The Beatty myth
He's got the looks, the talent, the liberal credentials. And he appears to think that what the world needs now... is sex. At 60, can Warren Beatty still believe his own propaganda?
Saturday 30 January 1999
I was surprised to find that I liked the film - a romp through American politics, starring Beatty as a senator who has a nervous breakdown and starts telling the truth, in rhyme. But what now surprises me more is to find that I like the man, who has been a star longer than I have been alive, but who still has an energy that keeps breaking through his cagey interview responses. Of course, he's deliberately turning on his famous charm - he listens intently, looks into your eyes as he answers, and expresses great interest in what you think - but the kind of enthusiasm he reveals for political ideas and ideals can hardly be a pose, since it has shaped his life.
Beatty started his film career as a beautiful young boy whom the camera and the audience couldn't help but adore. I've read interviews in which he compares the way he was in 1961 to Leonardo DiCaprio now, but, frankly, can you even begin to imagine DiCaprio deciding to produce a film like Bonnie and Clyde, as Beatty did in 1967? That was Beatty's own project. He found the script, he got it made, and it's still one of the most memorable films of its era, an unsettling, sexy cross between French New Wave and American gangster movies.
Eight years later, he went out on the edge again to produce and star in Shampoo, and six years after that he hustled all over Hollywood to produce Reds, the ambitious, if mushy, drama about Communism that was to bring him an Oscar for best director. Now, after a run of more middle-of-the-road films, he's gone right back into the fray, at the age of 61, with Bulworth.
"I think it's the best movie I've ever made," he says proudly. "And I've got a lot of reinforcement for that, because that's what the reviews of the movie are saying."
Together with his blistering self-confidence, Beatty has exactly the kind of modulated voice, with gravelly low notes and long, dying cadences, that a movie star should have. He sits very still, in his black sweater and trousers and black leather Gucci jacket, and holds your gaze as he speaks. But although he seems pretty self-important in person, in Bulworth he lets rip and invites you to laugh at him.
Bulworth is an extraordinary film, continually teetering on the verge of self-parody, as the old white senator breaks down, breaks out and starts dressing and talking like a young black man. Jumping from joke to joke, it gradually builds into a fierce political satire. Because Beatty, who campaigned once upon a time for Bobby Kennedy and then for George McGovern and then Gary Hart, is now angry with American politics: "I think the process now has become one in which, if someone wants to win an election, he can't lead, he must follow, because the technological means are such that you're gaining so much demographic information so quickly you just has to follow it, and do it as adroitly and attractively as possible - and I think basically," he pauses for a beat, "that's a bunch of bullshit."
In Bulworth, Beatty finds a way of expressing the gap between politics and real life partly by displaying the weird dissonance between political discourse - "We stand at the threshold of a new millennium," Bulworth's speeches begin - and street speech.
It's a lovely conceit, as the senator bursts into patches of rap when he should be delivering crafted soundbites, even if the sight of Beatty rapping is sometimes hard to take.
"It wasn't hard to do," Beatty says. "It would have been a terrible mistake to try to rap well, so you aim for doggerel and you try to make it funny."
British movie-goers are used to seeing political satire in the mainstream, so maybe it won't strike people here how very odd it is that Bulworth got made in America now. Beatty explains that it's not a film he could have imagined making if it hadn't been for the fact that he was handed a weird, once-in-a-lifetime - even for him - opportunity. "Because of some complexities in earlier dealings with Fox, I was able to settle a lawsuit with them by doing this movie with them, on the agreement that I had complete artistic control and they have complete marketing control," he says slowly.
In other words, because Fox had pulled out of Dick Tracy, Beatty could have sued them, but he didn't, because he wanted them to agree to do this film instead. And, although he told Fox the bare bones of the story at the outset (a man gets very depressed, calls a hitman to get himself killed, then falls in love and tries to call off the contract), he didn't get round to telling them at first that the man would be a senator, and that the film would spend most of its energy exploring his disaffection with politics. Would Fox ever have agreed to it if he hadn't manoeuvred so smartly? "I think it would have been awkward for a corporation of that magnitude to make a movie with someone as attention-getting as I am, that basically says that big corporations are the greatest threat to our democracy," he replies.
When Beatty as Bulworth breaks out of the political cage, he not only starts rapping, he also starts hanging out with young black women. The sight of the 60-year-old Beatty getting on down with the 26-year-old black actress Halle Berry is something that will make a lot of movie-goers smirk. I tell him that I think he should have cast an older woman as his love interest; I'm tired
of seeing ageing stars like himself, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, thinking they can still play sex gods. Can't he come to terms with his age?
"I could have done you a very interesting film about me and a woman who's 45 or 55 or 60," he says defensively. "But that wasn't the story here. Here, the fact that you've got an old white guy and a young black woman is the point. I don't think anyone can be left with the feeling that this is an ideal couple - it's a real mismatch. It's meant to be." At least the film is honest about the age gap. "How old do you think I am?" Bulworth asks Berry on screen. "Sixty," she flashes back. But that doesn't stop her going in for the clinch.
It makes you smirk, because as much as Beatty is known for being a great actor and an interesting director, he's also known, of course, for his sex life. (Woody Allen once said that if he were reincarnated, he would come back as Warren Beatty's fingertips.) In any interview with him you'll hit a list, at some point, that goes something like this: Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Brigitte Bardot, Madonna, Elle Macpherson, Isabelle Adjani...
"You get slapped a lot, but you get fucked a lot too," is how Beatty reputedly describes his wayward approach to matters of the heart in Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. A man who sleeps with so many women - although he has now settled down with the actor Annette Bening and their three children - might be assumed to be boringly sexist. But his films don't just frame pretty faces, they give women good roles - even Bonnie and Clyde gives Faye Dunaway a curiously independent, sassy voice; Reds gave Diane Keaton the meatiest part as the writer and feminist Louise Bryant. And in Bulworth, Halle Berry is partly just the gorgeous girl at the club, but also the articulate woman who surprises both Bulworth and the audiences by delivering a long, complicated peroration when asked why there aren't any black leaders any more. "Can you handle that?" she finishes, and Bulworth's eyes gleam.
Like the real Seventies man that he is, Beatty seems to believe that sex is not just fun, it's also the answer. He believes that the Clinton- Lewinsky affair will now have a good effect. "I think the eventual fall- out from this farce will be that it will no longer to be possible for America to return to the sexual puritanism of the past," he says. "If there is a lowering of sexual puritanism, maybe that will positively affect the divorce rate in the US, which is the highest in the world. I think the sacrificial lambs in this process are the President and people in the public eye who have been pilloried for their sexual foolishness. Many of whom," he winds up, "are friends of mine. And some of whom are me." He giggles. As Bulworth, Beatty puts the same answer to America's racial problems: "Everyone has got to keep fucking each other till we're all the same colour."
You can mock the sentiment, or sympathise, but you get the feeling that Beatty, with his "make love, not war" optimism, is now out of his time.
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