The Lost Superstar

Back in the ’70s, Warren Beatty – director, star, producer, politico, lover – was a bigger player than Pacino, De Niro and Nicholson. So why did he fall from the A-list? Total Film sifts through the dirt to unearth the truth…

Warren Beatty is so vain, he thought Carly Simon’s song was about him. Simon has steadfastly refused to confirm or deny, but Hollywood’s super stud certainly ranks as prime suspect – and phoned to thank her for it. Of course, Simon is a mere footnote in a list of romantic attachments that runs from Adjani (Isabelle) to Wood (Natalie), by way of Brigitte Bardot, Cher, Julie Christie, Joan Collins, Leslie Caron… In fact it would probably be quicker to list the women he hasn’t dated (one biographer counted 57 liaisons, but these are just the famous names; his policy was never to be seen dating anyone without social status). Woody Allen once fantasised about being reincarnated as Beatty’s fingertips. Beatty repaid the compliment by seducing Diane Keaton.

Yet there’s precious little dirt attached to his womanising ways. He may love ’em and leave ’em, but the reviews have been discreetly impressive and impressively discreet. “It wasn’t all about sexuality. It was about his tenderness. Warren by nature is a caretaker,” Goldie Hawn reported. “He’s generous and loving and for a while they all felt like they were the total focus of his life – and they were,” suggests Bonnie And Clyde writer Robert Benton, who’s known him for 40 years. “They all think he’s one of the greatest friends they’ll ever have.”

Even in his new role as Mr Annette Bening, father of four, he is not one to apologise for his promiscuous past – as Senator Jay Bulworth, he memorably advocated “procreative racial deconstruction” (everybody fucking everybody till they’re all the same colour). But Beatty may resent the way his sexual exploits have overshadowed his movies and probably ruled out the career in politics he always craved...

Then again, that might be a convenient excuse for a competitive over-achiever, a control freak who also cops to being a world-class procrastinator and commitment-phobe: a movie star who has appeared in a grand total of just six movies over the last quarter of a century.

He wasn’t exactly churning them out in his ’70s heyday, either – seven in 10 years – a trend that started as early as 1962, when a 25-year-old Beatty already had the balls to turn down a role President John F Kennedy suggested he would be perfect for: the young JFK. As it turned out, the movie was a clunker and Beatty was proved right.

That wouldn’t always be the case. Over the years he also passed on such hits as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Godfather, Last Tango In Paris, The Sting, The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby, Superman, Misery, and Wall Street. Recently, he talked Quentin Tarantino out of casting him in the title role of Kill Bill. “I only make the movies I want to make,” he would explain with a shrug. Or more graphically, “For me, making a movie was like vomiting. I didn’t look forward to it, but after I did it, I felt better. And when I have a full life, as I do now, the periods of not wanting to vomit grow longer.”

That’s a gross image to come from an artist, but by all accounts Beatty is a perfectionist and highly demanding on set, arguing with his directors and sometimes even shooting his own scenes, as he did on McCabe & Mrs Miller. Quoted last year, Robert Altman did not remember the collaboration fondly: “When I die, if that egotistical bastard says anything nice about me then you know he’s lying. But I’ll haunt him to his grave for the unprofessional way that he treated me and our cast and crew.”

For a long time, playing hard to get was Beatty’s stock in trade, professionally anyway, and letting slip about the ones that got away only enhanced his mythic status as the star on top of everyone’s Christmas list. But why would the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson be so keen to land an old slinger like Beatty in the first place? Hard to believe now, but Warren was the original poster boy for New Hollywood. Decades before the word “indie” came into play, it was Beatty who broke the mould and bucked the system. He was George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh rolled into one irresistible package. Balking at the pretty boy roles that were coming his way, he decided to take control of his own career.

First, he snapped up a screenplay two unknown writers had offered to François Truffaut on spec. Then he went down on his hands and knees and begged Jack Warner to bankroll it. The studio weren’t enthusiastic – gangster movies were old hat – but the deal was structured so Warner wouldn’t lose money. Beatty put the entire package together, bringing in script doctor Robert Towne for rewrites, installing Arthur Penn as director and casting then unknowns Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder and Michael J Pollard. He insisted they shoot it on location, away from studio interference and, when the movie was done, he fought tooth and nail to get it out there intact. No easy matter: Jack Warner hated the picture, and most of his executives agreed with him. Shockingly violent and disturbingly amoral, Bonnie And Clyde wasn’t just a bad film; it was effectively malignant.

The New York Times savaged the film three weeks running: “A cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick,” raged critic Bosley Crowther. Newsweek called it “a squalid shoot-’em-up for the moron trade”. Warner effectively buried it.

Then the British critics started talking it up as a masterpiece. Some said it was the best reviewed film in Britain in 10 years. London audiences were thrilled and ’30s fashions came briefly back into vogue. In the US, Pauline Kael led the fight back with the 9,000-word rave that made her reputation. First Newsweek, then Time reversed their original put-downs. Now Bonnie And Clyde was the best picture of the year and the most important: a watershed movie.

Beatty insisted the studio re-release the picture. He’d sue if they didn’t. His bluff worked. Second time around it was a cultural phenomenon and the 10 Oscar nominations announced on the day of the re-release sealed the deal.

There was heat enough for everyone, but it was Warren’s triumph. He’d been there from first to last. He’d come up with the tagline (“They’re young… they’re in love… and they kill people.”) He’d even supervised a new sound mix to amp up the gunshots. In many ways it was the first real American movie of the ’60s. Okay, so it was technically a studio picture, but it set the stage for Easy Rider and the wave of youth pictures that followed.

Not only that: because Warner had such little faith in the film, he’d given Beatty 40 per cent of the gross in place of a producer’s fee. With box-office standing in excess of $30 million by mid-1968, it was little wonder Jack Nicholson dubbed him “The Pro”.

And on top of it all, he was the star of the show.

He’d been a star, in fact, from the very first time they put a movie camera on him. Is there any other actor who has only ever played leads?

Beatty arrived in New York in 1957, two years after his big sister Shirley MacLaine (who took on her mother’s maiden name) broke into movies. Refusing to trade on her success, he studied with the legendary Method guru Stella Adler and became a protégé of playwright William Inge.

His first film was Splendor In The Grass (1961). Cast by Elia Kazan, Beatty was immediately put on a platform beside the director’s previous discoveries, Marlon Brando and James Dean. Sensual and cerebral (or, as Kazan had it, “uncertain but charming”), he was better-looking than either of them. He knew it, too: Kazan said he had all the mirrors in the make-up room covered up to stop Warren from staring at himself all day. Being a star so young “was like being a kid in a candy store,” Beatty said. Or, as he told Woody Allen, “Being in a whorehouse with a credit card.”

On screen, Beatty’s feigned diffidence has always been the key. Soft-spoken and deliberately vague, he understood he was too handsome to come on strong. In that respect, he’s a little like George Roundy, the hairdresser hero in his second film as producer, Shampoo (1975): George being all too happy to let Jack Warden’s character assume he’s gay if that means he doesn’t suspect he’s jumping in the sack with his wife (Lee Grant), his mistress (Julie Christie) and his daughter (Carrie Fisher). “I wanted to explore contemporary sexuality through the medium of a Don Juan,” Beatty explained. “A Don Juan doesn’t get that way out of a misogynist feeling or the idea he’s a latent homosexual… He just wants to fuck because he likes to fuck.”

That’s as close as he gets to talking about his private life. In interviews he’s evasive enough to drive journalists to tears. Off the record he’s witty and erudite. Back on the record, sentences trail off. Silences last for as long as you let them (“You could mount a Broadway musical in his pauses,” wrote a wag from Rolling Stone). This is not a man who’s going to be pinned down. He learned from agent Charlie Feldman never to sign contracts, and legend has it he never paid his agents their 10 per cent either. Being in business with Beatty was allegedly reward enough.

The befuddled boyish charm worked on studio bosses too. Take Charlie Bluhdorn, head of Gulf & Western, the oil conglomerate that owned Paramount Pictures. Bluhdorn offered him $25 million to do anything but Reds, but Beatty made ‘Commie Dearest’ anyway, his lament for the lost Socialist ideal. And he made it in high style, treating the entire crew to first class train tickets to travel 60 miles and routinely shooting more than 30 takes. The budget spiraled north, with Beatty adding insult to injury when he refused to promote the film. It failed to break even.

Although he’s a bona fide political progressive, you get the feeling that Beatty the power-player may have made Reds to show that he could. There is a story about Julie Christie – the love of his life until Annette Bening came along – poking fun at him for making the silly, sentimental Heaven Can Wait (1978) when Europeans like Fassbinder were doing such important political cinema at the time. It’s interesting that Reds is the tragedy of a writer who gives up his art (and his wife) for the cause – and dies to regret it. If Beatty remained serious about his political aspirations, Reed’s story in Reds is a cautionary tale. “There is always that pull between art and politics,” he said, “politics being the art of the possible and art being that which involves no compromise. That’s the pull in John Reed.”

In the history of Oscar, only two men have been nominated for four Academy Awards for one film: Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (writing, directing, producing, starring) and Beatty, who pulled off the same trick twice and for consecutive movies – though neither Heaven Can Wait nor Reds stands the Kane comparison. Unlike Welles, Beatty won the Best Director prize for Reds, his first (and only) win after six nominations. But that vindication only seemed to paralyse his creative instincts. Variety editor Peter Bart called Beatty “the King of the Pitch”, but what does he have to show for it? Joe Eszterhas wrote that the joke in Hollywood was that the apparently all-powerful Warren “could turn a go-project into a development deal”.

There was much speculation concerning a biopic about a private millionaire and moviemaker (Howard Hughes) but unlike the Spruce Goose, Beatty’s movie had yet to get off the ground. It was six years later when he starred with Dustin Hoffman in an update on the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road pictures: Ishtar (1987).

The first half hour is actually pretty funny. The rest is history. The critics crucified it and the studio essentially wrote off its $40 million investment. Beatty was 50 years-old and it was beginning to look like the audience wasn’t there for him anymore.

Still, he remained a legend, at least in Hollywood, and after smartly hooking his star to Madonna’s, he managed to produce two more pet projects. Comic-strip epic Dick Tracy (1990) was a transparent attempt to go one better than Batman; Beatty directed and starred alongside his girlfriend and a rogue’s gallery of peers, including Hoffman, Pacino and Caan. Although Dick Tracy was a $100-million blockbuster, the experience was so bruising for Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg that he issued a notorious internal memo about the dangers of “losing control of your own destiny”: “The number of hours [Tracy] required, the amount of anxiety it generated and the amount of dollars that needed to be expended were disproportionate to the amount of success achieved.” In other words, it wasn’t worth the aggro.

TriStar boss Mike Medavoy hadn’t read his colleague’s mission statement when he got involved with the gangster romance Bugsy (1991), an artful prestige picture which ended up losing a lot of money after the producer-star insisted on spending more and more on marketing a movie the public didn’t want to see despite its 10 Oscar nominations.

“Life according to Warren Beatty is different from life according to anyone else in the movie business,” Medavoy ruefully concluded, looking back on the movie that probably cost him his job. “Somehow he is able to make his own rules and then persuade others to follow them.”

Seven years and yet another costly flop (1994’s Love Affair) later, Beatty somehow persuaded Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox to foot the bill for the radically subversive Bulworth. Even now, no one at the studio has admitted responsibility for greenlighting this satire about a suicidal Senator who decides to tell the public some home truths... in rap.

Bulworth isn’t Beatty’s best film, but it’s his most reckless, his funniest, his most outspoken. Maybe it took the ultimate insider to get away with such a biting broadside against the system. A commercial failure (naturally), it was Beatty’s unelectable alternative manifesto and should probably be considered his last word.

But that is to ignore Town And Country (2001), a decadent sex farce nominally directed by Britain’s Peter Chelsom but starring Warren as an ageing roué and such cronies as Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Garry Shandling. Three years in the making, it doubled its budget to $85 million, missed 17 projected release dates and all in all made Ishtar look like a businesslike proposition.

Was Beatty to blame? He hired a PR firm and a lawyer to put a lid on any idle speculation, while Chelsom muttered darkly about mind-games and manipulation. We couldn’t possibly comment, but it’s clear that getting into bed with Warren Beatty doesn’t quite have the same appeal it once did in Hollywood.