In the Hollywood pantheon, Warren Beatty is both Narcissus and Proteus. When the strapping 6-footer crouched down to behold his reflection in the pool, he rippled the waters to give his face a soft-focus effect.
That visage, full-lipped and hungry, is memorable from his shape-shifting roles on Bonnie and Clyde (for which he was producer and star), Shampoo (producer, writer, star), Heaven Can Wait (producer, writer, codirector, star), and Reds(producer, writer, director, star).
Along with Orson Welles and Woody Allen, Beatty, 72, is among the elite to receive Oscar nominations in the best picture, actor, director, and screenplay categories. Beatty achieved this twice, with Heaven Can Wait and Reds.
“Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, is an alternately salacious and smart account of how Shirley MacLaine’s kid brother made Hollywood history, a handful of movie classics, and (by author Peter Biskind’s math) 13,000 women.
Beatty’s playmates included Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Leslie Caron, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Isabelle Adjani, Madonna, and Annette Bening (whom he married when he was 54 and with whom he has four children).
And one might argue (although Biskind does not) that Beatty’s paramours, many of them both personal and professional costars, were instrumental to the success of his movies.
The possibility that the romances were marketing tools for the movies is not explored here, though it occurred to many in 1990 when, at 53, Beatty cast the demographically desirable Madonna, 32, as Breathless Mahoney to his Dick Tracy and romanced her after hours.
But do we need to know that when he kissed Madonna good night after their first date, Beatty told her, “Houston, we have liftoff”? Now, I like dish as much as the next girl. But there is a difference between dish, which is tasty, and dough rising, which is not. Biskind doesn’t know the difference.
What he does know is how Beatty represents Hollywood history post-1960. The actor costarred with Vivien Leigh (in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) and Halle Berry (in Bulworth). And the filmmaker is an artist/entrepreneur who prefigured, and influenced, the filmmaking careers of Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and Barbra Streisand.
As Jimmy Stewart redefined Hollywood in the ’50s by insisting that an actor share in a movie’s profits, Beatty redefined Hollywood in the ’60s by insisting that an actor share in creative responsibilities. On a movie-by-movie basis, Biskind is a deft analyst of Beatty’s work, astutely noting how Beatty virtually defined “the intersection of politics and pop culture” in films such as Shampoo and Bulworth.
But ask how did the high school star quarterback from Richmond, Virginia, come to be a Hollywood player? On that subject, Star is unforthcoming.
“I realized that trying to ‘explain’ Beatty would be futile,” Biskind writes, recusing himself in the next paragraph with “Freud is important to Beatty’s work, but not so useful as a lens with which to view his life.”
Some biographical details about Beatty’s youth might have given the reader a context for the actor’s subsequent (and constant) need for affirmation from women and control on his movie sets.In lieu of context, Biskind quotes MacLaine to the effect that she and her brother “lived out the unfulfilled fantasies of our parents.”
Star opens in 1959, with a scene that establishes its subject: He is eating dinner with one beauty while brazenly ogling another. His dinner partner that night was Jane Fonda; the gal he eyed like dessert was Joan Collins, with whom he would enjoy a tempestuous romance that ended when he took up with Natalie Wood.
He’d arrived in Hollywood in 1959, three years after dropping out of Northwestern and moving to New York. By dint of looks and charm, and a stint at the Actors Studio, he worked his way through live-drama TV shows like Studio One and Playhouse 90.
In New York, Beatty met William Inge, staging a charm offensive on the great (and gay) ’50s playwright whose coming-of-age dramas A Loss of Roses and Splendor in the Grass respectively marked the actor’s Broadway and Hollywood debuts. Wags referred to Inge as the resolutely heterosexual actor’s “fairy godfather”.
Beatty likewise worked his charm on Tennessee Williams to land The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Operating under the Production Code, it was a coy, desexed copy of European art film and fared poorly.
The box office failures of Roman Spring and All Fall Down (also from Inge) made Beatty consider his career more strategically. That’s when he made Bonnie and Clyde. The film’s sexual candor and its antiauthoritarian violence struck a nerve with audiences and effectively killed the Production Code.
“Warren has an interesting psychology,” observed Caron. “He always falls in love with girls who have won or been nominated for an Academy Award.”
So it was with her, Christie, Keaton, Adjani, etc. Star includes the photo of Beatty, Caron’s date to a royal screening, getting his first gander of Christie. In romance, as in movies, his eye was always on the next prize.
Biskind perceptively notes that Beatty, who passed on Butch Cassidy, The Sting and “The Way We Were” — Redford made a career on Beatty rejects — was more interested in politically engaged films than in standard Hollywood entertainment.
The actor/director’s coda to the Nixon era was Shampoo (1975), set in Los Angeles in 1968 as conservatives celebrated a Nixon victory. When the political pendulum swung right, Beatty celebrated the left in Reds (1981), his Oscar-winning film about American Communists swept up in the Russian Revolution. And when Bill Clinton pushed the Democrats toward the center, he made Bulworth (1998), about a corrupt Democratic senator and fully owned subsidiary of the insurance industry who belatedly makes himself into a health-care-supporting, rapping populist.
Alas, what begins as a sympathetic portrait of a Hollywood titan attenuates into a catalog of his hubris. As Biskind gets deeper into the Beatty canon, collaborators increasingly complain about Beatty’s need to control all elements of the movie. Ex-girlfriends complain about his need to control all elements of the relationship.
Over the last decade as Beatty tried to get his long-aborning movie about Howard Hughes off the ground, he turned down Quentin Tarantino’s offer to play the title figure in Kill Bill. Biskind’s bio ends on a tentative note: Does Hollywood’s Proteus have another movie in him?