Simon & Schuster £17.99 (627pp) £16.19 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Star: how Warren Beatty seduced America, By Peter Biskind

What is Warren Beatty best known for? Starring in Bonnie and Clyde? Directing the three-hour epic of the Russian revolution, Reds? Wielding a phallic hairdryer in Shampoo? Possessing a heartfelt political conscience that made him stand out among the vacuous dreamers of Hollywood? I'm afraid you already know the answer. It's none of the above. It's the shagging.

We get chapter and verse from Peter Biskind on page 160 of this biography: "Simple arithmetic tells us that if he had no more than one partner a night – and often there were several – over a period of, say, three and a half decades, from the mid-1950s, when he arrived in New York, to 1991, when he met Annette Bening... we can arrive at a figure of 12,775 women, give or take, a figure that does not include daytime quickies, drive-by blowjobs, casual gropings, stolen kisses and so on."

Beatty has rejected Biskind's simple-to-the-point-of-idiotic arithmetic but that won't put anyone off. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, on the independent film-makers of the 1970s, Biskind established himself as both highly film-literate and gratifyingly keen on scandal, filth and gossip. So if you want to know the more famous of Beatty's conquests (Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Cher, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Leslie Caron, Twiggy, Britt Ekland, Liv Ullmann, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and that's just to the 1970s,) whether he liked spanking, threesomes and double-bagging, if you want to know about his membrum virile or his phone-sex opening line ("What's new, pussycat?"), you can read about it here.

But Biskind works hard to remind us that he good at movies too - that Beatty is the only film-maker since Orson Welles to be nominated in four Oscar categories (producer, director, writer, star) as he was twice, for Heaven Can Wait and Reds; and that these two films, plus Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo, clocked up 35 Oscar nominations between them.

The story he tells of Beatty's sprint to fame and glory is startling indeed. We hear nothing of Beatty's forebears, birthplace or childhood. We're pitched straight into the spectacle of young Warren, aged 22, eyeing Joan Collins in a New York bar one hot summer night and making her his meal-ticket to fame. Only later do basic facts emerge.

He was born in 1937 in Richmond, Virginia to a family of Baptists. Both his parents, Ira and Kathlyn, had nursed showbiz ambitions, but his father counselled him not to hope for much. In response, Warren dropped out of high school and came to New York, a 19-year-old virgin living in a $13-a-week flat, working as a dishwasher, construction worker and piano player.

A shared audition at CBS led to a religious TV Sunday show. Agents began to sniff around. At experimental theatres, he learned to mumble like Brando, Clift and Dean, but was considered shallow and vain by co-thespians who called him "Mr Broadway".

His break came when he cultivated William Inge, the gay playwright, who adored him and secured him the lead in Splendour in the Grass. A screen test with Jane Fonda (who thought he was gay) won him a five-year MGM contract for $400 a week. His next movies, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone and All Fall Down, were flops and his acting career stalled. By 1962, aged 25, Beatty had turned down 75 movie scripts and about $2m in salary. When the wonderful Bonnie & Clyde raised him to superstardom in 1967, it was the end of a procession of turkeys.

Biskind explains that "the tropes that have characterised his behaviour throughout most of his life – womanising, ambition, compulsion and indecision" manifested themselves early. Beatty always loved to interfere in the film process, changing lines, questioning motivations, wanting more discussion, arguing with designers, actors, writers - it's amazing his films got made at all. During McCabe and Mrs Miller, he insisted on so many re-takes that the director, Robert Altman, stomped home to bed and left him to it.

Beatty comes across as an arch-manipulator, control freak, and nightmare pain in the butt, keen to impress as a Goldwyn-sized Hollywood "player" while unable to give a straight answer or reach a conclusion. As a producer, though, he was stormingly inventive. He thought nothing of writing personal notes to all the cinema projectionists in America, saying he wanted his film played at 22 decibels rather than the normal 15.

As we move through Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds and Bugsy, Beatty's obsessively hands-on approach changes into something grander: image-making, egomania, empire-building. William Goldman notes his growing fascination with Howard Hughes, whom he came to resemble: "He felt Hughes was a guy who mastered the three Fs – the filmmaking, the flying and the fucking." His occasional political canvassing led to a moment, in 1999, when his name was put forward as a potential presidential candidate. But sense prevailed when his supporters realised Beatty had become conversationally guarded to the point of inarticulacy.

The last two decades have seen only one hit, Dick Tracy, and several flops – especially the hilariously inept Ishtar, the two-year nightmare of re-shooting that was Town and Country. Beatty's career has wound down, coinciding with his happy marriage and the birth of four children. Biskind ends this long, gossipy, supremely readable book with the melancholy reflection that Beatty did "so much less than someone with his gifts could have done" – so many roles turned down, so many films unmade, so many projects unfinished, so many political possibilities unexplored.

The thing he really got round to doing (and completing) successfully was having sex with multitudes of women. But for a man with such a cripplingly large ego, that was never enough.

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