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The Beattys' Affair to Remember

NEW YORK -- "You know, I've never been faithful to anyone in my whole life." Warren Beatty to Annette Bening in "Love Affair

A little murmur goes through the theater when Warren Beatty says that line, because it reflects such a famous truth, coming as it does from a legendary Hollywood playboy. And there are other moments in "Love Affair" (which opened Friday) when you wonder how close the screenplay comes to scenes that Beatty must have played in real life with Annette Bening, his co-star, his wife and the mother of his children.

"There are inescapable autobiographical parallels here," I found myself informing Beatty, as if the thought had not occurred to him.

"Do you think so?" he said. "Well, this story is not so different from your story or somebody else's story because unless . . ."

"I think it's more like your story . . ." I said.

"It is?"

". . . than it is my story."

"Is that right?"

"I think so."

"Oh, OK."

The story is about a man who is world-famous as a lover of women. One day on an airplane he meets the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. She knows all about him. She is engaged to someone else. So is he. But the conviction grows between them that this might be the Real Thing.

Beatty remembers the moment that thought occurred to him, about Bening.

"I was just talking to Jimmy Toback the other day," he said, naming his longtime friend, who wrote "Bugsy," the movie during which Beatty and Bening co-starred, met and fell in love. "Jimmy was in the office one day when we were working on 'Bugsy' and I went down to a pizza joint to talk to Annette about being in the movie. Jimmy said, 'You know, I'm the first person who you saw after you met Annette.' I said, 'What did I say?' He said, 'You said, 'WOW!' "

Beatty smiled. Dressed as usual in black - pants, jacket, turtleneck - he was sitting in a New York hotel suite a couple of days before "Love Affair" was set to premiere.

"Doing it late, getting married, it gives you something extra," he said. "I always think of something Maria Callas said to me about singing. She said, 'When I sing, I only use my interest. I never touch my principal. I'm not doing well unless I sing on my interest.'

"When you're older and you meet somebody, the decision-making process is a lot shorter. You know, and you say, 'I know.' And that happened here and I listened to it. And by listening to it, it enabled me not to question it too much - because when you question it, I think you can start to complicate things in a way that can be detrimental and I never did. I just never did."

That is more or less the same process he goes through in the movie, although in more romantic (and, it must be said, better-written) words.

Annette Bening, whom I talked to the same day, said, "Yes, that's true. You know. You see the person and there's a recognition. I can think of one guy who I know who was on a plane, and he saw one of the flight attendants and he said, 'This is the woman I'm going to end up being with.' And 20 years later, they're still together."

But as for "Love Affair" being in some way parallel to her own story . . .

"It's inevitable," she said, "that if we're going to make a love story together, people are going to draw those conclusions. Yes, we met and fell in love, but really we're not these people."

So neither one of them is going to cave in and say, Yes! This is our story! They only really get carried away, in fact, when talking about each other as actors.

"Annette is like, for me," Beatty said, searching for words, "what in basketball you'd call a franchise. For me, she's a franchise. She just fascinates me; she brings so much to the party. Most movies that I would think of making now, I would immediately think of Annette. She . . . interests me.

"She has a kind of fearlessness about her that makes her not be afraid to jump into something as shamelessly romantic as this movie. She's not tiptoeing around the edges of it."

The story is shamelessly romantic, and has been for years. It's a remake of the original "Love Affair" (1939), with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, and its remake "An Affair to Remember" (1957), with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. And then "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993) was about characters who loved the earlier movies so much they copied the same shamelessly romantic decision - to meet in three months on top of the Empire State Building, if they were still convinced they were in love.

"I fell in love with the first film," Bening said, "when Warren told me I had to sit and watch it all by myself. I was alone, watching the movie on video at home, and I got to the last scene and I was sitting in my kitchen, knocked out, and he called right at that minute. He was out of town and he said, 'Well, how are you?' and I was in tears. The simplicity and the beauty of that original film are what I know I was trying to find. And if this movie is good, it's because it has the same simplicity."

If you've seen the earlier movies, you know that everything leads up to a crucial last scene, in which a tragic fact almost goes undiscovered, and because of that, love is almost lost forever. It would be unfair to describe the scene, but if you know the one I'm thinking of . . .

"Obviously," I said to Bening, "that must have been the hardest scene, because there are so many different levels of thought that your character has to deal with - and conceal them all under that facade of friendly distance."

"We shot it in a lot of ways, actually. I didn't want to seem to be hiding anything from him. You don't want to indicate that you're tortured, so I was trying to make her keep composed, at least for a while. But, yes, it was difficult. I thought Warren was so good. He's not self-conscious about his acting. He never talks about it or says, 'This is what I'm going to do.' He's not an actor-actor in that way that some of us are."

The last scene is such an unapologetic melodramatic tearjerker that it makes you aware that movies like this aren't made anymore. The new movies are harder and more cynical. Beatty told me why it's hard to get unabashedly romantic movies made, why it's easier to sell a movie where the woman stabs the guy than when she kisses him:

"It's very hard to get a 30-second spot out of a love story, and movies are sold on 30-second spots. Movies now open in 1,500 or 2,000 theaters, and you have to have a great 30-second TV spot to sell them. In effect, the content of the movies is controlled by 30-second spots.

"If a movie contains no violence, no outrageous sex, it's a hard sell. Almost everything now is a function of television advertising. The movie itself is an afterthought with many people in the business. 'Great spots,' they say; 'Warren - great spots'!"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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