The Greats: Warren Beatty

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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a new biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

There are plenty of lazy assumptions people make about actors. They’re attractive but shallow. They’re self-conscious about being valued for their appearance, so they try to show how smart they are, which only makes them seem dumber. All they really want to do is direct. From almost the beginning of his career, Warren Beatty has grappled with these preconceptions. Incredibly handsome but also exceedingly driven, he has long fought to be more than just another pretty face, and in the process, he’s shown other actors how they can control their Hollywood destiny. He’s been mostly out of view for the last 20 years, and yet he remains a model of the ambitious modern-day actor/producer/screenwriter/director.

Born Henry Warren Beatty in March 1937, he played football in high school, attended Northwestern’s Speech and Drama Department (which included alumni like Charlton Heston), and headed off to New York when he was 19. Soon, he was doing television dramas like Playhouse 90, encouraged in part by his older sister, Shirley MacLaine, who had earlier moved to New York to pursue acting. “I needed money, and I wasn’t that good a piano player,” Beatty recalled to biographer Peter Biskind about his early interest in performing. “It began to occur to me that I could make money acting and that I could find in the theater a tool for expressing myself.”

Beatty found that tool in A Loss of Roses, a William Inge play that cast the up-and-comer as an angry young Midwesterner trying to please his widowed mother and falling in love with a local actress. The 1959 play lasted about three weeks in New York, but Beatty received a Tony nomination. Around the same time, he had earned a recurring role on the TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. He had boyish good looks, but critics noticed he had real skill as well. It’s little surprise that movies would beckon.

In the history of cinematic acting debuts, Beatty’s turn in Splendor in the Grass is one of the more notable. Written by Inge and directed by Elia Kazan, the 1961 romantic drama concerned a Romeo and Juliet¬¬-like love between Bud (Beatty) and Deanie (Oscar-nominated Natalie Wood) amidst the backdrop of societal sexual repression. A sensation, Splendor in the Grass captured the young Beatty as the star he would become. As praised by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, Beatty was “an amiable, decent, sturdy lad whose emotional exhaustion and defeat are the deep pathos in the film.” But it’s telling that even back then, Beatty aspired to more. “Except that he talks like Marlon Brando and has some small mannerisms of James Dean,” Crowther continued, “Mr. Beatty is a striking individual.” As Biskind explained in his Beatty biography, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, Beatty wanted to emulate the taciturn, mumbly style of those young stars—he wanted to be considered an actor of their caliber.

Crowther would reenter Beatty’s story six years later, this time not to praise but to bury. Wanting more control over his career, Beatty (who would go on to appear in films like All Fall Down, Lilith and Mickey One) decided that he wanted to start producing, which would allow him to have more say in the material he made. He happened upon Bonnie and Clyde, about Depression-era gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Inspired by the French New Wave, Beatty and screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton first went after directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard before landing on Arthur Penn, who turned the film into a very irreverent but also very sober and critical portrait of youthful rebellion and self-absorption. (You can still see its echoes in movies like Spring Breakers.)

Beatty, who wasn’t yet 30, was the film’s star and champion, having to defend the movie’s shocking-for-its-time violence against wary studio heads and skittish critics—most notably, Crowther, who famously eviscerated the movie from his exalted perch at the Times, declaring it, “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy” and a “blending of farce with brutal killings [that] is as pointless as it is lacking in taste.” But rescued by other critics, like The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, Bonnie and Clyde became a generational touchstone, earning 10 Oscar nominations (including nods for Beatty for Best Picture and Best Actor) and helping to give rise to the antiestablishment adventurousness of Hollywood in the 1970s.

That decade prominently featured Beatty, who was using his star power and beautiful countenance to be part of films that subverted expectations. He teamed up with director Robert Altman for 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of the great Westerns, in which Beatty played the brash, luckless John McCabe, who arrives in the sleepy town of Presbyterian Church with plans to establish a brothel. But this cocky, fast-talking man soon meets his match in the form of Constance Miller (Julie Christie), an English madam who has far more experience running a whorehouse than he does. What follows is a melancholy love story and a pessimistic look at the American Dream as McCabe watches his grand aspirations crushed by powerful businessmen and deadly gunmen.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is as famous for its greatness as for its well-known stories of the clashes between Altman and Beatty. (Altman once said of his star, “[H]e just isn’t much fun to work with. He’s kind of a control freak.” Beatty’s response? “I didn’t control that movie. I participated actively.”) But it further established Beatty’s desire to be deeply involved in his projects. Between starring turns in The Parallax View and The Fortune, he put together Shampoo, the 1975 comedy-drama about a Beverly Hills hairdresser named George (Beatty) who gets involved in a romantic triangle with a former flame (Christie) and the well-connected married man (Jack Warden) she’s now sleeping with. Producing and co-writing the film, which is set on the day of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential election, the left-leaning, politically active Beatty wanted the movie to be more than just a love story.

“[I]t’s a movie about the intermingling of political and sexual hypocrisy,” Beatty told Roger Ebert around the film’s release. “And we set it on election night because the point is, you see, that Nixon never really misled us—he was an open book. We knew all along about Nixon, we saw through him, and still he was elected.” And he took pains to insist that he was nothing like his dimwitted protagonist. “I’m as political as you can get, and he’s disinterested,” Beatty said. “He has his little peace medal around his neck, but for him it’s a piece of jewelry.”

Of course, part of Beatty’s legend will always be the one characteristic he does share with George: the skirt-chasing. Linked to everyone from Julie Christie to Diane Keaton to Natalie Wood to Brigitte Bardot to Madonna, he’s not just notorious for his gorgeous lovers but for his supposed sexual appetite. (One former lover, Joan Collins, memorably told Biskind, “He was insatiable. Three, four, five times a day, every day, was not unusual for him. I felt like an oyster in a slot machine.”)

Such tales are fun, tawdry gossip, but they also risk reducing Beatty to a caricature of a mimbo that he’s long resisted. He needn’t be concerned: The quality of the work speaks to his artistic chops. It’s true that after 1978’s funny, touching Heaven Can Wait—which he produced, co-directed, co-wrote, and starred in—his output slowed considerably. But in 1981 he put out Reds, his first solo directing effort, an epic portrait of American journalist John Reed. Clocking in at over three hours, Reds is the sort of towering, demanding political film that just about never gets made in America. It earned Beatty his only competitive Oscar, for Best Director, and despite its flaws—in fact, maybe because of them—Reds is something to behold.

Beatty refused to do publicity for Reds, mostly eschewing interviews during his stardom and, when he did, being reticent to discuss anything too personal. In a classic 1990 profile piece, Rolling Stone writer Bill Zehme included in his Beatty Q&A the length of each of Beatty’s pauses to underline just how guarded the man was. When Zehme asked him how he would characterize himself, Beatty simply responded, “As someone who would prefer not to characterize himself.”

In recent times, he’s made the occasional film. He starred in and directed Dick Tracy and Bulworth, an angry, clunky political fable about a rapping politician. He appeared in Bugsy and Love Affair with his wife Annette Bening. He survived the commercial and critical disaster of Ishtar, which has since been reconsidered, receiving a level of respect and admiration from a new generation of critics and cineastes. He debated running for president . But mostly, he stays out of sight.

“I think your whole life is not made up of making movies,” he told the Los Angeles Times around the release of Dick Tracy. “You have another side to your life, your own personal existence. And if you’re not totally self-indulgent and self-concerned, you have a political side of your life in which you relate to the society you live in.”

Beatty’s best films manage to mix the personal and the political, looking at society while also expressing himself creatively. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that so many of his signature roles are of men aspiring to be more than they are, sometimes successfully and sometimes not: You can imagine that they reflect Beatty’s own drive. Movies today are less exciting without his restless energy around, but don’t expect him to start opening up to do a lot of interviews any time soon. He explained his thought process for staying silent back when he was promoting Dick Tracy and yet not revealing much of himself. “It’s hard to misquote someone who doesn’t say anything,” he said. “There’s almost nothing that hasn’t been said about me. But there’s an awful lot that I haven’t said.”

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.