It has become fashionable to beat up on Warren Beatty these days. In the wake of Peter Biskind’s Beatty biography, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, the majority of reviews from film critics have expressed collective disbelief that Beatty is deserving of the high praise Biskind provides: Biskind, in no uncertain terms, states that Beatty is the closest thing to Orson Welles the second half of the twentieth century has ever produced. Such critical blowback is remarkable, especially when considering that Beatty changed the course of cinema history with Bonnie and Clyde, a film that revived the near-lifeless carcass of Hollywood by jump-starting everything from its mythic tonalities (the bad guys could be heroes) to the presentation of its soundtrack (Beatty imploring theater projectionists to play the film’s sound at top volume). The last golden age of cinema — which scholars peg from roughly the late 60s to 1979, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now being the era’s nihilist swan song — began with a movie that Beatty produced and starred in, an achievement that should have been enough to secure his legacy, even if, as Woody Allen once mentioned, Beatty had never made another film.
But he did. And a handful of them were masterpieces.
In Reds and Bulworth, Beatty produced, directed, and starred in two of the most astutely political films Hollywood has ever released. Though Hollywood has always prided itself on being a bastion of liberal enlightenment, it is an “enlightenment” that has been consistently non-threatening, a stance that guaranteed its “political” films would be vague enough to appeal to not only liberals, but conservatives and independents alike. They did this by merely using politics — usually a cutthroat, corrupt politics — as backdrops against which Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) or Kevin Kline (Dave) or Michael Douglas (The American President) could allow their aw-shucks naiveté to reform our national politics. Of course, what kind of “reforms” they trigger are never really made clear, nor is it ever clear what these men actually stand for themselves. However, neither Reds nor Bulworth deal with such happily-ever-after abstractions. Reds, Beatty’s 1981 Oscar-winner, remains a Zhivago-esque romantic epic that somehow manages to double as a treatise on the nuances of the socialist ethos, exploring as it does the variety of mitigating factors that lead the film’s protagonist, John Reed (of Ten Days That Shook the World and Insurgent Mexico fame), to found the American Communist Party. Indeed, the scene in the film’s final half hour, where Reed confronts Zinoviev, a Party hack who has changed Reed’s wording in a speech to cynically intensify the reaction from the assembled crowd, is merely the finest of several truly intelligent scenes that explore, interrogate, and analyze the ways in which disparate political ideologies actually function in practice. And Beatty the actor, as always, is willing to commit to a deeply complicated character in a way few leading men of his stature would ever be wiling to do.
The same can be said of Bulworth, the late 1990s film that totally dismantled the decade’s sense of itself as an era of integrity and widespread upward mobility. Beatty, in brilliantly utilizing hip-hop music as a vehicle to explore the root causes (and potential solutions to) real-world problems like inner-city poverty, America’s dependence on foreign oil, and a casual, institutional racism as real as the smog that covers Los Angeles on a daily basis, provides a meaningful, astute celebration of African-American music near the end of the century, and reminds his audience that the same type of movement ethos that triggered the watershed Civil Rights advances of the 1960s are once again needed today. Simply put, Bonnie and Clyde notwithstanding, Reds and Bulworth alone should be enough to have earned Beatty whatever praise Biskind — and, by the way, the Kennedy Center, which honored Beatty a few years back for outstanding contributions to film history — has decided to give him.
But Reds and Bulworth do not, in actuality, comprise the most enriching component of Beatty’s career. I would argue that would have to be his production of a handful of films that wholly deconstruct some of Hollywood’s most meaningful, enduring genres in ways that demand that we reconsider what these genres tell us about ourselves. Take Shampoo, for example, a film that, on its surface, is yet another Casanova-rewrite of the kind Hollywood churns out every year or so, cashing in on the beauty and virility of its latest it-boy lead, but that Beatty, as both producer and star, turns into a brilliant meditation on the meaning and legacy of the sexual revolution, and, in a broader sense, of the 1960s itself. Or McCabe & Mrs. Miller (which was named to AFI’s list of the Greatest American Western Films of all-time), a tone poem of a movie that sees Beatty masterfully providing audiences with an anti-Tom Joad, a man doomed to be destroyed by the corporate strongmen sent to town to muscle him out of his claim. Though we are more comfortable seeing the gunslinger save the day and ride out of town a winner, Beatty’s performance as John McCabe is much closer to the actual fate of those mavericks — they may have blazed a trail, but they were not long for the world such trailblazing made inevitable.
Of course, the two Beatty films that made the most money — always the most important denominator for sustained Hollywood success — Heaven Can Wait and Dick Tracy — remain high-level cinematic escapism, the former for the sheer goodness, indeed, the innocence of its hero, a man who cannot imagine a life where a child’s game is not the central component of his life, and the latter because it, more than any other comic-book film, prefigured and created the imaginative language that later comic book films have employed to even greater (artistic and financial) success. Though Tim Burton’s Batman got there first, it is Dick Tracy that can be seen as the film that helped set the tone for later epics like Sin City, where Beatty’s Chicago in seven colors recreates a magical landscape that wholly invests the viewer in an American otherworld it both recognizes and fears. That the film made over a hundred million dollars — still the marker for a modern blockbuster — is second to the fact that it can be seen as a trailblazing, foundational film for its particular genre, something that Beatty’s films, from McCabe & Mrs. Miller (clearly the forerunner to films like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition), to his political paranoia thriller The Parallax View (which George Clooney, if films like Syriana and Michael Clayton are any indication, has clearly studied), have provided time and again.
While many of the recent anti-Beatty articles have focused on Beatty’s personal imperfections, his micromanaging tendencies, as well as his seemingly consistent willingness to take a writer’s credit where none is deserved, this all sounds a bit unfair: name me a Hollywood star — or any other human being — in fact, without flaws. Instead we should celebrate Beatty for the things he has not done: in a life spent almost entirely in the limelight (he was 22 when he first shot to fame in Splendor in Grass, another landmark film), he has never been in the police blotter nor in rehab; he has never been divorced, nor has he ever traveled with the entourage or security detail that many stars of his status usually demand. In other words, his has been a remarkably well-managed career. And as for the complaint he should have made more movies, that may be true, but many stars that did never made one as good as Bonnie and Clyde. Or Reds. And I’ll take those two films against anything anyone else has ever done.
From guest contributor Paul Kareem Tayyar