In the entertainment business, an actor is praised as a “triple threat” when he can effortlessly pull off acting, singing and dancing and thus conquer both Hollywood and Broadway.
But what do you call someone who is an actor endowed with the rare gift of “leading man” charisma, a producer with an unlimited tenacity, and a director with a big, sentimental sense of storytelling? How can you describe a man who is both strikingly handsome and supremely intelligent? How can you pin down a man who has engaged and wielded the political and financial leaders of the world with as much ease and brilliance as he has seduced the most beautiful women on the planet?
To me, what makes Warren Beatty the most compelling film icon in Hollywood is not his achievements taken singularly but rather their sum. Clearly any “triple threat” at work here extends beyond Beatty’s acting roots. Therefore, the following question is a legitimate one I ask my fellow cinephiles to “focus” upon: have we ever seen as much talent bestowed upon a cineaste before? Do not misunderstand me, I’m not stating Warren Beatty’s the greatest filmmaker and/or actor. But which other maverick has got as much going for him, has that many gifts in that many spheres?
Beatty “the auteur” is always drawn to a similar persona of characters: rebels, outsiders, renegades, iconoclasts. Men who pursue their ideals as far as they can regardless of what society thinks or does to them. They are men with “balls”, men with commendable will and integrity. And although they might not seem like it at first, they are men with an old-fashioned sense of sentimentality. Here lies the keystone – too rarely grasped – of Beatty’s filmmography.
His pictures always focus on groundbreaking events: the Great Depression in Bonnie & Clyde (1967); the sexual revolution of ‘68 LA in Shampoo (1975); the Russian Revolution in Reds (1981); the end of the old-school era of gangsterism in Bugsy (1990); a political campaign defined by honesty in Bulworth (1998). In Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Dick Tracy (1990), those “groundbreaking events” are not anchored in “History”; rather they are sheer products of fantasy. In the former, a football player dies before his time, leading to his re-incarnation in the body of a business magnate. And in the latter, gumshoe Dick Tracy is the only one who can take down Big Boy’s growing, united mob. In the midst of those “groundbreaking events”, Beatty embodies a revolutionary archetype – often metaphorically, but sometimes literally – most obviously in Reds, and to a lesser extent in Bonnie & Clyde or Bulworth. This archetype, regardless of the periods or worlds Beatty makes him live in, is romantic. A man who fights for what he believes and dreams he can spread his beliefs to others.
Clyde Barrow or John Reed both fight against a system, but their fuel is an unabashed pursuit of romance and its sentiments: love but also the feeling of being alive. In Shampoo George may have “fucked them all” but he is presented as a victim of his charms and naiveté, not a malevolent womanizer. His sin is only a byproduct of his quest for romance. But with Beatty the romance is rarely your classical Hollywood “Happily Ever After.” In Shampoo, his love interest leaves him alone. In Bulworth, he’s shot. In Reds, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Bugsy, he dies. In Bonnie & Clyde, they die. And even in a pop culture phenomenon like Dick Tracy, the ending isn’t a straight up fairy tale. As Dick proposes to Tess, he’s interrupted by a bank robbery and takes off, duty calls. Is Beatty cynical refusing the audience the possibility to enjoy a love story? No, it’s actually quite the opposite. By giving us emotionally charged, big and challenging love stories Beatty tests the romantic in us and adds another layer of drama and sentimentality to our experience. A love story is not just the love, but all that goes with it, including heartbreak or estrangement.
Yet, even in their darkest moments, Beatty’s films are incredibly hopeful. They transcend their sheer sentimentalism to capture the endurance of the human spirit. John Reed may have died, but he’s forever buried in the Kremlin – his memory and love story preserved for eternity. Bulworth may have been shot but he spoke freely and lived to the fullest, the final words of the film are: “You got to be a spirit, you can’t be no ghost!”
As an actor, Beatty has collaborated with some of the most renowned directors of American cinema. Elia Kazan gave Beatty his big break, casting him as the conflicted lead in Splendor in the Grass (1961). A few years later, another Hollywood Master, Robert Rossen, cast him in Lilith (1964). Beatty is known to have argued with Rossen over the smallest details. For instance, in a minor scene of the film, Beatty’s character is asked whether he’s read Dostoyevsky. He was supposed to answer that he’s read “The Brothers Karamazov.” A simple, small line of dialogue in the midst of an establishing scene. But Beatty strongly insisted on answering he’d only read half of “The Brothers Karamazov”. Another anecdote, about his collaboration with Robert Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, is similarly revealing. After shooting a dozen takes of one scene, Altman called wrap for the night. But Beatty, dissatisfied, asked for some more takes. Altman gave him a couple, after which he called wrap again. But Beatty remained unsatisfied. Altman told Beatty he was leaving the set but that the crew would stay behind and he could repeat it as much as he wanted. Most actors would have given up, but Beatty stayed and made the crew stay for a couple more hours. This is how Beatty would collaborate with his directors, and later with his writer or actors: repeating takes over and over, he would tenaciously refuse to surrender an inch of control. Whether he was right or not in butting heads with collaborators is another debate.
If there was one character that best describes Warren Beatty the maverick filmmaker and his creative process it’d be Bugsy Siegel. Bugsy is an old-school gangster, with charm, wit and an ability to convince anyone to do anything. Bugsy has a wild dream, to construct a hotel “The Flamingo” in the middle of nowhere in the desert… in Las Vegas! But the construction goes over budget, over time. The quest for detail and perfection becomes obsessive, excessive and counter-productive. Bugsy does not follow the laws of men, the way the system works. He is a dreamer, a visionary who thinks big and who sees time in a different way the businessmen see it. There was a time when Bugsy could get away with it, before the War, but as Meyer Lansky states in the film, “Bugsy’s only flaw is that he does not respect money”. And after World War II, gangsters become businessmen and money becomes the new sign of power.
Warren Beatty’s films are a product of their times. In the same way that Bugsy could follow his crazy vision before the War, Beatty was able to undertake mammoth, unlikely projects. The making of Reds, as told by Peter Biskind in Vanity Fair, is one for the ages. It’s every bit as epic as the film – the cinematic equivalent to Bugsy trying to build the Flamingo. Beatty’s era of glory was the late 60s, the 70s and early 80s – a time of deep societal change during which Beatty knew how to take full advantage of the changing nature of Hollywood to produce deeply personal, idealistic works. Today, it seems unlikely his movies would get made. Not on that scale…
It wouldn’t be a full profile of Beatty without mentioning his “flops”, most notably Ishtar (1987) or Town & Country (2001) – the former seriously damaging his box-office appeal and the second considered by analysts to have ended his career (this is, of course, an utter simplification). And like everything elso Beatty does, when he fails, he fails BIG – the fiascos are still routinely written about by journalists or bloggers when they compile the list of the greatest flops. In Oliver Stone’s Alexander there is a beautiful sentence that could have been written with Warren Beatty in mind: “His failures towered over other men’s successes.”
 “Star” by Peter Biskind