Tuesday 12 December 2017

Film: Return of Beatty and the beast

Heartbreaker: Warren Beatty with Natalie Wood in 1962
Heartbreaker: Warren Beatty with Natalie Wood in 1962

Paul Whitington

Warren Beatty is a notorious prevaricator, but even by his standards, 40 years is a long time to spend dreaming up a film. Beatty first had the idea for a movie about Howard Hughes in the early 1970s when he caught a glimpse of the reclusive billionaire in a hotel lobby. He signed a contract with Warner Brothers to write, produce, direct and star in a Hughes biopic, but nothing came of it - until 2011 that is, when Beatty announced that his film would finally get made.

Rules Don't Apply is set in 1958 and Beatty stars as Hughes. Lily Collins plays a Virginian beauty queen who comes to Hollywood and ends up working for Hughes. She falls in love with one of his drivers, but the boss has strict rules forbidding liaisons between his employees.

It opens in the US in a few weeks and will surface here after Christmas: his last film, the 2001 comedy Town & Country, was a spectacular flop, so it will be interesting to see how Rules Don't Apply is received. Beatty has claimed he doesn't much care about reviews, but is notoriously thin-skinned. He lives in the same bubble of privilege he's occupied since the mid-1960s and might be horrified by a simple, brutal truth: most people under 40 have no idea who he is.

Like Hughes, Beatty has retreated from the limelight in his later years: after a marathon run as Hollywood's most notorious ladies' man (see panel), he settled down with Annette Bening in the early 1990s, became a father and started working less. After Town & Country, he disappeared altogether, leading some to assume he'd retired. But in 2010, Beatty popped up in a half-hour TV comedy based on his 90s film Dick Tracy. Then came Rules Don't Apply, and Beatty's now talking about making a Dick Tracy sequel as well.

He's always had a quicksilver, unknowable quality, and critics have sometimes wondered if there's anything behind that effortlessly handsome veneer at all. But although his career is littered with intriguing, unmade projects, Beatty has proved his substance as a director in films like Reds and Heaven Can Wait, and as an actor in everything from Bonnie and Clyde to McCabe & Mrs Miller and Shampoo.

Sometimes, everything comes too easy. Henry Warren Beatty was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 30 1937, the second child of devoutly Baptist schoolteachers. Henry was a star footballer at high school and would have become a college player if he hadn't decided to follow his elder sister Shirley into acting. She had moved to New York, assumed the stage name of MacLaine and been spotted by a Hollywood producer. By the time her kid brother left school, Shirley was starring in Hitchcock films and Henry decided to follow suit.

Like most actors of his generation, Beatty started out in TV dramas, but it was a Broadway play that would provide his breakthrough. A Loss of Roses was a moving tale of small-town woes written by William Inge, and Beatty's performance earned him a Tony nomination. More importantly, Inge remembered him when it came to casting his 1961 movie Splendor in the Grass.

Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Natalie Wood as a teenage girl in 1920s Kansas whose sexual ambivalence leads to lasting unhappiness. Beatty played her All-American boyfriend Bud, and the influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was impressed by the sensitivity and "deep pathos" of his performance. He was tall, handsome, graceful and charismatic: film work began to come his way.

He was suitably oily playing a scheming gigolo in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961), chillingly convincing as a lover with a nasty streak in All Fall Down (1962), rakishly charming as an amateur pornographer in Promise Her Anything (1965). But in 1966, Beatty took control of his own career by making a very astute purchase.

He was in Paris when he met François Truffaut and heard about a planned biopic of 1920s bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Truffaut had agreed to direct it, but pulled out to make Fahrenheit 451 instead. The project looked doomed when Beatty came along, but he realised its potential, bought the rights to the script and decided he would produce Bonnie and Clyde.

He tried to persuade ex-girlfriend Wood to play Bonnie, but she refused: instead comparative newcomer Faye Dunaway was cast.

Beatty fought constantly with his director Arthur Penn during filming, and the shoot would cement his reputation as a nit-picking control freak. The finished film was controversial.

It was probably the first movie to use squibs - tiny charges mounted with bags of stage blood that exploded from the actors' clothes to simulate bullet wounds. Penn's camera gazed unflinchingly as characters were shot in the face and the final sequence, when Bonnie and Clyde are killed in gory slow motion by hails of gunfire, is one of the most notoriously bloody in film history.

At first, critics hated it and so did Jack Warner, who described a private screening of the film as "the longest two hours of my life". Warners distributed it as a B-picture and the studio boss carelessly agreed to give Beatty 40pc of the gross instead of a salary - a decision he would bitterly regret.

Bonnie and Clyde was excoriated for its apparent glorification of violence and dismissed by Newsweek as a "squalid shoot-'em-up for the moron trade". But an unknown young critic called Pauline Kael rode to the film's rescue, writing an 8,000-word defence of it that was published in the New Yorker. Simultaneously, Beatty had bullied Warners into giving the film a general release. It became one of the biggest hits of 1967, and made Beatty a very wealthy young man.

Instead of capitalising on his new-found fame by appearing in everything going, however, Beatty became extremely selective in his choice of roles. Between 1967 and 1975, he made just six films, but his judgment was pretty good: he was excellent playing a cowardly gunman in Robert Altman's anti-western McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), athletically charismatic in Alan J Pakula's paranoid political thriller The Parallax View (1974), and simply born to play George Roundy, a woman-chasing hairdresser to the stars in Hal Ashby's 1975 satire, Shampoo.

He co-wrote and produced that film, and went a stage further in 1978, co-writing, co-directing, producing and starring in Heaven Can Wait, a charming remake of a classic 1940s romantic comedy.

Then came Beatty's masterpiece, Reds, a sprawling epic based on the life of American communist John Reed. After some hesitation, Beatty decided to play Reed himself, and cast his then-girlfriend Diane Keaton as Reed's wife, Louise Bryant. Making it was a hellish experience for all concerned: Beatty pushed Keaton so hard during the shoot that their relationship was over by the end of it, and Irish actress Maureen Stapleton asked her director "are you out of your f***ing mind?" after doing 80 takes of a simple scene. But the nit-picking paid off: critics raved about Reds and Beatty's directing earned him an Oscar. He seemed set for a glittering run, but instead the 1980s more or less passed him by. The less said about his 1987 action romp Ishtar the better, and while Dick Tracy (1990) did well at the box office, it wasn't all that good a film. He gave an Oscar-nominated turn in Barry Levinson's Bugsy and some critics love Beatty's 1998 satire Bulworth, in which he plays a hack politician who decides to speak his mind knowing that his death is imminent.

But, in truth, the 1980s and 90s were more about what Beatty didn't do than what he did. He didn't make the biopic of Liberace he spent several years assiduously planning; he didn't make Ocean of Storms, a love story about an ageing astronaut; and he didn't make Bulworth 2, a comedy that would have satirised the 2000 Presidential election.

Beatty truly is an enigma, an A-list actor and director who's made only 26 films in a career spanning almost 60 years. Is he the far-sighted and ­fastidious filmmaker who made Reds or the preening narcissist who takes elaborate revenge on those who cross him? No one, possibly not even Beatty, knows.

Life of a  ladies' man

In a 2010 biography, Peter Biskind claimed Warren Beatty had slept with 12,000 females in his pomp. That would work out at well over a woman a day and Beatty has wryly commented that the maths just don't add up. Good point, but until he married Annette Bening at the age of 54, he seemed to have dated practically every beautiful woman in Hollywood.

When he first arrived in LA, he had a fling with Joan Collins, who later complained about his terrifying virility, and began dating Natalie Wood, who was still married to Robert Wagner, while starring with her in Splendor in the Grass. He wanted to marry French actress Leslie Caron, but she wasn't so sure, and had a passionate, seven-year on-off affair with Julie Christie. But their relationship ended when she retreated to the sanity of a remote farmhouse in Wales.

Pop singer Michelle Phillips moved in with him for a time in 1974 after splitting from Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton began a relationship with him after separating from Woody Allen. Jane Fonda, Bianca Jagger, Goldie Hawn, Madonna - the list is endless. And Carly Simon recently cleared up an old mystery: 'You're So Vain' was about Warren after all.

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