Warren Beatty: Brilliant man-god struck down by his own lightning
He had it all -- charm, brains, stardom and thousands of sexual conquests. But, says Euan Ferguson, it was not enough
Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty
Simon & Schuster, €22.20
Headlines over the past couple of weeks have focused, predictably, on the fact that Warren Beatty has, according to this long-awaited semi-authorised biography, bedded almost 13,000 women in his life. This temporary outbreak of prurience might, at least, bring the one-time superstar to the attention of young things who've hardly heard of the man whose hits are long behind him. Dick Tracy (1990) made $100m, but there are cogent arguments that he hasn't had a truly popular hit since Heaven Can Wait in 1978. However, the focus on Beatty's sexual exploits do a reductive disservice to the book as a whole.
Peter Biskind, a former executive editor of Premiere magazine and the highly regarded author of 1998's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, one of the best books on Hollywood of the past quarter-century, never quite got official access to Beatty, but never quite didn't. As he explains near the start of this equally stunning piece of truth-telling, every page full of nuggets without descending to salaciousness, the pair were always near-friends, and Beatty was always going to almost allow him to write the book officially.
Yet he shillied and stalled and changed his mind so often that Biskind remained unsure whether he'd actually got the go-ahead even as publication approached.
The tale that emerges, through the thicket of quotes from Hollywood's biggest players of the past 50 years (and how the mild-mannered Biskind got them to talk to him again, after the revelations in Easy Riders, is a mystery), is that of a man-god gone sadly wrong. Warren Beatty could have been almost anything. He had charm, a vaulting intellect, beautiful looks and physique, unstoppable ambition and all the necessary connections. And he didn't do badly out of it. He got to make at least one wonderful hit, Bonnie and Clyde, and at least two passionate films reflecting his left-leaning politics (Reds and Bulworth). He got to march tall and revered in the fairyland of Hollywood for decades: you suddenly remember, reading this, that he belonged too to the world of of Lillian Hellman and Vivien Leigh.
And then there are his estimated 12,775 sexual conquests -- quite some going, given that he has been apparently faithfully married to Annette Bening since 1992. The tally includes Isabelle Adjani, Diane Keaton, Madonna, Jane Fonda and Joan Collins, just as tasters. Charm he certainly had, and many who shared his bed stress this to Biskind. But there was also a driving need for complete control, which may have got them weak-kneed in the first place but ultimately revealed a man afraid ever to relinquish the tiller, and so secretive that Bob Dylan thought he was a freemason. As Leslie Caron, who was a happily married mother when they embarked on their two-year affair (Biskind notes that husbands were "never much of an impediment to Beatty"), remembers: "Seduction was his greatest asset. Once he was interested in a woman, he would never let go. He enveloped her with his every thought. He wanted total control of her; her hair, her make-up, her work. He took notice of everything."
As with his women, so with his films. Before long, in a fast-changing Hollywood, word got out that he was impossible to work with. He couldn't act without directing, and he couldn't direct without directing life itself: with charm, certainly, but also with his unremitting control freakery and often volcanic temper. Part of the problem with the deservedly forgotten Town & Country (2001), for instance, was that according to one of Biskind's sources Beatty "worried every speech to death", re-analysing and re-editing every breath, pause, verb and comma to the point that no sense lingered.
By then, although he was a happily settled father, the films had been going wrong for a while. As one colleague, the Oscar-winning production designer Dick Sylbert, said as long ago as 1995: "Warren... no longer counts in this town. His fangs have been pulled. In fact, he pulled his own fangs, which is more than interesting."
The full package -- charm, brilliance, brains, ego, narcissism -- both took Beatty to the top and prevented him, crucially, from noticing when the slide began. Rather than settling (like Clint Eastwood, for instance) with splendid directing, he ached to be the overarching superstar of every film; felt he deserved not only to live forever, but to live at the top forever.
The ever closed Beatty may hate this book, but it is both impeccable and rollicking, and a not disloyal tribute to a man who had it all and yet, but for himself, could have had so much more.
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