Thursday, 11 November 2010

ON SCREEN IMPOTENCE: WARREN BEATTY & PETER BISKIND'S STAR

When Star first appeared, the attention was directed at Peter Biskind's claim (established through a mathematical assumption that had no basis in statistical reality) that Warren Beatty had slept with 12,775 women. The number fell far short of Wilt Chamberlain's 20,000, but Beatty's might claim a triumph of celebrity quality over quantity. Some who argued against Biskind's exaggeration would point to the relative stability of Beatty's longer term relationships: opportunity argued against Biskind's multiplication of an arbitrary daily body-count. The numbers game got Biskind the publicity he sought, but served to distract the audience, including most reviewers, from the heart of the book, which, in its way is as penetrating an analysis of the workings of Hollywood as was his Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The British edition of Star was subtitled 'The Life And Wild Times of Warren Beatty', perhaps to cash in on Easy Riders, but the American subtitle was 'How Warren Beatty Seduced America', which is better, but really should have been 'How Warren Beatty Seduced Hollywood'. Because it's arguable just how much America itself has ever really been seduced by him, but inarguable that from the start Beatty has known who his real constituency was, and that constituency has bought was he is selling. Not for nothing was he on the cover of Time billed as 'Mr. Hollywood'. Beatty repeatedly seduced studio execs into ponying up money, even when his reputation for going over budget and over schedule and his remarkable inability to make creative decisions preceded him.

Beatty's film career is most often summed up in comparison to Orson Welles, the only other filmmaker to receive Oscar nominations as producer, director, writer and actor. Like Welles, his career is marked by remarkably few films, and his reputation built on even fewer. Bonnie & Clyde, a landmark which he produced as well as starred in, was Beatty's eighth feature film; he has appeared in only 14 in the 40 years that followed. He's directed only four: Heaven Can Wait (in which Buck Henry managed to hang onto a co-directing credit), Reds, Dick Tracy and Bulworth, and taken credit on five as a writer: Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bulworth, and Love Affair. But as Biskind demonstrates in great detail, it would be foolish to assume Beatty wasn't in some degree of control on virtually all his post-Bonnie films.

Beatty's career resembles his love life: the shining highlights of which are almost buried under an almost childish desire not to miss a single opportunity. Again and again in Star, we see Beatty's relentless and tireless ability to pursue what he wants, but his inability to decide what it is that he does want. He shoots scores of takes, miles of coverage, and relies on armies of editors to keep it all straight. He's not a director, he's a decider, says one observer. He drives screenwriters to distraction, becoming a co-writer by simply reworking, or getting them or someone else uncredited, to rework every word they write.

Beatty's reputation rests largely on seven films: Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bugsy, and Bulworth. Some might add Dick Tracy. I'd include The Parallax View, but consider Heaven Can Wait a pleasant but fairly useless vanity remake which Hollywood liked because it showed them in the kind of light in which they like to be seen.

What stands out in all those canonical films is Beatty the actor plays relatively impotent characters upon whom fate plays itself out. They are often puzzled, if not befuddled, and looking for answers to questions they might not even be able to frame. Clyde Barrow is literally impotent and dies defenseless in an ambush. McCabe dies in a snowdrift, George just peters out, Joe Pendleton might or might not come back and be recognised, John Reed gets sick and dies, Bugsy and Bulworth are assassinated (as is Joe Frady in Parallax). Even Dick Tracy, like Beatty, can't make up his mind about women and families. Apart from Tracy, they are all cut off before they get to accomplish what they set out to accomplish, and if that isn't a metaphor for Beatty's film career I don't know what is.

Biskind isn't very interested in the forgettable parts of that career, and it's true few of his other films bear watching. Beatty started as beefcake on Broadway, interestingly by being taken up by Joshua Logan and William Inge, both of whom were gay. He gathered a Tony nomination, and his first film role came in Elia Kazan's adaptation of Inge's Splendour In The Grass, where he starred with Natalie Wood. Before that, however, he had played Milton Armitage, a sophisticated charmer, in six episodes of TV's Dobie Gillis show. Armitage is set up in opposition to the all-american Dobie, and I'd argue that was always the position he was in to the mainstream audience: America may have been seduced by the outward charm, but failed to fall for the overall package.

Biskind does discuss the notable failure of Mickey One, partly because Arthur Penn is so intent on making something faux new wave, but also because Beatty is so inept at playing a comedian: it asks him to give too much away. It's a problem that won't be overcome until Bulworth, where for once he's willing to let himself look ridiculous. Otherwise, we rightly pass over much of Beatty's career, though there is considerable discussion of the massive clunker of Love Affair.

When you get to the memorable movies, Bonnie and Clyde does what Penn failed to do in Mickey One. It also caught the popular zeitgeist, to the extent it even became a fashion trend, and of course its choreographed violence (which according to Dede Allen was down to Penn's insistence on taking out more and more) was hugely influential. Beatty drove both Robert Altman and Alan Pakula to distraction, but McCabe and Parallax are key films of the era, yet atypical of Beatty in their sense of deconstructing familiar genres, rather than improving on them. In contrast, Hollywood has most rewarded Beatty for a great gangster film that recalled the glory days of the Thirties, for a comedy of manners (Shampoo) which caught the change from the swinging 60s to the me-decade, for a remake, and for a classic epic (Reds) that for all its innovation (primarily the witnesses) and brilliance was more stirring in the sense of Dr. Zhivago than, say, Northern Lights, and wound up taking a Stanley Kramer-type safely liberal position on the Russian revolution. Dick Tracy might be seen as an attempt to revisit the fashion triumph of Bonnie and Clyde. He deserved more attention for Bulworth, whose ultimate failure may be its uwillingness to go beyond a safe liberalism in its ending, and which cynics might have suggested was simply Beatty's chance to get close to Halle Berry and as a side-benefit also reach a new audience thereby.

Biskind's tale is littered with stories of writers left exhausted and discarded (Paul Schrader, after 'winning' the same argument five mornings in a row when Beatty was supposed to star in Hardcore, simply walked away) but remaining (cf Robert Towne) tremendously loyal to Beatty and his charm. Beatty can be tough on his friends: Jack Nicholson's performance as Eugene O'Neill in Reds is one of the best of his career, but apparently there was even better stuff left on the cutting room floor. And when it all goes wrong, as, say, on Ishtar, it goes monumentally wrong.

Biskind is also honest about Beatty's personal life, showing his need to control relationships just as certainly as he controls his films. But in relationships, you can't always steal the credits, or get other people to do the crucial work to allow your ego its full range. Beatty wants always to have it all ways, and that he succeeds much of the time is a tribute to his charm, but even more to the strength of his ego and his persistence in satisfying it. Where this gets shown up is in politics, where Beatty has been at times a power-broker for good causes (most notably George McGovern). His efforts on behalf of Gary Hart, originally McGovern's campaign manager, came to naught because Hart wanted to 'be' Warren Beatty, but in the end he did a better job of that than Beatty did of being Hart. One might speculate what Beatty might have done actually running for office. In a country where lummoxes like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger can move from the screen to high office, Beatty could not have been much worse. But he lacked the ability to commit himself to the quest. It's a strange inversion of his film career, where he's great at the quest and can't commit himself to the result.

Bugsy may be the best of Beatty's film roles. Barry Levinson seems able to avoid some of the worst distractions of his star, and in the part of the immensely charming gangster whose grandiose dreams fall apart and run afoul of the money men, Beatty again was playing himself. But he did allow himself a touch of the dark side as Siegel. It's almost as good as he would have been playing Howard Hughes, in a project he nutured for decades, but never got around to doing. He was beaten to the post by Martin Scorsese and an unconvincing Leonardo DiCaprio. His Hughes would have also been a facet of himself, especially as Hughes was also a film-maker with the power to indulge his every whim, and get away with it. That Hughes died alone and nutzoid, whereas Beatty simply moved to a domestic life years behind schedule, is ironic.

History may well see Beatty primarily as a producer, a maverick producer working outside the studio system while being dependent on it, and able to create the occasional memorable film. It will be kinder to his personal attributes which may have kept him from doing more and better work. One thinks of Clint Eastwood, who began as studio beefcake, and had his third late flowering as a director not happened in his 70s, might also have been recalled as an interesting film star whose production company kept him working for decades. Beatty, at his best, scored bigger than Clint; Unforgiven didn't have the impact of Bonnie and Clyde, though Sergio Leone might be said to have got to the slow-motion opera of violence before that film. Like Eastwood, you might argue Beatty has always been playing variations of himself, the true definition of a star, as opposed to an actor. But Eastwood's directing, you might argue, is best when he is ignoring his own vanity as a star, which includes films like Mystic River in which he doesn't appear.

With this book Biskind has provided the groundwork for eventual re-interpretations of Beatty's work. His legacy is likely to fall closer to Welles than to Eastwood, both for the work he did, the work undone, and for the personal life and elements of character that both defined him and stood in his way.

Star: The Life And Wild Times of Warren Beatty
by Peter Biskind
Simon & Schuster 2010, £17.99, ISBN 9781847378378

2 comments :

August Kleinzahler said...

Iron Mike, Your W. Beatty interested me. You've got him down but I'd disagree (whuh!?) on several fronts. The Scorcese Hughes movie is vastly underrated, and Beatty would only called attention to himself -- he's hopelessly, ponderously self-adoring on camera -- and unbalanced the film. Schwarzenegger called Beatty out, when the latter was flirting with coming into the mix during the gubanatorial campaign. The Terminator did it very publicly, very aggressively, and didn't even try to camouflage his well-judged contempt for Beatty. Schwarzenegger, as everyone who interviews him, discovers, to their surprise, is very, very smart. He's no good, but he's got rocks and he gets to where he's going. He is the anti-Beatty, which doesn't, necessarily, reflect badly on Warren. Eastwood the director is crap.

Michael Carlson said...

I agree the Scorsese is underrated,. but mostly because the casting is all wrong. The best Hughes I recall is Tim Mathison, in one of those Showtime half-hours, when they did Since You Went Away, with James Woods as Micky Cohn (!) and Gary Busey as Buzz Meeks. DiCaprio as Hughes, Blanchet and more are all wrong for the parts--it's still imnpossible to see LDC as an adult. Youre prob right abt what Beatty would have done, but in hands like Scorsese it mightve been interesting, or the little guinea mightve had him killed

Youre right abt Schwartz. but he recognised Beatty's existential fear. He's a bully...

Eastwood's not crap. At the present he's overrated, because he was underrated, and he has a basic flaw of not trusting his audience (which means himself) but Unforgiven and Mystic River are great, a few of the late 80s early 90s films are good, Josey Wales, Misty, and the other two westerns are good, and a number of others are OK if slight. It's very much the career of a jobbing Hollywood director in the 40s, maybe not quite Raoul Walsh, but Henry Hathaway maybe