Monday 18 November 2019

Beatty's turkeys and his other birds...

Star: How Warren seduced America Peter Biskind (Simon & Schuster, £17.99)

John Walsh

What is Warren Beatty best known for? Starring in Bonnie and Clyde? Directing the three-hour epic of the Russian revolution, Reds? Wielding a phallic hairdryer in Shampoo? Possessing a political conscience? You already know the answer. It's none of the above. It's the shagging.

We get chapter and verse from Peter Biskind (a respected film writer) on page 160 of this biography: "Simple arithmetic tells us that if he had no more than one partner a night -- and often there were several -- over a period of, say, three-and-a-half decades, from the mid-1950s, when he arrived in New York, to 1991, when he met Annette Bening. we can arrive at a figure of 12,775 women, give or take, a figure that does not include daytime quickies, drive-by blowjobs, casual gropings, stolen kisses and so on."

Beatty has rejected Biskind's arithmetic but that won't put anyone off.

So if you want to know the more famous of Beatty's many conquests (Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Cher, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Leslie Caron, Twiggy, Britt Ekland, Liv Ullmann, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and that's just to the 1970s) whether he was into spanking or threesomes, you can read all about it here.

But Biskind works hard to remind us that Beatty was good at movies too -- that he is the only film-maker since Orson Welles to be nominated in four Oscar categories (producer, director, writer, star) and that Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo clocked up 35 Oscar nominations between them.

The story he tells of Beatty's sprint to fame is startling indeed. We hear nothing of Beatty's childhood. We're pitched straight into the spectacle of young Warren, aged 22, eyeing Joan Collins in a New York bar one hot summer night and making her his meal-ticket to fame. Only later do basic facts emerge.

He was born in 1937 in Virginia to a family of Baptists. Both his parents had nursed showbiz ambitions, but his father counselled him not to hope for much. In response, Warren dropped out of high school and came to New York, working as a dishwasher and piano player.

A shared audition at CBS led to a religious TV Sunday show. Agents began to sniff around. At experimental theatres he learned to mumble like Brando, Clift and Dean, but was considered shallow and vain by co-thespians who called him "Mr Broadway".

His break came when he cultivated William Inge, the gay playwright, who secured him the lead in Splendour in the Grass. A screen test with Jane Fonda (who thought he was gay) won him a five-year MGM contract for $400 a week. His next movies, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone and All Fall Down, were flops and his acting career stalled. By 1962, aged 25, Beatty had turned down 75 movie scripts and about $2m in salary. When Bonnie and Clyde raised him to superstardom in 1967, it was the end of a procession of turkeys.

Biskind explains that "the tropes that have characterised his behaviour throughout most of his life -- womanising, ambition, compulsion and indecision" manifested themselves early. Beatty always loved to interfere in the film process, changing lines, arguing with designers, actors, writers -- it's amazing his films got made at all. During McCabe and Mrs Miller, he insisted on so many re-takes that the director, Robert Altman, stomped home to bed and left him to it.

Beatty comes across as an arch-manipulator, control freak, and nightmare pain in the butt, keen to impress as a Goldwyn-sized Hollywood "player" while unable to give a straight answer or reach a conclusion.

As we move through Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds and Bugsy, Beatty's obsessively hands-on approach changes into something grander: image-making, egomania, empire-building. The last two decades have seen only one hit, Dick Tracy, and several flops. Beatty's career has wound down, coinciding with his happy marriage and the birth of four children.

Biskind ends this long (627 pages), gossipy, readable book with the melancholy reflection that Beatty did "so much less than someone with his gifts could have done". The thing he really got round to doing successfully was having sex with multitudes of women. But for a man with such a cripplingly large ego, that was never enough.

Irish Independent

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