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John Farr

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Missing The Mark On Warren Beatty

Posted: 01/12/2010 11:25 am

It's an odd and infuriating phenomenon in popular culture today: On the one hand, we crucify celebrities for their private sexual peccadilloes with unbridled self-righteousness, while at the same time, we adore rummaging around in people's dirty undies. (Even Tiger, who admittedly handled his own crisis like a total ass, has been over-pilloried, if that's a word).

Today, it seems the time-tested notion of personal privacy (and yes, even a measure of it for public figures) is passé, and the lowest common denominator rules. We like to wallow in it, and no outmoded sense of decorum or etiquette hinders us.

In the wake of Peter Biskind's new book on Warren Beatty, I must ask: why does Mr. Biskind -- and the media who cover his work -- assume the topic I care most about with regard to this highly accomplished figure is how many women he slept with? It's insulting, in a way, isn't it?

I couldn't care less whether he slept with 130, or 1,300 or 13,000 women. It's not that I'm a prude either. I know -- who doesn't- that Warren cavorted with many beautiful ladies, everyone had fun, and I think that's great. I'd have gladly taken his place, in fact. But it's not what we should be focusing on when we review and assess what is- truly and objectively- a singular life and career.

Some may counter that Beatty is notoriously tough to read, and also cite the inconvenient fact that this aging lion is still very much alive.

As to the last point, Mr. Biskind's book is not authorized, so what does it matter? Was the author nervous about someone whispering in his ear, "Peter, you'll never work in this town again?"

As to Beatty's unknowability, isn't that Biskind's job to penetrate? He doesn't have to clarify what can never be understood, just give an informed and thoughtful guess as to what may have made him tick. And perhaps most important, show a measure of balance and restraint in portraying Beatty's multiple, already well-documented, Herculean conquests. Yes, I know it sells books, but it also cheapens and trivializes a colorful and fascinating journey.

Besides, titillation is not all it's cracked up to be. Janet Maslin's review in The New York Times intimated that Mr. Biskind's book comes perilously close to being dull. Now that's an achievement.

Conquests aside, I ask you, how could anyone write a dull book about such a man, when you consider the following anecdotes, which reflect just a small sampling of Beatty lore:

Beatty straddled old and new Hollywood as few others did- he worked with Kazan, knew Jack Warner, even starred opposite Vivien Leigh in the twilight of her career;

He sacrificed the chance to play John F. Kennedy when he was barely 25, even though the President, a personal friend, wanted him to do it. (Warren knew the script was weak and nixed it);

He was already a producer as well as star by age 30, most notably preventing the now-acknowledged classic Bonnie and Clyde from sinking into oblivion by hammering away at the studio brass for its half-hearted marketing, and then highlighting the growing positive word of mouth for the picture;

In a town where creative control is largely a myth, he used his stardom and clout to make movies he really cared about, and make them his way, stretching himself to act, produce, write and direct. His astonishing fourteen Oscar nods encompass all those disciplines.

More than most anyone of his time, Warren Beatty could do it all- and did.

Finally, here's a man who waited to marry until he knew he was ready, and he's made that marriage last, in Hollywood yet. This may be the most telling achievement of all.

Personal anecdote: I met Beatty unexpectedly years ago under inauspicious circumstances at the Carlyle Hotel in New York. I was a predictably awestruck kid in my early twenties, and also more than slightly in my cups that evening (for shame). Beatty was still unfailingly gracious, and I remember, intensely curious. He really listened to what I was saying; he asked questions, wanted to engage. More than any other impression, I came away thinking what an active and interesting brain he had.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised...but I was.

Like Cary Grant before him, Beatty was talented and versatile enough to transcend his good looks, never becoming a Tyrone Power-type pretty boy, but over time proving himself as comfortable (like Cary) in comedy as in drama. Most movie hounds like myself recognize this as a very big deal.

So, all that said, with due respect to Mr. Biskind's tell-all and the media, let's raise the level of debate with regards to Warren Beatty beyond all the bedroom hijinx. In addition to its being- yes, dull- and salacious to boot, to me it's painfully obvious that this man's legacy warrants it.

And ultimately, if we cannot really know Beatty, at least we can know and appreciate his best work, which in my view, is what's most important anyhow.

Splendor In The Grass (1961) -- Rich kid Bud Stamper (Beatty) and high-school beauty Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) are going steady in 1920s Kansas, but though the torch of love burns hot and bright, Deanie resists giving up her virginity to Bud, whose sexual frustration drives him into the arms of other, "looser" girls. The fragile Deanie, meanwhile, is driven over the edge by her shrewish mother, and her own raging hormones. Handsome and emitting the masculine musk that would soon turn him into a rakish sex symbol, Beatty makes an assured screen debut in Elia Kazan's Grass, starring opposite an exquisitely lovely and tortured Wood, playing one of Hollywood's most memorable sexual hysterics. Think Douglas Sirk or Tennessee Williams and you have some idea where Kazan's wonderfully executed tale of young love, scripted by William Inge, eventually tumbles. Keep an eye out too for Phyllis Diller and a young Sandy Dennis, also making her big-screen debut.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) -- Loosely based on the real-life exploits of the infamous 1930's-era bank-robbing couple, this film follows cocky outlaw Clyde Barrow (Beatty) and renegade moll Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) from love at first heist to their legendary demise in a blaze of gunfire. Embarking on a cross-country crime spree with Clyde's brother, Buck (Gene Hackman), and his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), Clyde is hailed as a Depression-era hero, but the gang's days are numbered as they try to outrun and outgun the coppers. With its gritty outlook and unapologetic celebration of anti-authoritarianism, Bonnie and Clyde helped usher in the New Cinema of the '70s. Skittish about the film's violence, Warner Bros. almost soft-pedaled the movie's release into an early, anonymous grave, but producer/star Beatty fought to make sure audiences got their say--and of course, they loved it. In just her third film role, Dunaway captivated men and women alike, holding her own scene by scene with veteran star Beatty. Her costumes also set off a brief retro-twenties fashion craze.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) -- John McCabe (Beatty), gambler turned entrepreneur, finds a remote community in the 1900's Pacific Northwest, and with the help of savvy madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie), builds it into a thriving town. Soon, some determined business interests want to buy McCabe out, but he refuses, forcing an eventual showdown. Robert Altman's dark, ironic tale is more mood piece than classic western, painting an unidealized portrait of our country's expansion. Though we side with McCabe against the corporate interests, we realize we're actually rooting for a crooked card-shark whose relationship with a drug-addicted prostitute is anything but healthy. The movie's filled with stark, stunning visual set-pieces, and boasts one of Beatty's best performances. Peak Altman, and don't miss that finish! (Note: this is the film the late director chose to show when I hosted him at an event six years ago.)

The Parallax View (1974) -- Reporter Joe Frady (Beatty) is onto a terrifying, wide-ranging conspiracy in the wake of a prominent senator's assassination. He must substantiate his theory to editor Bill Rintels (a seasoned Hume Cronyn), who has reason to doubt him thanks to past irresponsible behaviors. Frady does indeed have a tiger by the tail, but will he live long enough to get his scoop? One of our top political paranoia thrillers (and owing an obvious debt to John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate), director Alan J. Pakula uses this story to stir up close-to-the-surface fears and doubts about hidden machinations deeply embedded in our country's recent past. The result is eerily compelling. Direction, script and acting are uniformly excellent, and the film's climax is particularly intense. This subtle, intelligent thriller ranks among my favorite Beatty outings, with Paula Prentiss and Cronyn providing first-rate support among a stellar cast.

Reds (1981) -- Just prior to U.S. involvement in the First World War, progressive journalist John "Jack" Reed (Beatty) meets his match in fiery Portland writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). Sharing a passion for political ideals, they embark on a torrid, often combative relationship complicated by Reed's deep involvement with union organizing. Their eventual journey to Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution is an event that will lead them on an even more torturous path to self-discovery and ultimately, acceptance. Writer-director Beatty's Oscar-winning portrait of leftie scribe John Reed and his paramour Bryant is equal parts sweeping historical epic, tragic romance, and paean to the once influential voices of early American socialism. His ingenious use of actual interviews with those who knew the Greenwich Village couple- including Henry Miller and Rebecca West- gives the picture an extra depth and dramatic veracity. But it's the chemistry between Beatty's uncompromising Reed, a man devoted to the principle of class struggle, and Keaton's fiercely independent Bryant that's sure to rouse your inner rebel. With terrific support from Maureen Stapleton (as Emma Goldman), and Jack Nicholson (as cynical playwright Eugene O'Neill), Reds is a film that embraces love and politics without giving short shrift to either.

Bulworth (1998) -- Well into his career-- but feeling stalled in every respect-- Senator Jay Bulworth (Beatty) is becoming slightly unhinged, losing his keen ear for delivering the words which the voters want and expect to hear. Perhaps it's male menopause, but regardless, the senator decides to enjoy it. He resolves to run for re-election on a novel platform: tell the blunt truth about everyone and everything. Predictably, this move creates bewilderment and bedlam among his staffers, and his constituency at large. A biting political satire, Bulworth explores the term "politically incorrect" with uproarious results. Star/director Beatty, no stranger to liberal politics himself, takes chances satirizing all the hypocrisy and insincerity within our political system, but the gamble pays off with a zany film that has something to say. (Reportedly, Bulworth's refreshingly outspoken views pretty much mirror Beatty's own outlook.) Oliver Platt almost steals the picture as Bulworth's stunned chief aide, and Halle Berry makes a decorous addition as a newly converted supporter. Cast your own ballot for Bulworth.

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