Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America
Does Warren Beatty deserve a spot in the pantheon of Hollywood greats?
If Hollywood‚Äôs a gingerbread house, Hansel and Gretel would do well to watch out for Warren Beatty. As depicted by Peter Biskind in his new biography Star, the 72-year-old actor/director/producer/writer/lothario might not devour small children, but will assuredly hijack directors‚Äô chairs, steal screenwriting credits, bankrupt studios, and canoodle every woman in sight ‚Äď Gretel included.
Though its subject is as well known for his prowess with ladies ‚Äď Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Madonna, and, by Biskind‚Äôs math, 12,772 others (click here for some skeptical commentary on this number), ‚ÄúStar‚ÄĚ focuses as much on Beatty the Hollywood professional as on Beatty the lover.
‚Äú[H]ow many defining motion pictures does a filmmaker have to make to be considered great?‚ÄĚ Suskind asks. ‚ÄúBeatty can claim five as a producer ‚Äď ‚ÄėBonnie and Clyde,‚Äô ‚ÄėShampoo,‚Äô ‚ÄėHeaven Can Wait,‚Äô ‚ÄėReds,‚Äô and ‚ÄėBugsy‚Äô.... You can quibble with any one of these, but all together, it‚Äôs a full house.‚ÄĚ But buyer beware: The author of 1999‚Äôs ‚ÄúEasy Riders, Raging Bulls‚ÄĚ ‚Äď which was a love letter to America‚Äôs artsy, European-influenced, director-fueled 1970s cinema ‚Äď Biskind is as enamored of Beatty‚Äôs oeuvre as some women seem to have been of the dramatic swoosh of hair and skintight jeans of George Roundy, the clueless, ladykilling hairdresser of ‚ÄúShampoo.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBeginning as a metaphorical apologia for Beatty‚Äôs own conduct,‚ÄĚ Biskind writes, ‚Äú‚ÄėShampoo‚Äô evolves into an auto-critique, as George devolves from a thoughtless hedonist to a plaything of others, to his own victim.‚ÄĚ Don‚Äôt be vexed by the florid prose ‚Äď Beatty is at his peak in this film, and Biskind‚Äôs dead-on discussion of it is his book‚Äôs highlight. A marginal actor with leading-man looks, Beatty had followed sister Shirley MacLaine from Arlington, Va., to Hollywood and outgrew his reputation as a second-rate James Dean to produce and star in the 1967 blockbuster ‚ÄúBonnie and Clyde.‚ÄĚ This genre-busting, ultraviolent tragicomedy was an unlikely hit, but ‚ÄúShampoo‚ÄĚ ‚Äď a film whose ridiculous, ‚ÄúSaturday Night Live‚ÄĚ-worthy premise (that gay hairdresser is actually straight!) is a knowing indictment of both its own star‚Äôs promiscuity and the vacuous ‚Äô70s ‚Äď was an unlikely cultural touchstone. If Biskind retreads material he already covered in ‚ÄúEasy Riders,‚ÄĚ so what? Generation Y‚Äôs dim memories of Beatty as that guy from ‚ÄúDick Tracy‚ÄĚ are fading, and there‚Äôs nothing wrong with another history lesson.
But the history is not always flattering. Beatty was, in both his professional and personal lives, often considerably less than a stand-up guy. But Biskind rarely indicts him. On the actor‚Äôs pressuring of girlfriend Joan Collins to have an abortion in 1960: ‚ÄúThey both knew they weren‚Äôt ready for the responsibility.‚ÄĚ On his refusal to cast French actress Leslie Caron, whose marriage he‚Äôd help break up, as Bonnie in 1965: ‚Äú[T]he actor disabused Caron of her belief that the part was hers.‚ÄĚ On the murky deal he negotiated for a disproportionate share of the profits made by ‚ÄúShampoo‚ÄĚ compared with those of director Hal Ashby and screenwriter Robert Towne: ‚Äú ‚ÄėShampoo‚Äô helped everyone connected with it, some more than others.‚ÄĚ Every betrayal Beatty seems to stumble into ‚Äď every ex-girlfriend shunned, every codirecting credit finagled, every budget overage poorly spent ‚Äď is met with a shrug. ‚ÄúI realized that trying to ‚Äėexplain‚Äô Beatty would be futile,‚ÄĚ Biskind writes in an introduction.
Still, if not a psychoanalyst, the writer is a revisionist. ‚ÄúWhy Warren Beatty?‚ÄĚ he asks. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs distressing to have to make a case for his importance just because no one under forty (maybe fifty?) knows who he is.‚ÄĚ Biskind‚Äôs all too right. After ‚ÄúShampoo,‚ÄĚ a depressed Beatty ‚Äúkept returning to the idea of a romantic fantasy ... a comedy of resurrection.‚ÄĚ The result, 1979‚Äôs ‚ÄúHeaven Can Wait‚ÄĚ ‚Äď Beatty plays a dead football player who is reincarnated to, uh, lead his team to Super Bowl victory ‚Äď did sell tickets, and did win an Oscar (for, ahem, Best Art Direction). But when Biskind insists that this light comedy ‚Äúis about acting in a larger sense ‚Äď trying on identities, looking for the right fit between inner and outer,‚ÄĚ his narrative creaks. Unlike his peers ‚Äď Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, even George Lucas ‚Äď Beatty never inspired a cult following. His films‚Äô promotional posters don‚Äôt adorn dormitory walls.
But does this mean his legacy is meager? Mas o menos: Beatty took home a Best Directing Oscar for ‚ÄúReds,‚ÄĚ an overlong biopic of Communist John Reed, but the film was lost in the midst of the conservative Reagan revolution. ‚ÄúIshtar‚ÄĚ was an expensive flop. ‚ÄúDick Tracy‚ÄĚ made money, but succeeded more as a McDonald‚Äôs tie-in than a film. ‚ÄúBugsy‚ÄĚ lost money, but won Oscars (although for Best Art Direction and Costume Design). ‚ÄúBulworth‚ÄĚ was racist garbage disguised as liberal social commentary. 2001‚Äôs ‚ÄúTown & Country,‚ÄĚ Beatty‚Äôs most recent film, was a expensive flop. Meanwhile, Gary Hart, Beatty‚Äôs favorite presidential candidate, was sidelined two decades ago, Beatty‚Äôs own on-again, off-again political ambitions seem permanently off-again, and he never made his dream picture, a Howard Hughes biopic (Scorsese beat him to the punch with 2004‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Aviator‚ÄĚ). Could it be that this lady‚Äôs man‚Äôs greatest post-‚ÄĚShampoo‚ÄĚ success is his stable May-December marriage to Annette Bening and the four children it has produced?