By Charles Matthews
Sunday, January 17, 2010; B06
How Warren Beatty Seduced America
By Peter Biskind
Simon & Schuster. 627 pp. $30
It's bad to get a sinking feeling at the start of a book, but Peter Biskind gives the reader just that in his introduction. "Why Warren Beatty?" Biskind asks. "It's distressing to have to make a case for his importance just because no one under forty (maybe fifty?) knows who he is." Beatty made his last movie, "Town & Country," nine years ago. And it has been 19 years since his last major film, "Bugsy," which was a critical success but a box office disappointment.
Since Beatty left the screen, his friend and contemporary Jack Nicholson has made half-a-dozen films. His rival Robert Redford is still acting on screen, as is Dustin Hoffman, with whom Beatty shared the ignominy of "Ishtar." His older sister, Shirley MacLaine, is still a working actress. Woody Allen, two years older than Beatty, continues to write and direct at the film-a-year pace he set three decades ago, and Clint Eastwood, seven years Beatty's senior, is perhaps the most successful actor-turned-director of our time. In 1994, former studio executive Robert Evans said, "How many pictures has Warren made in his career? Twenty-one? How many hits did he have? Three! Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, and Heaven Can Wait. That's batting three for twenty-one. In baseball, you're sent back to the minors for that."
But Biskind is determined to persuade us that Beatty was "one of the foremost filmmakers of his generation." Biskind's earlier book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" was a chronicle of American filmmaking in the 1970s, an era heralded by Beatty's breakthrough movie, "Bonnie and Clyde," and he has been trying to get Beatty to agree to cooperate on a book for years. For this biography, Biskind agreed to leave Beatty's current life, as husband to Annette Bening and father to their four children, "off limits." And many of the people who know him best, such as MacLaine and Nicholson, as well as many of most of Beatty's famous ex-lovers, such as Leslie Caron, were "all afflicted with a contagion of silence." Biskind also refuses to psychologize, telling us almost nothing of Beatty's childhood and youth, other than that he remained a virgin until he was "19 and ten months." That leaves a 600-plus-page biography with some rather large biographical gaps.
"Even the promiscuous feel pain," Beatty once said. If he had gone on to add that obsessive perfectionists cause pain, he would have summed up the twin themes of Biskind's book. Much of it is a chronicle of fighting and . . . an alliterative word most newspapers won't print. Biskind opens with a scene in 1959 at a Beverly Hills restaurant where Beatty, dining with Jane Fonda, gets his first look at Joan Collins. And so the account of Beatty's already well-chronicled sex life begins, and the reader who is so inclined can find plenty about what he did and whom he did it with, including not only the usual suspects -- Collins, Natalie Wood, Caron, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Madonna and so on -- but also some unusual (and questionably documented) ones: Vivien Leigh, Brigitte Bardot, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
But Biskind clearly intends the sexual escapades to be a sideshow, despite the pre-publication furor they have kicked up. For him the main attraction is how Beatty's movies got made. And so he gives us behind-the-scenes accounts of Beatty's best films (among which Biskind includes -- in addition to the three mentioned by Evans -- "Splendor in the Grass," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Reds," "Bugsy" and "Bulworth") along with disasters like "Ishtar" and "Town & Country." The trouble with behind-the-scenes stories is that there are a lot of rumors to sort through, and the sources have memories clouded by time, resentment, pride and occasionally illicit substances. For every allegation there's almost always a denial.
Biskind makes it clear that Beatty, "a self-described obsessive-compulsive," could be maddening to work with, even on his best films. Trevor Griffiths, hired to write the screenplay for "Reds," which Beatty took over from him, calls him "a brute" and "a bully." For "Reds," Beatty shot what one source estimates as 3 million feet of film -- enough for a movie two and a half weeks long -- and he worked a team of editors nearly to death. There are those who blame Beatty's flops on his extravagance, his meddling and his sometimes indecisive ways, but Biskind prefers to focus on directors -- Elaine May for "Ishtar," Glenn Gordon Caron for "Love Affair," Peter Chelsom for "Town & Country" -- who were unwilling or unable to collaborate effectively with Beatty.
Beatty holds an Oscar record for having twice been nominated as producer, director, writer and star, for "Heaven Can Wait" and "Reds." To date, the only other quadruple-nominee in Oscar history is Orson Welles, for "Citizen Kane." Beatty won only one Oscar, as director of "Reds," but the Academy also gave him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award as a producer, even though all but two of the films he produced were those he starred in. And in the end, it may be as producer that he deserves the most recognition. Richard Sylbert, a production designer who worked on many of Beatty's films, claimed that Beatty made the people who worked for him "dramatically better."
Beatty himself may yet be seen as either a visionary who deserves more respect or a man who never fully developed his talent. Jack Nicholson became perhaps the most successful actor of his generation by working with Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston and Martin Scorsese. But after his early movies with Elia Kazan ("Splendor in the Grass") and George Stevens ("The Only Game in Town"), the only first-rank director that Beatty worked with was Robert Altman, on "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." They fought bitterly, but it's one of Beatty's best performances and one of Altman's best films.
Beatty could still choose to make Biskind's book premature. He's 72, not too old to make the film he has long planned about Howard Hughes, or at least Hughes in his old age, which Biskind tells us "Beatty considers more interesting than the first half of his career." And much of Biskind's book deals with Beatty's political activities. He worked for George McGovern, who called him "one of the three or four most important people in the [1972 presidential] campaign," and Gary Hart. Arianna Huffington urged him to run for president in 2000. He wisely declined, but one wonders what might happen if Dianne Feinstein decides not to run again for the Senate. It's not like California is averse to actors going into politics.
Charles Matthews is a writer in Northern California and the author of "Oscar A to Z."