Both Warren Beatty and Robert Redford are 61 this year. So how are Hollywood's golden boys getting on with growing up? Well, each has an interesting new movie just out in America

David Thomson
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:13

BEATTY AND REDFORD: it's natural to put these two creaking beauties together. Their new films opened the same day in America. Redford is barely six months younger than Beatty, and they have gone along in respectful, if untouching, parallel for years. Both, now, are ageing legends.

"How old you think I am?" Senator Jay Bulworth of California asks Nina, a fly fox from the Hood, in Bulworth. (It is also Warren Beatty putting the question to Halle Berry.) She surveys her guy - he is unshaven, weary, weathered, in an unkind white glare such as cameraman Vittorio Storaro must have been bribed into - and she opines "Sixty." Beatty sighs, lets us see what a good, self-effacing comedian he has become, and passes on. For 60 he is, 61 by now actually, and he won't let himself get away with anything less in his own film, even if Nina has just claimed 26 for herself (over his gallant guess of 23), when Ms Berry is already 32. Never mind: by the end of the picture Nina sweeps aside his coy "insecurity" about being too old for her, gives him a sumptuous public kiss, and tells him, "Bulworth, you're my nigger!" So Jay - and Warren - can feel pretty good about life.

Meanwhile, in The Horse Whisperer, after a summer (or is it a decade?) of all-round healing, with Tom Booker hunkered down so he can talk to a hurt horse (but in such a way that the sun spills gold on the back of his head), Robert Redford's Tom is there on horseback on one more of Montana's dappled hillsides, allowing his love, Annie of Manhattan, to drive away with the cured horse, Pilgrim. Because, after all, healing means keeping the family and its horse together, even if the movie has spelt out to his own slow-drying satisfaction that Montana is the heartland not just of healing, but of all things simple, true, right and boring. Like having the sun backlight you at crucial moments, and just trusting that the audience knows you've "been with" Annie enough to satisfy fantasy's itch, but without the need to show it or do it, to get mussed up or out of breath, to be seen as a betrayer of marriage or a body ancient enough to be Annie's father. So Tom Booker has it all ways without ever risking Redford's deeply repressed, crushing restraint. Sundance has become Sunset, now, and there's never been a harsh or unruly word from him, never a tremor of lost control. It's just that, in his own mind, he's forever seen at magic hour. In real people, this is often called senility.

Robert Redford and Warren Beatty have never worked together. But they've made wry jokes about being offered the same parts, and both have become directors, producers and minor gods as well as actors. They have something else in common: for while "everyone" knows them, they are in fact close to strangers to the young generation that believes film stardom began with Cruise, Pitt, Depp and DiCaprio.

PUT IT this way: apart from the modest hit of Indecent Proposal, Redford the actor hasn't clicked since 1985 and Out of Africa, in which he modelled Great White Hunter and Flyer for Meryl Streep's imagination and a classy line of period safari clothes. Whatever you think of that film, its appeal was middle-aged. Since then, Redford has done Legal Eagles, Havana, Sneakers and Up Close and Personal, pictures that fell somewhere between so-so and so bad, in which his face took on the natural collapse of passing 50, and in which he seemed so romantically guarded that he left the actresses to do their own things. Indeed, you wondered if they'd even met.

But the genuinely beautiful Redford, perhaps the star of our time most yearned over by women, has seldom been sexually abandoned on screen. Yes, Barbra Streisand got to him in The Way We Were, and was allowed to tease that rather vacant, perfect ease of his. But Redford's other love stories have been chaste. He has seemed more relaxed and engaged with men - with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, with Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men, and with the world of men in The Candidate, Downhill Racer, Brubaker and The Natural. You never felt, in Indecent Proposal, that Redford was prepared to give way to raw lust and the older man's gratification his character was ready to buy in Demi Moore. In Up Close and Personal, he treated Michelle Pfeiffer with a near- fatherly distance and respect. It was as if Redford was too shy, or too desperate to stay in control, to go deep into tumult or passion. He preferred those wise, sympathetic close-ups in which he beheld the mares' beauty.

No one ever doubted the way Warren Beatty eyed women; the watching was a caress and a promise of magic. As a younger actor - in Splendor in the Grass, All Fall Down, Mickey One and Lilith - Beatty's sexiness put him in the tradition of Brando, Dean and Clift. Thus Bonnie and Clyde was regarded as his fullest personification of the existential, sexual outlaw, searching for self-expression and finding orgasm in the slow-motion writhings of death. Yet in fact Beatty had been most fulfilled by that film as its producer, the man who had guided a perilous project into being and carried it past all obstacles to box-office glory.

Beatty became a reluctant actor, but a heartfelt power-broker in Hollywood. He took longer over decisions, and filled his time with romantic pursuits. Through the Seventies for instance, only two roles - in McCabe and Mrs Miller and Shampoo - extended him. They show a man stepping back from himself, a little perplexed by his own potency, so thoughtful that he sometimes seemed bemused. At the same time, Beatty had become famous as the lover of Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Leslie Caron, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton and Isabelle Adjani (to name the best known). His great work - as director, producer and actor - was Reds, a rich and complex film, determined to remind America of its radical tradition, yet striving to be like David Lean's epics. An exhausting task and a worthy achievement, yet lacking that ultimate directorial passion - even if Beatty won the directing Oscar for it.

That was in 1981. Beatty was in his early forties. He could have done so much, but tiredness made his hesitation into habit. Though respected in Hollywood for his business intelligence, his eye for talent and his skill with movies, he did nothing for six years until Ishtar - a famous miscalculation. Then he directed and acted in Dick Tracy, a slick, stylised yet empty exercise that cost too much to be profitable. After that he acted in and produced Bugsy, a well-reviewed biopic, in which he never quite persuades us that he was capable of the uncontrollable rage and impulse of the real Ben Siegel. Again, the movie won small audiences.

But the world-famous womaniser had met his match on Bugsy, in the shape of actress Annette Bening. At last, well over 50, Beatty was married, and now he is the father of three young children. He tried to demonstrate personal happiness on screen in Love Affair, but seemed too old, too carefully photographed and more recessive than ever. Some felt he was a handicap to his wife's career.

THAT'S WHY, a year ago, say, there was some point in describing the two 60-year-olds as stars behind their own clouds. Beatty (from Virginia, the old South) was a long-term Los Angeleno, a family man now, still promising some day to make his film about Howard Hughes. Redford had three grown children and as many grandchildren. In his early twenties, he had married Lola Van Wegenen, a 17-year-old Mormon; the union ran 20 years before divorce. Typically, Redford kept any subsequent romances well hidden. Instead, he was known for his commitment to wildlife and nature conservation, his love of the Utah countryside where he kept horses, and the Sundance Institute - in Park City, Utah - a nurturing place for small, independent movies once upon a time, yet an event that was gradually sucked into the mainstream of the picture business. As a director, he made four films - Ordinary People, The Milagro Beanfield War, A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show.

He had won the directing Oscar, too, the year before Beatty, with Ordinary People. He had shown an eye for landscape and a feeling for family ties, especially in A River Runs Through It. But he was too tasteful, too restrained, too orderly, somehow. Quiz Show was a great chance to show the rowdy mix of Americana - yet somehow, it never escaped his leash, never risked turmoil or craziness.

Beatty had let his own causes lapse - or so it seemed. In his day, he had been very active politically, campaigning for McGovern and Bobby Kennedy, and above all for Gary Hart. But then Hart had yielded to sexual indiscretion - some said he was trying to be like his pal, Warren. And as Hart's prospects vanished in the brief fame of Donna Rice, so it seemed unlikely that Beatty had a role left to play on the large political stage.

Without mercy or moderation, The Horse Whisperer settles every question built up over Redford as a director. For so guarded a man, so shy a colt (the horse talk is inescapable), has been lured into the open by the sweet carrot of Nicholas Evans's dire novel. We can no longer disguise or excuse his limitations. The eye has found extravagance, but the results are hideously vulgar, whether romancing the endless roll of Montana, the Houyhnhnm nobility of horses, his own cowboy attitudinising, or the instant fidgets of Kristin Scott Thomas as the New York editor. Robert Richardson does the photography, and I suppose that in the most trite sense the results are beautiful. But this is the picturesque that smothers drama or character and turns story into a helpless wet dream for, let us say, Tina Brown and Redford himself. Maybe the film works for them (Brown's New Yorker had a long, reverent piece on Redford as the movie opened).

Redford urged Disney to buy The Horse Whisperer (for over $3 million) before it was finished - and he has altered Evans's ending. Let's say he was intoxicated by the ways it spoke to him - or the him he longs to be. Nothing else could explain the self-rapture of the film - by all accounts Redford grudgingly cut it down from three and a half hours to 164 minutes. It is the story of Annie, the London-born editor who can never be still. Her daughter has had a terrible accident while riding. She has lost a foot, and her horse, Pilgrim, is scarred in body and mind. Annie needs help. In part that's because she is married to Sam Neill, which has become the grotesquely unfair code for saying that a wife needs her own help and healing. This one needs a cowboy, and she needs to be with him where the lands of Montana shift and stir like slumbering lovers ... et cetera.

Just as Tina Brown might, Annie puts the depressed daughter in the car and Pilgrim in the trailer and heads west - way west - for the horse whisperer she has heard of. She is going to handle the magazine by mobile phone! And so they all come to Montana where Tom Booker lives with his brother (Chris Cooper), his brother's wife (Dianne Wiest), their happy child and the kingdom of horse. And Tom, that magicker of animals and neurotic women, makes all well and whole again, while those ratty New Yorkers feel all the calming and restorative benefits of the simple life - the very simple life - of Montana.

Tom, it turns out, was married once before, to a woman who played the cello in Chicago. It didn't work out because she couldn't cut it as a rancher's wife, and Tom had no hope of adjusting to the big shitty. But Tom loved her, and still at night he goes to his room in his brother's house and listens to Dvorak's cello concerto. That and his allegiance to the two great catalogues in a cowboy's life - the J Peterman one and the glossy brochure for clothes, artefacts and souvenirs put out by Sundance itself - keep him fit for a New York editor's fancy.

This is the kind of stuff Joan Crawford and Bette Davis got away with 50-plus years ago - in films like Dark Victory and Humoresque - by which I mean to say it's pabulum, fantasy food. But here the driving need in the dream-life is the man's: Redford is the star and the boss who is using the movie (to the eventual cost of $80 million or so) as a mirror to his deeper, sillier fantasies. There is no irony or qualification in the film's endorsement of Tom Booker's wisdom and strength or his flawless affinity with the land and horses, and the certainty that this leathery gentleman can soothe away all ills. In Evans's novel, Tom is killed in the final saving of Pilgrim. Redford wouldn't have that (couldn't face it?), yet would not see his way to the logical and "happy" ending in which everyone agrees to live in Montana and just be better.

The film's ridiculous length is solemnised by its slowness. Very little happens, yet the art of horse- whispering is never explained - it had to be cut to save time, says Redford ruefully. As story-teller and editor, he has lost all control, all warning humour, all shame - he bestrides the movie and its addled landscape as he must do his own imagination. This is a work from which there is no coming back. Unless, maybe, it is in some mockingly subversive movie in which wild horses whisper to him and take him to Las Vegas! There was a time - in The Sting and The Electric Horseman - when Redford could laugh at himself. He smiles a lot, still, but it is a god's forgiving smile now, best devoted to the very empty places of the north-west.

WHEREAS, in Bulworth, Beatty has never had such fun making a fool of himself. The man whose reticence and intelligence once made him seem like a superior and rather manipulative narcissist now seems like nothing less than a guy who has liberty and ease in entertaining his own children. He's never going to be a great actor - maybe he always thought too much for that - but he seems ready to be an entertainer, a clown, a chump, a dad who just wants to reduce the kids to helpless laughter.

Senator Bulworth is having a crisis, a nervous breakdown. Don't ask why, for that's never properly explained beyond the suggestion of an overall, teary despair at life's betrayal of what Beatty has called his own "liberal, Kennedy politics". So Bulworth takes out a contract on his own life (thanks to the kind of underworld access that politicians must have) for $10 million. He'll be offed. His daughter will get the money - not the wife (Christine Baranski), a cynical bitch spouse who has affairs of her own, just as Jay - we have to assume - plays the field in his 60-ish sadness. The trick of the film is that, with death assured, Bulworth starts to do the one thing he'd abandoned - speak the truth. The several hardcores of his support (blacks, Jews and Hollywood people) are shocked and offended, but Jay feels free! He goes in for amateurish rap and hip-hop, just like dad with the kids. He spies the lovely Nina and falls instantly in love - as if he was 10 years old - then begins to have second thoughts about that contract.

If that sounds untidy, go to the movie with a big broom. But it was Beatty's original story idea, and he's worked on the script too (in a deal at Rupert Murdoch's Fox that gave him complete freedom so long as it cost no more than $32 million). Bulworth is a lot of fun, a real surprise from Beatty, and for 30 minutes or so it's a promising political satire. After that, it settles for being a cheerful mess that shows all the signs of a film that was never quite sure of how to end - or how serious it could risk being.

We never fathom Bulworth's despair - it is an attitude. The daughter he loves is no more than a photograph on his desk. His political solution for the oppressed of LA comes down to nothing more or less than socialised medicine and ending the race problem with a couple of hundred years of dedicated inter-racial fucking, until everyone's the same colour. Nina is a fantasy pin-up for Bulworth (and Beatty) if ever there was one, and it remains to be seen just how happily blacks accept Beatty's rowdy embrace. As in Frank Capra's films of the Thirties and Forties, the ultimate movie solution to dismay over compromise and bureaucracy is a sweeping aside of normal politics - which leaves room for a kind of airy, benign fascism in which good intentions are supposed to carry the day. The ploy that has Bulworth yield to the convulsive power of truth- telling is no different from Jim Carrey's affliction in Liar, Liar - it's a cute comic trick that turns the world upside down. This time there's the extra sweet white lie that it brings Bulworth within range of the presidency.

You can easily argue that Bulworth is the smart but rather lazy pipedream of an actor who gave up on politics, and who could never negotiate its daily tedium or grind, but who now tells himself (and the kids) that he could have been a contender. As political science this is hogwash; but the gradual overlap of Washington and Hollywood in the American imagination has been as stealthy a sabotage as mature politics have ever faced. Still, Bulworth works as a light, provocative entertainment because Beatty has leapt into new life. He huffs and he puffs. He grins and leers. (Has he caught a touch of Nicholson?) The run that once betrayed his athletic image has now become the key to a frantic guy trying to keep up. The result is endearing, very funny and close enough to the wild impromptu of nervous breakdown for us to believe in the value of a little educated craziness here and there in America.

Audiences are applauding Bulworth because in a self-satisfied, affluent and neurotically cool society that has very little political life to study, the film's quick comedy passes for a lesson. That's how it flatters a Beatty who would now sooner spend time with his kids - those are votes you can lose for all time. Bulworth has been so over-praised it may get Oscar nominations. But the real lesson of the film, to my mind, is that Beatty has another life left as a screen performer, if only someone will find a way to cast him with kids (and I mean younger than Halle Berry). For the amiability of the man, the battered decency, the Bulworthian urge to do well by people, is really no more than being pledged to give the kids a good time. And if that leaves Warren Beatty looking more real (and happy) than he has done in years, then I'm pleased for him, and I can't wait for Bulworth's Summer Vacation. So long as they don't go to Montana.

'The Horse Whisperer' opens on 28 Aug; 'Bulworth' opens later in the year.

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