BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 23, 2010
Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America
By Peter Biskind
(Simon & Schuster, 627 pp., $30)
Warren Beatty has not done a lot for us lately. Town and Country, his last movie, was nine years ago. The absence is such that some of his old associates have concluded that he may be happy at last. But I doubt that such a hope lingered more than a few seconds: Beatty’s entire act has been the epitome of dissatisfaction. Another possibility is that one of the world’s habitual manipulators now faces his greatest challenge: his own children, three girls and a boy, ranging in age from seventeen to nine and not lacking for genes, limo-lore, and the chance to pick up dad’s telephone technique. With his kids, Beatty might be in the meeting of his life. In which case he should do whatever he can to keep Peter Biskind’s book out of the house.
Still, Biskind and his publisher have elected to call the book Star—without an exclamation mark, but with a cover photograph that must be forty years old. Now, America in 2010, given a book called Star, is not going to make an obvious connection with Warren Beatty. So it is overreaching of Biskind—it may even be daft—to add the subtitle, “How Warren Beatty Seduced America.” Seduced? Yes. America? No.
I know we have our troubles as a nation and a culture, but there is an uneasy part of this book where the biographer’s calculations lead him to propose, in a spirit of quantitative research, that Beatty may have had more than 12,775 women in his time. We must grant that this precision is awkward and delicate, and understand that you had to be there to establish whether there was a there there. (Biskind is a measured judge: his five-figure number “does not include daytime quickies, drive-by blowjobs, casual gropings, stolen kisses, and so on.” Clear?) I am not dismissing Biskind’s insinuation—I think he knows his subject pretty well—that Beatty may have dreamed of seducing or enthralling America, but, honestly, this fear of current pandemic is silliness. At best, in 2010, we have in Beatty a wry, lonely recluse, perhaps depressed, who watches his children, or watches them watching him. It is out of order to speak of him seducing America. The person he meant to seduce—his only worthy target until les enfants—was himself; whereas the nation, the dark fields of the republic made darker by drive-by blowjobs, turned its back on Warren Beatty maybe as long ago as Ishtar in 1987. Ever since then, major-league seduction has been entrusted to people with more stamina and less neurotic impediment—men such as Barack Obama and George Clooney.
Not that Beatty was ever uninteresting. He was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1937, which is to say, in the South when it was rigidly segregated. He was the child of liberals of Scots-Canadian descent. The father had a variety of jobs—realtor, teacher, school principal—but never really settled down. The mother raised him to play music: the young Beatty was a hip piano player, a deft imitator of Errol Garner and Art Tatum. No one ever noticed his own style. It was just that he hunched over the keys until people began to ask about that good-looking kid at the piano. In his very long book, Biskind does not explore the family and the upbringing, and that’s a pity. Beatty himself has admitted to being raised by women, a group that included his older sister Shirley MacLaine, as flamboyant a performer as he has always been a guarded one.
So he came of age in the ’50s, very good-looking but a virgin apparently. He did a year at Northwestern, then dropped out and went to New York to act. This was the moment when Montgomery Clift did A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity, Brando made A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, James Dean died, and Paul Newman took over some of the roles intended for Dean. Beatty was not slow. He took some classes with Stella Adler, and he did a play in New York, A Loss of Roses by William Inge, a melancholy homosexual who clearly longed to have Beatty as a lover. That never happened, but Beatty used the ties to Inge to get the lead in a movie from an Inge story, Splendor in the Grass, to be directed by Elia Kazan, a guide and teacher to Brando, Clift, and Dean, the pathfinder director in America at that moment.
Beatty had little training and less experience. If the camera loved him from the start, he gave every sign of being ready to reciprocate. I’m not sure that a more resolute self-love has ever faced the world or its cameras. And while Beatty could do guy-sheepishness, he knew inwardly that he merited attention. In so many ways he gave the lead in that self-study. I share Biskind’s suspicion that this confidence was assembled at the cost of psychic damage, and an inability to engage with life or other people without contrived advantage.
He made an impact: he was very good as the all-American kid facing sex in Splendor in the Grass, and he and Kazan helped draw a better and more reckless performance from Natalie Wood in the female lead. Beatty’s virginity had been lost (though I suspect he feels he clings to a part of it forever). The Southern boy was now to be seen with famous women: he nearly married Joan Collins—just saying that out loud suggests how long ago this was. He had an affair with Natalie Wood, and now his sexuality was open in a way that made openness notorious if a little clerical. 12,775? 20,000? 30,000? It’s a game, or a racing circuit with corners and tearaway straights that were named for Leslie Caron, Julie Christie, Michelle Phillips, Diane Keaton, Isabelle Adjani, and so on. You can feel Biskind’s squeamishness about the list, and I share it, but no publisher would condone discretion—and Beatty might sue if a book suggested a lack of generosity on his part. So let me add that while the young actor showed an eye and more for actresses who had Oscar as a beau, he was always an equal-opportunity liberal: the girls did not have to be famous. They did not have to be ravishing beauties or golden minds. They had merely to be there.
Biskind develops a nice riff about the actress-lovers who reached a point where they could not bear to look Beatty in the eye during the filming of a scene. They had seen something amiss—something like the way he used them as mirrors. Carly Simon nailed him, in 1972, with her taunting lyric, “I bet you think this song is about you.” Biskind takes that idea further, to the point where everything in the world reminded Beatty of himself. Was this narcissism, or solipsism? Grant that he was the victim of both, and you may foresee the lurching progress of his career.
He never worked steadily, though when he worked it was furiously, in a way that imprisoned everyone around in his neurosis. He was inclined to be in charge of the whole film, as if not quite trusting or crediting the work of others. Time and again with writers, he emerged believing he had done the work. That frenzy came after Bonnie and Clyde. But first, in the 1960s, he did The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (with Vivien Leigh), giving an enjoyable bad performance such as exposed his lack of craft. Then three times in a row—All Fall Down, Lilith, and Mickey One—he played unlikeable guys out of love with themselves. The struggle was palpable, and all three films are more interesting than Biskind cares to see. Mickey One is deeply pretentious (so was Beatty). All Fall Down was a portrait of a cold user. And in Lilith, with Jean Seberg (she is the film), he played a mental nurse who ends up knowing he needs treatment himself.
Splendor in the Grass did well at the box office. It had rentals of over $4 million. But no other Beatty film had turned a profit. There was every sign that audiences were suspicious of him—just as journalists had determined that he was a pain in the ass. So by 1967, Beatty was not too far from a terminal pretty-boy condition, and he knew it. But he was also smart, well connected, and ready to take a big risk; and those urges flowered in Bonnie and Clyde, the one film of greatness that Beatty has ever been involved with. It was a script by Robert Benton and David Newman, done in the manner of Truffaut, whom they adored. The script fell into Beatty’s hands and he resolved to produce it and to star in it. He had the wisdom to ask Arthur Penn (who had made Mickey One) to direct it. Biskind stresses that Bonnie and Clyde was Beatty’s production, but I think he misses how far the film’s sensuousness and mixed feelings about violence came from Penn.
Bonnie and Clyde was a ’30s genre picture turned into a chic text for the angry ’60s—the sex, the violence, and the outrage at banks were part of a new subversive energy; the clothes, the music, and the idea of motel holdup artists were all from Texas in the early ’30s. This story has been told many times—but it is true. Working on location, sparing no one, Beatty brought in a New Wave film that he had to defend against its stupid studio (Warner Brothers). He carried the film all over the field. He overcame disapproving reviews and poor box office. He willed it to be a hit—the domestic rentals were about ten times the budget. As actor, producer, and everyman on the film, he walked away rich, at the age of thirty.
There was much to love in the film if you were part of the young audience—the comedy used as mocking bandage for death; the chase music; the spilling energy of the performances (that was Penn); the ripe pout on Faye Dunaway’s face; and Beatty’s dazed, chump-like way of telling Clyde’s hard-luck story—how he chopped off a couple of toes days before being released from prison. “Ain’t life grand?” he sighed, and it was real acting. People loved Clyde being a fool; it erased Beatty’s supercilious edge. It was a travesty that Bonnie and Clyde won Oscars only for photography (by the veteran Burnett Guffey, who thought Beatty was a jerk) and for Estelle Parsons (as Clyde’s sister-in-law). It should have had best picture, best director, and best actor—they went instead to In the Heat of the Night, Mike Nichols (for The Graduate), and Rod Steiger (for In the Heat of the Night). There is no reason to be startled at the Academy’s foolishness: that is its exemplary function. But in 1967, Hollywood didn’t like Beatty either. He was a dangerous smart-ass in a world where stars strove to be lovable and ordinary. After all, Ronald Reagan was the emerging archetype.
In the 1970s Beatty had love affairs, he lived in hotels, he got heavily involved in Democratic politics, he began a friendship with Gary Hart that would help to ruin Hart, and he made a few films. Some were wrecks—The Only Game in Town, Dollars, The Parallax View (the one to grieve over), The Fortune. There were also three others—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, and Heaven Can Wait. As the years pass, McCabe may challenge Bonnie and Clyde as Beatty’s best picture. It is a Robert Altman downer on which Altman out-maneuvered Beatty the control freak, exposed his naughty-boy act and turned him into a fumbling, accident-prone antihero. Clyde Barrow gets famous. He has his story told, and the girl sharp enough to do it also gives him a sexual climax. Thank you, ma’am! But John McCabe is a strange outsider whose rare courage goes unnoticed by the town. It is buried in the snow and the mournful drifts of the Leonard Cohen songs. This is a rich, mature film that keeps growing. Biskind gives a good account of how Altman won the power battle on it and took every unfair advantage of Beatty.
In a way, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was training for Shampoo, a strange warning in which Beatty consented to a film about himself. Originally, this was a project for Robert Towne, a talented if neurotic writer whom Beatty had used as a personal script doctor on Bonnie and Clyde. Towne wrote Shampoo and then felt that Beatty had taken over the script. (Biskind is very good on this tortuous game.) This was tragic, but it was comic, too, and it had to do with Beatty’s helpless assurance that this film was about him (in the guise of a Beverly Hills hairdresser who screws his heads). Shampoo is brave and very funny, as lazily sexy as L.A. in the ’70s, sad and very untidy. Today you can still see how with a tougher edge it might have been a masterpiece. Towne and Beatty (talents that needed each other) came away thinking they had both been exploited.
As for Heaven Can Wait, a remake of the 1940s hit Here Comes Mr. Jordan, try seeing it now. For the first time, Beatty took co-director credit, with Buck Henry, who is one of the liveliest and most ironic voices in this book. The film did very well, and Beatty was nominated for best picture, best director, and best actor. (Biskind recalls that this triple matches one person only—Orson Welles—on a thing called Citizen Kane. Factually, this is true. Spiritually, it is grotesque.) Heaven Can Wait is fluffy and vapid. It made a lot of money and shamed the raider who had done Bonnie and Clyde. Not that he noticed.
Whereupon Beatty did everything again on Reds. The first part of that film (it was so long that it required an intermission) is well done, well written, and well played—a pretty Masterpiece Theatre sketch of America in the age of Bolshevism and free love, in which the radiant, ancient witnesses become the most moving thing in sight. But the second part of the film, the one that shows the Russian Revolution, is a prolonged mess in which the attempt at a failed love story cannot smooth out the intractable arguments of leftist infighting.
Beatty believed that it was courageous of him to revisit America’s infant redness in the age of Reagan. He spent years and millions—no one knows quite how many—in a capitalist celebration of a socialist, and never seemed to notice the abyss at his feet. It is impossible in hindsight to believe that he really cared for John Reed as anything other than a flag to wave. Reds has not a political nerve in its complacent body. It is a Hollywood picture about issues that are impossible to follow. Again, Beatty got the triple nomination. He won for best director—another hollow Academy joke, if you believe that Beatty has never had much feeling for the movement and rhythm of movies such as made the nervous system of Arthur Penn or Jean Renoir. A producer? Yes. But as a director he makes Clint “You Work Until You Die” Eastwood look like Hemingway.
And after Reds, he rested. There was a six-year gap before his next film, Ishtar, a famous disaster. And since Ishtar, Beatty has done Dick Tracy, Bugsy, Love Affair, Bulworth, and Town and Country. He married Annette Bening and had children with her. He added the Irving Thalberg award to his directing Oscar. Now he has seemed eager to be regarded as an elder statesman in that kingdom called Hollywood—which, in truth, is a state of broken abandon.
What is to be said about those last five films? Biskind makes it clear that the production of all of them was an ordeal in which Beatty behaved increasingly badly, usurped the power of others, and indulged a chronic habit of shooting take after take to no good end. Dick Tracy was a hit, but so expensive that Jeffrey Katzenberg asked out loud whether a hit like that was worth having. It was pretty but empty. Bugsy was a real film, but its flaw may lie in its central performance, in which Beatty is unsure whether to be monstrous or charming. Biskind is a bigger fan than I can be: the political “idealism” in which unbridled ego invents Las Vegas is surely suspect from the start. Love Affair and Town and Country were disasters akin to Ishtar. And Bulworth? That is still going, like McCabe & Mrs Miller. It ends feebly, as if given up on by its makers, but the first half is political satire of a high order, as well as a subterfuge as good at piercing America’s prim defenses as Bonnie and Clyde. It was once believed by others that Beatty should run for some kind of office. He could have been a contender. (Look who the governor of California is, for God’s sake.) He may have been chilled off by the feeling that he only wanted to be a winner.
And so Biskind’s book ends, in most ways, with Beatty’s marriage to Bening. This is as regrettable as it is mysterious. Biskind reports one guideline he never wavered from (he did have conversations with Beatty, though he admits how closed down they might be): “I decided that anything of a personal nature that occurred after he and Annette Bening married was off limits, because I didn’t want to be in a position of writing anything that might embarrass them or their four children.” That is pious and disingenuous. There are things in this book about Beatty’s romantic life that will make some readers squirm and may alarm the children. Alas, Bening never really figures in the book. I say alas, because she is unusually intelligent and may be a better actress than her record shows. If we are still interested in Beatty after five hundred pages—and I must say that after that many pages the reader must make a big effort to stomach his relentless controlling urges—then his transforming marriage and his fatherhood deserved attention.
Biskind believes in Beatty’s “extraordinary body of work.” My feelings are more mixed. And Biskind leaves Beatty wondering whether to make the Howard Hughes film that he has considered for decades. Are we living in the same world, author and reader? Beatty is seventy-three this year. Howard Hughes was seventy when he died. There was a time when the odd spell of Howard Hughes may have carried a necromantic allure—if we are to believe in a mouldering neurotic who knows enough about life for his fears to be tragic. Anyway, a far more energetic and decisive director—Martin Scorsese—has already done a version of Hughes in The Aviator, which never gathered rentals to match its cost, and left every impression that Hughes’s last years were a life not worth living, let alone watching.
I don’t believe that Beatty can any longer muster the will or the money for a geriatric vanity. One of the failings in Star is that it does not follow the money tightly enough. Beatty came into pictures starting at zero: his family had no unusual means. He made himself wealthy, but he became a big loser of studio money over the years. Biskind says that sometimes Beatty had to act and to direct so as to make a project financially sustainable. But I would need to know the details to have the case proved: money is always in the details. Beatty had a halcyon moment, from the late ’60s until the late ’70s, when studios craved his presence. Today those studios barely exist. The sums of money are beyond reach. I doubt that there is a studio left (or an audience) that would pay a dollar for Beatty to pretend to be anyone.
This sort of creative challenge existed once. It may remind some readers of Orson Welles, who spent time on Citizen Kane playing with the idea of what he might look like in old age. Repeatedly, Star describes the pains taken by Beatty to protect his perishing looks as shooting went on. He was fanatically protective of the image he nursed of himself, whereas Welles, even at twenty-five, was possessed by a cheerful self-destructiveness. Welles had ego, but he was willing to look like death if it furthered a film. Beatty has smothered himself and his creativity by trying to stay young. One of the great things about Citizen Kane is that its vision (the exultant gaze of a brilliant kid) is shaded by glimpses of an eventual failure and solitude. Welles had a rueful foreboding that made his youthfulness seem all the more vibrant. Beatty, by contrast, was a sultry kid, baleful, dangerously without humor, and asleep in dreams of himself.
Warren Beatty is an emblem for our last cluster of male movie stars: he is the same age as Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and Dustin Hoffman, and near enough to Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. All of them have lived beyond the natural span of their own stardom. There is a sadness about them now. De Niro and Pacino work on—and on—and their new films are, now more than ever, ordeals. Nicholson has said that he is washed up on the shore beyond the tide-line of good scripts. Redford seems as lost and as vacant as ever. Stars are not necessarily self-aware or intelligent, but once they shone. Now these vets huddle together in soft-focus, in scenes that use doubles.
Star is expert reporting but grinding to read, and it bespeaks an oppressive interest in movieland maneuvers. But it shows why, once upon a time—before AIDS, before Polanski, before special effects and monster budgets—a great-looking guy with his wits about him might think it would be fun to make a movie. And so it was, even if fun is a boy’s sport. Now the fun has gone out of American film. The rush of celluloid no longer lives and moves or believes in its own ninety-minute sensation. It isn’t even celluloid, and it’s never ninety minutes. Warren Beatty begins to seem like Norma Desmond.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. The enlarged and updated fifth edition will be published by Knopf in the fall.