extended her heartfelt thanks for giving her the "role of a lifetime" in "The Hours," for which Kidman earned the Oscar for lead actress last year.

Before presenting the star-shaped crystal award to Lansing, who plans to step down from her post next year, Dowling reminded the crowd of Lansing's many accomplishments.

"Everyone in this room today owes her something for where you are today," he said.

A teary-eyed Lansing admitted to being "overwhelmed" by the tribute but she quickly mustered the grace and humor for which she is well known. She recalled some of the past indignities she suffered during her rise as a studio executive -- from being told by an MGM executive in the 1970s when she asked for a raise that she was "making quite enough for a woman" to a board member at Columbia Pictures scoffing about "how could any man report to a woman" when she sought a promotion.

Lansing admitted to having to "eat my words" after telling Life magazine that she never thought there would be a female head of a studio in her lifetime. (Lansing also assured the receptive crowd that she is now confident that there will be a female president of the United States in her lifetime.)

"Slowly but surely we are becoming a gender-blind business. A business that has only one god -- talent -- and that talent knows absolutely no gender or race," Lansing said.

Reflecting on the exponential growth of women in executive positions in the entertainment industry, Lansing observed that true success is achieved when women don't feel the pressure to conform to the way men exist in the workplace. Women no longer face the horrible quandary of having to give up their careers if they want to start a family, Lansing said.

"We're not giving up our personal lives. We're doing it our way," she said. "Our voices are being heard and we are changing the world."

Earlier in the presentation, Black, who plans to step down in March after six years at the helm of the network, took a moment to salute her peers in her final appearance at the Women in Entertainment gathering as Lifetime's CEO.

"It has been the thrill of my career to be able to use the power of television to make a difference for women and their families," Black said citing Lifetime's track record this year in promoting various legislation in Congress.

In her parting words, Black paraphrased a motto that is emblazoned on a plaque that she keeps on her desk: "There is a goddess in you. Find her and love her fiercely."

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