Hollywood and politics have been going together for a long time. Kevin Brownlow showed in Behind the Mask of Innocence that political comment in American films began much earlier than is generally thought. But Hollywood figures as political activists themselves— that phenomenon began, I'd guess, in the 1930s. One of my fond memories: in the 1936 presidential campaign James Cagney and Robert Montgomery on a pro-Roosevelt radio show singing, to the tune of "The Old Gray Mare," a duet that went “The old red scare, it ain't what it used to be." (Years later both of them became famously conservative.)
Since World War II few stars have been more politically active than Warren Beatty, always on the liberal side. Until now, however, this actor-writer-director-producer has made only one film with overt political content. Reds, and for all its revolutionary ambiance, the emphasis there was more on the lives of the principals than on their ideas. Now Beatty presents Bulworth (20th Century Fox), in which the politics is more important than the people.
Beatty wrote the original story and co-wrote the screenplay with Jeremy Pikser. The time is 1996. At the start of this comedy-drama, Senator Bulworth of California is running for reelection. But he is depressed and suicidal. He engages a hit man to knock him off during the campaign, after arranging for a $10 million life insurance policy payable to his wife (though relations with her are cool). The policy is payola for a favor to a big insurance company.
While campaigning, Bulworth suddenly becomes a new man. Unexpectedly he begins telling the truth, instead of pumping bilge, and he tells it in sulfurous terms, confessing to poor blacks that they have been betrayed and to rich Jews that they have been fawned on. At a black church he spots a beautiful young woman, Nina, who spots him. An affinity develops between them even as he rushes on in his revisionist campaign.
Partly because of this affinity but mostly because of his liberated conscience, he becomes a white Negro. (This Norman Mailer term was recently the title of a Henry Louis Gates, Jr. article about Bulworth.) He begins to speak in rap rhymes. He dresses as a young black man, with a ski-cap on his head. Instead of ruining his electoral chances, these changes spark his campaign and make him a national celebrity. Enlivened, inspirited, he tries desperately to call off the hit he has arranged.
He gets somewhat involved in Nina's family's troubles. All the while he keeps blazing along the campaign trail, rhyming out facts about conditions for American blacks, trying harder and harder to become black. Very near the end, when he tells Nina in the middle of a crowd that they will have difficulty together because of their race difference, she says, "You're my nigger," and they kiss passionately. This, however, is not the end of the picture.
The two recent political films Wag the Dog and Primary Colors were not really about issues but maneuvers. Bulworth steps right into a major issue, and the central metamorphosis is a keen, bitterly comic idea. But the screenplay, for all the care that has obviously gone into it,seems like a first draft. At the main moments of transition in the story, we can almost hear Beatty and friends saying,"We'll fix this later." At the beginning,for instance, Bulworth is sitting in his Washington office, looking at pabulum TV spots of his, apparently a successful, powerful man arranging deals. He does have one brief crying jag, unexplained, but it's hardly enough to explain his wish for assisted suicide. The hit arrangement creaks with unpreparedness. (And, a bit of bad luck for Beatty, a recent Ukrainian film, A Friend of the Deceased, uses the same plot device:a man arranges for a hit man to kill him,then tries to call off the deal. In 1990,the device was used in a Finnish film called I Hired a Contract Killer.
Mrs. Bulworth's behavior in public and private is hard to believe. Candidates' wives don't often upbraid their husbands in front of others for being late. And the likelihood seems dim that such a wife, in the middle of a campaign, would have an affair, in these days when investigative reporters are drooling with rapacity.
Then there is Bulworth's transformation. It is simply not adequately motivated. When it happens, it seems quite arbitrary, making us aware of plot mechanics instead of filling us with admiration. It is just as contrived as the contract on his life.
What’s even worse is the way his transformation is received. When it happens, his aides are naturally appalled; but the media and the public respond with huzzahs. This is sheer farce carpentry, on a different plane from the gravity of Bulworth's utterances, especially since his language on TV is laced with words that no network would, as yet, carry.
All these structural gaffes are doubly regrettable: they could have been fixed, and they seriously hurt a film of admirable purpose. Beatty wants to blast us with some facts about race in this country: despite the black sports stars and mayors and professors and lawyers that we know about, most African Americans live outside. Rap music is anger music, hate music. Social and political programs can help, have helped, but the real program has to be internal—within white people. Bulworth, slightly crazed, is trying to dramatize this basic truth in his very being. But his story's structure impedes him.
Christine Baranski, as Mrs. Bulworth, is her usual valuable self, pungent and unique. Nina is the exquisite Halle Berry, every bit as persuasive as she needs to be. Jack Warden as an old pol, Paul Sorvino as a tycoon lobbyist, Oliver Platt as Bulworth's right hand, are all reliable craftsmen, always welcome. In Reds Beatty used a well-known author, Jerzy Kosinski, to play Zinoviev; here he uses a well-known author, Amiri Baraka, to play a ragged homeless man who recurs like the soothsayer in Julius Caesar. (Baraka has the last line of the film, something cloudy about being a spirit, not a ghost.)
Beatty himself is high wattage, revved up, sharp in his comic timing, gleaming with eagerness to put his film across. As director, he carries on from where he left off in Reds; he is sure and fluent, and occasionally he tips his hat to the past. In Reds he paid his respects to Eisenstein; here it's to Capra. In the middle of one of Bulworth's revolutionary talks, the electric power is suddenly switched off to isolate him, which is what happened to Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe. (Capra's grandson was a coproducer on Bulworth and doubtless appreciated the homage.)
A pity that the contrivances of the structure nag at the truths in the film. It is especially painful because this is clearly a crux in Beatty's life. Bulworth is to Beatty very much what Bulworth's conversion is to him, a chance to revitalize his career. Beatty has faded in the last decade, partly because of inactivity, partly because of his last film. Love Affair, a remake of a 1939 weepie that even I couldn't drive myself to see. Bulworth could have gone far to reestablish him. Well, it may go far, anyway, because a good deal of it is politically sound and theatrically glittering.
Stanley Kauffmann is film critic for The New Republic.