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The Return of Warren Beatty

There aren’t all that many living movie stars who rate the term “legendary,” but Warren Beatty is surely one of those few, and one of the sexiest and most fanciful of all. He is almost eighty years old, and his new movie “Rules Don’t Apply” comes after a long absence from the screen. His last picture as an actor was the poor comedy “Town & Country” in 2001, and his last as a director was “Bulworth” in 1998. Beatty is known for tinkering with his movies for years in the editing room, for that is his relentless and compulsive nature. His sister Shirley MacLaine once said that Beatty “couldn’t even commit to dinner.”

But Beatty did show up to be honored by the Museum of the Moving Image on November 2nd at a ceremony and dinner, and his full kilowatt charisma was certainly on display. Some cheeky DJ was playing 1980s Madonna songs like “Holiday” and “Borderline” before he entered, but these were finished when the man that Jack Nicholson has always called “The Pro” arrived on the arm of his wife Annette Bening. Like most really major movie stars, Beatty has a very large head in relation to the rest of his body so that he always seems to be in close-up even in a crowded room. In person and conversation with others, Beatty continually falls back on a lightly befuddled mannerism that he has often used in his films that projects, “Wait, what?” and then, “OK, sure!” 

Paul Sorvino, who is an actor in “Rules Don’t Apply,” has not seen the film itself. I asked Sorvino if this film is comedic, as some of its trailers have seemed to suggest. “I don’t know,” Sorvino answered. “He’s a serious man … and so it’s probably a serious movie.” I got a brief moment with Bening and Beatty themselves, and she talked about how actors love to work with him. “Because he’s so supportive and enthusiastic,” Bening said. “And so you’re happy when he says, ‘Let’s do it again.’” Standing by her side in a “sheepish” sort of way, Beatty leaned in and said, “Don’t tell anybody, but she’s the world’s greatest actress.” His blue eyes sparkled, and there was something leonine about his presence, like some king-like beast or at least a very big man on campus, maybe the biggest of all. 

Beatty’s filmography is small: eight films in the 1960s, seven in the 1970s, just two in the 1980s and then four in the 1990s, and so his total at this point is only twenty-three. Some of his earlier credits were done for a paycheck only, but the best work on his list includes Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), the era-defining “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), which he also produced and shepherded through a troubled initial reception, Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971), which is his high point as an actor, plus the sexy tough comedy “Shampoo” (1975), his personal statement epic “Reds” (1981), a fine performance in “Bugsy” (1991) as the gangster Bugsy Siegel, and then the nervy “Bulworth.”

Beatty trained with the acting teacher Stella Adler, and she taught him to do lots of research and to use his imagination. This is likely why he is at his best as an actor when he can play a character who is very far removed from himself like the impotent Clyde Barrow or the poignantly talky loser John McCabe or the low-level nightclub piano player in “Mickey One” (1965). In many of the clips that were used from his films at the ceremony, Beatty was often seen in a state of very flustered anger, which he always plays effectively. There was no clip shown from “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and it was not even mentioned, probably because Beatty was pretty much an actor-for-hire on that picture and not as involved as he likes to be.

At the ceremony, Bening recalled the shooting of the scene in “Bugsy” where Beatty’s character goes into a psychotic rage and humiliates an associate. Bening said that Beatty was his usual charming self before shooting this demanding scene, and then he did the scene full-out in an extremely fearsome and convincing way, and then when the scene was finished he went right back to being “charming and amenable” with her. Bening said that it was at this moment that she began to fall in love with him, and this is intriguing because she seems to have been impressed by Beatty because he is a Stella Adler actor and not a Method actor of the Lee Strasberg school. Beatty could do a very difficult scene very well and not have it affect him before or afterward, and Bening loved that.

Beatty is maybe an underrated actor, but of course he was always most noted for making love rather than making movies. He was an insatiable stud in his youth and middle age before marriage to Bening (peruse the memoirs of Joan Collins and Britt Ekland for the most detailed and flabbergasted descriptions of his lovemaking needs and prowess) and an obsessive collector of women. “Just imagine what you could accomplish if you tried celibacy,” MacLaine joked on stage at the 1978 Academy Awards as Beatty unhappily listened in the audience.

Beatty wanted to be carnally comprehensive, even encyclopedic. He wanted not just the great beauties of the day like Collins, Natalie Wood, and Julie Christie but the quirkier types like Leslie Caron and Diane Keaton, and these choices are just among his major public girlfriends. The really fascinating thing that emerges in Peter Biskind’s 2010 biography of Beatty is that he desired the “Playboy” models and the alpha women and the intellectuals but he also wanted to make an impression on the beta women working behind the scenes on a set or on a political campaign. He was a connoisseur of women, from Germaine Greer to Joey Heatherton, from Princess Margaret to Barbra Streisand, from Liv Ullmann to Raquel Welch and back again. Beatty was happy to charm the older Lillian Hellman and quite desperate to get the elderly Katharine Hepburn into “Love Affair” (1994) so as not to miss out on trying to beguile her.

Beatty is old enough and social enough to bridge many different eras. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, he told about meeting Marilyn Monroe the day before she died, and about how Noël Coward asked him, “Dear boy, have you ever tried homosexuality?” to which Beatty amiably replied, “No, I have my hands full at the moment.” The Master was not deterred. “You really should, you know,” Coward told him. “It’s marvelous.” But Beatty sought only women, directly, often bluntly, and all but irresistibly. There was something plaintive about Beatty’s recounting of the Monroe story, as if he knew that bad timing meant that he had missed out on one of the ultimate women of his time. 

Beatty worked the room last night and table-hopped energetically, and he lapped up many of the complimentary statements made by his co-workers on his behalf. Alden Ehrenreich, who is the male romantic lead opposite Lily Collins in “Rules Don’t Apply,” said that Beatty would sometimes leave him a voicemail that began, “Hi, this is Hollywood legend Warren Beatty,” and so he is fully aware of his status and amused by it. (When Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” was first on the radio, Beatty called her up and said, “Thanks for the song.”)

Beatty’s own closing speech crackled with that electrical current of charisma he has even when he is stuck in a charged verbal holding pattern of “and, um, and, um.” His is an image built on asking questions and pushing limits and doing one more take and going all night and having it all. “Rules Don’t Apply” opens on November 23rd, and I haven’t seen it, and some of the actors in it haven’t seen it. The trailers make it look like light fare, like Beatty’s 1978 remake of “Heaven Can Wait,” but the poster has Beatty’s Howard Hughes staring ominously down at his young leads. Is “Rules Don’t Apply” his swan song, or is it a signal that says, “I’m back”? 

Dan Callahan

Dan Callahan is the author of "Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman" and "Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave." He has written for "New York Magazine," "Film Comment," "Sight and Sound," "Time Out New York," "The L Magazine," and many other publications. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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