Film: Divided they stand, together they fall?

It should have been a smash, but Warren Beatty and Annette Bening's remake of `An Affair to Remember' is an affair to forget. David Thomson shows how a control freak went wrong wron
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EVERYTHING was set up for Love Affair, everything a movie-maker and a controlling force as thorough as Warren Beatty could foresee. The picture had credentials: it was a re-make of the story that had succeeded twice already - in 1939, with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, and in 1957, as An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. If all of that seemed too long ago, why, this was the story that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were talking about all through Sleepless in Seattle, and Sleepless had made a fortune. This was one of the classic weepie love stories in all of cinema, and wasn't it natural to think the world was waiting to see Warren Beatty and Annette Bening doing it?

There they were on the cover of the September Vanity Fair under the title "True Loves". The story inside, by Dominick Dunne, told how Beatty the perennial sexual wanderer had at last, in his middle fifties, found a perfect soul mate in the brilliant actress from Valmont and The Grifters. He found a wife and a mother, too. Twenty years his junior, Bening had been able to give the notoriously romantic actor two children - a power no longer commanded by most of his earlier lovers, from Joan Collins to Leslie Caron, from Julie Christie to Diane Keaton. Warren had handled that, just as he was known for handling things.

Not that 1994 had been an easy year. Their house on Mulholland Drive had been badly damaged in the January earthquake. They had had to move out with their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Kathlyn, named after Beatty's mother, who had died the year before. In turn, they lived at the Bel Air Hotel and at a rented beach-house in Malibu. Bening became pregnant again, and a boy was born, Ben (as in Ben, not Bugsy), shortly before the October opening of Love Affair. All that was going on as Beatty, the star, the producer and co-writer, treated Love Affair to his unique perfectionism - a drive to make something as good as can be that assumes such insights of understanding and anxiety that any film he touches risks becoming his alone. There have always been those who saw that as his great strength - and his fatal weakness.

There were stories that Beatty had so completely taken over the editing and the entire post-production that the picture's official director, Glenn Gordon Caron, was not around much; or, if he was, nobody noticed him. There were other warning signs. Originally, Beatty's old friend and long- time collaborator, Robert Towne, had been set as the writer and director of Love Affair. Towne had made his name first, in 1967, when he went to Texas with the unit that made Bonnie and Clyde and sat up late at night rewriting the script. That work won him an uncommon credit - "Special Consultant" - just as the picture's enormous success gave him lustre as a screenwriter. Towne and Beatty wrote Shampoo together, but it's more to the point that the writer was always likely to have an uncredited doctoring hand on Beatty's projects. It was a famous, close friendship, as rich as the one Towne enjoyed with Jack Nicholson (together, they made Chinatown).

Something went wrong on Love Affair. Towne reckoned the old story was a period piece; he wasn't crazy about it, but, he said, if you were going to do it again, you had to do it for what it was - an old-fashioned, teary romance. Don't get smart, ironic, cool or modern with it. As the project developed, Towne believed that Beatty was modernising too much. They argued. Other writers were brought in and - depending on whom you believe - Towne left the project, or was asked to leave. The old friends no longer talk, though the eloquent Towne had a persuasive case in advance for why Love Affair wouldn't work.

Others wondered if the public really wanted to see Beatty and Bening together. Audiences are funny about watching married people kiss - it's as if that sanctioned embrace didn't leave enough room for their fantasies. There's nothing dangerous or enticing about married people getting it on together. In Bugsy, as nobody could deny, they had both of them been as sultry as l940s stars, he as Ben Siegel, the alleged inventor of Las Vegas, and she as Virginia Hill, the alleged love of Ben's life. That's a lot of alleged, but Bugsy was a daydreaming movie: it loved the idea of the gangster life, and it regarded Las Vegas as a gorgeous light show - a kind of movie. Ben had Warren's gambling courage that it would all be all right on the night. History tells us that others were more instrumental than Siegel in establishing Vegas (there's a case for saying he nearly ruined it). And Virginia Hill was in Europe when Bugsy got shot in the face for being an idiot.

Bugsy was a collection of streamlined parts. The screenplay, by James Toback, was starry-eyed over gangsterese, but it was crammed with hilarious, swaggering talk and explosive situations. Beatty hadn't given as good a performance since McCabe and Mrs Miller in 1971 (the two roles were alike, big-shots who fool themselves). The supporting cast and tbe production values were top-notch. Bugsy got splendid reviews. It won critics' awards and received 10 Oscar nominations. Beatty's 55th birthday fell on Oscar night. Was he going to be anointed? In the past, he had won only for directing Reds, but he had had nominations aplenty, for acting, writing, directing and producing. Bugsy won only for sound editing and costume design. Amid all the nominations and praise, it didn't do very well. Indeed, it barely scraped together $50m in rentals - not enough for so lavish a picture, not a hit, not an occasion on which the public came out desperate with love for Warren Beatty.

What did you expect, veteran Beatty-watchers asked? The people have never been sure about him - he isn't sure he should be making movies himself. That is the mystery of the man, and the fascinating conflict he has enacted between the wish to be loved, famous, glorious in showbusiness and having a reputation for intelligence, mastery, being above the vulgarity. He may look like a matine idol (and he still looks ravishing at 57), but he can't help having the attitudes of a power-broker and a studio boss who doesn't need to appear on screen. If you doubt that, consider that in a screen career that began in 1961 with Splendor in the Grass he has so far acted in only 20 movies. (In the same period, Jack Nicholson has been in 44, Clint Eastwood in 39.)

But it isn't just a matter of numbers. On screen, sometimes, Beatty has given the impression of someone so wary of being photographed that he narrows his eyes, hunches up, turns away, mutters and generally does all he can to close down. He is not a generous or open actor, and consequently he has never secured the love of a large public. Why act then? you might ask. I suspect he has asked himself and sometimes found little better answer than that his looks, his inner force and such hits as Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait meant that the fools would pay him a fortune for it. But he is conflicted: he would like to be generous and open, and so he keeps trying.

The conflict had always hurt him most in terms of publicity. In his early days - when he was making remarkable but difficult films like All Fall Down, Mickey One and Lilith, and when he was obsessed with playing dark, surly, unlikeable characters - interviews were torment for him. He was very clever, and he wouldn't conceal it: so the press called him arrogant, vain and intractable. He often wanted to talk politics (from 1968 until the fall of Gary Hart, Beatty was active in Democrat campaigns), but had to endure questions about his love life. He determined on the strategy of staying private - though to those who knew him, the privacy and a kind of solitude were ingrained, not a device. Gradually he gave up doing public relations. This attitude reached its dotty climax with Reds, a huge venture of great daring, made out of the feeling that America should study its own history more, if only to be less afraid of its legitim- mate radical urgings. Reds was a story, but it was close to documentary in its innovative use of witnesses. It deserved to have its maker selling it to the people. But Beatty never appeared: let the work speak for itself, he said, as it he were a poet or a composer.

Showbusiness doesn't work that way. Reds won much praise and respect, and it did well enough considering its length and subject matter. It earned Beatty his only Oscar so far, yet he was vexed that it lost the Best Picture award to Chariots of Fire, and he was both exhausted and deflated when the whole thing was over. He felt excluded by Reagan's America, and it's reasonable now to suppose that the private man wondered whether he would ever have a wife or children. In the l980s, his prime, he did very little. There was an interval of six years between Reds and the disastrous Ishtar, a movie often cited as an example of star power (his and Dustin Hoffman's) that has lost contact with the world.

He passed 50 the year that Ishtar opened (1987). Perhaps he recognised that he had carried privacy too far; perhaps that led to his liaison with the very public Madonna. Beatty had been with many women over the years, and he had loved them all - even if he had often manipulated them to the point of distraction. With Madonna, perhaps, he was an opportunist: she was much younger, she stood for the new age, and she might get an audience for Dick Tracy that had hardly heard of him. That movie was widely regarded as a hit. Plenty of people went to see it. But then Jeffrey Katzenberg of Disney, the company that made it, said that Tracy was emblematic of movies that cost too much and had too little story. To make and promote Dick Tracy cost $100m. It had a dazzling, comic-book look, and some good songs, but it's a picture no one remembers - in many ways it's the least felt thing Beatty has ever done.

By contrast, Bugsy was a stirring comeback, an energetic movie in which Beatty was funny, touching and charismatic, even if he couldn't quite reach Siegel's homicidal violence. But that film, the marriage and a child, and Beatty's honoured senior status in Hollywood, were rejoiced in. He was even doing interviews now, for just about anyone who would have him. Like Nixon (a man he has thought of playing), Beatty was back, tanned and ready.

Everything was set. Love Affair had music by Ennio Morricone; its production design was the last project of Ferdinando Scarfiotti. The supporting cast included Kate Capshaw, Pierce Brosnan and the TV comedian Gary Shandling. For the role of the hero's aunt, Beatty used all his charm and a private plane to secure Katharine Hepburn. Warner Brothers was behind the film: there was massive print advertising and TV promotion. Beatty did the David Letterman show, the Oprah Winfrey show. He never looked truly relaxed, but he was doing his best.

Love Affair didn't happen. It opened on 21 October, and did just under $5m in its first week - in contrast, Neil Jordan's Interview with a Vampire (starring Tom Cruise) had an opening week of $38m. By the end of November, Love Affair had disappeared from first-run theatres. It had earned maybe $20m, but was doing less well than Forrest Gump, which opened in the early summer. The movie isn't that bad, but it is a cool, ironic, uncompelling version of the old genre story. In trying to be smart with it, Beatty missed the raw appeal.

He is at a crisis again, and at this age his confidence may not be restored quickly. As he finished Love Affair, he was developing several other projects: he has a political story he wants to do; there is a script about America's Moon programme; there is his old dream of doing the Howard Hughes story. That is at least two decades old now. It has had scripts, but as Beatty gets older, it becomes inevitable that his Hughes would have to be the old man living in fear of germs, human company and conspiracy in the penthouses of luxury hotels. This is hardly box-office.

There was another project, Shrink, written by James Toback again: a dark comedy about a psychiatrist whose own life is no model of order. Beatty liked the script so far, but Toback could never quite find an ending. In the delay and the bickering over it, Toback resuscitated an old script, Vicky, based on the life of Victoria Woodhull (l838-1927), a spiritualist, a reformer, a stockbroker and an advocate of free love, as well as the first woman to run for president. In the late 1970s, Toback had written Vicky for Faye Dunaway and director George Cukor. But Cukor was an old man, whose own confidence was running out, so the script joined the thousands unmade (yet as promising as those that are filmed).

Annette Bening saw the potential for a lead actress in Vicky, and she needs a big film to establish her own stardom. So Beatty offered to produce it. In turn, the role of Henry Ward Beecher, public opponent to Woodhull and her private lover, would be built up for him to play. This was not necessarily the best way to take the script. The original had a woman at the centre of a wheel of men.

The plan was to sell Vicky to a studio as Love Affair opened. But as that movie flopped, so Vicky (as a Beatty production) was politely declined. Bening elected to make American President with Michael Douglas. Her dilemma is acute, if the public really has no taste for her playing with the man she loves. His plight is crueller still. It reminds one a little of the storyline for A Star is Born, when the veteran actor, Norman Maine, sacrifices himself for his younger wife, Vicky Lester. We will see, but self-sacrifice is a gesture that Hollywood has generally confined to the screen.

8 `Love Affair' has no UK release date yet. For a special offer on David Thomson's `Biographical Dictionary of Film', see page 31.