Roger Ebert Home

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie and the map to Presbyterian Church

Julie Christie and Warren Beatty in Robert Altman's "McCabe Mrs. Miller."

"That's all gone, now, the old, Hollywood," Warren Beatty was saying. "All gone. I remember once I was being interviewed by Hedda Hopper. Are you still going with that Joan Collins? She's too old for you. And, Warren, you really should do something about your clothes! Look at those clothes! Marriage, you should be thinking about marriage at your age, Warren."

Beatty grinned, and Julie Christie grinned, and Beatty said, "So I said...let me see. I think I said, 'So according to you, Hedda, I should get married, right?' Right! She says. And then I pick up her column: 'Imagine my surprise when Warren Beatty came over to my house the other morning to ask my advice about marriage...'"

He reached across the table with his fork and speared a grape that nestled against Miss Christie's rainbow trout. This was in the Japanese Suite of the Ambassador West, where Beatty was holed up for 24 hours to promote "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," now at the Oriental. He is McCabe, and Miss Christie is Mrs. Miller. "At first," he said, "I put up a squawk. They told me they didn't have any room in the East, I'd have to stay in the West. Then I see this suite.

"Jesus, did you get a look at the bedroom? The beds are on the floor!

"But...the old Hollywood, they worked all the time. I don't, I can't function that way. I've never made very many movies. Julie doesn't work very much either. There's no point in making a movie just to be making a movie. But I made...ah, several pictures and then it got to the point where I would have to make a good picture or get myself into trouble. That was when we made 'Bonnie and Clyde.'

"And then I didn't do anything for a couple of years, and I decided it was time to work again. I was offered 'Butch Cassidy,' and I was offered 'The Only Game in Town.' I didn't want to do 'Butch' because it was too much like 'Bonnie and Clyde.' Besides, 'The Only Game in Town' had a great director, George Stevens, and if you have a chance to work with a man like that, you take it."

But "The Only Game in Town" didn't turn out to be a very great movie, I said.

"Neither did 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'," Beatty said. "But it sure made a hell of a lot of money. I don't know, cut of that movie would have made even more money, I think. I don't know if they knew what they had..."

Is it really true that you got down on your knees in Jack Warner's office when you were trying to talk him into making "Bonnie and Clyde?"

"Probably. Possibly. I used to do all sorts of crazy things with Jack. He thought I was a little crazy. Well, I am a little crazy. Sometimes I used to think he was physically afraid of me. He was always working himself around to be on the other side of his desk from me. I think he was afraid I'd jump on the desk and go berserk or something...

"But those old guys, they were incredible. The Jack Warners and the Sam Goldwyns. Sam Goldwyn, for some reason, right after I came to Hollywood he took a liking to me. He used to call me up and tell me to come over to Goldwyn Studios for lunch. Be here at one, Warren. One sharp. I eat at one sharp. Don't be late.

I'd get there at two minutes past one and Sam would be eating. "Warren! You're not working, Warren! Work! You're young, make a lot of movies, make a lot of money. Don't wait around! You've been going two years without a picture, Warren! Make movies!

"So finally after about two years, I signed, up to do a movie and it was in the morning trade papers. At eight thirty in the morning, the telephone rings. It's Goldwyn's secretary. Please hold on for Mr. Goldwyn. Right, I think, my daily call from Sam Goldwyn. I think he's going to congratulate me I'm working again. Not a chance. He wants to rent me space."

Beatty is a natural-born teller of anecdotes, and they come out one after another and Julie Christie pushes another grape to the edge of her plate, and he reaches out and spears it. Before dinner, she sat on one of the couches in the living room and mended an old white lace peasant dress that she's had, she said, forever, and Beatty talked about the last three or four years and referred to her as "this lady here, the seamstress..."

Life is going well for the two of them. "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," which was directed by Robert Altman, is one of the best American films of the year largely because of the eloquence of their performances. He plays a gambler who pitches up one day in Presbyterian Church, a little mining town out in the West, and goes into business by building a whorehouse. She plays a tough Cockney madam who convinces him he can't manage the operation himself; he needs professional help.

The film is done in the infectiously likable Altman style, and it is about as intimate a film as you'll see. Altman uses overlapping, conversational, half-heard dialogue, as he did in "M*A*S*H," to create the feeling that his characters are talking to each other and not to the camera. When you see an Altman movie, you're reminded all over again how stiffly artificial most movies are about dialog, with the characters talking in complete sentences and never interrupting each other.

Julie Christie was talking about this quality of the film, and she also used the notion of intimacy: "The movie is so intensely private; it's as if the audience is looking in through a window..."

And the two principal New York critics who've liked it, Pauline Kael and Joseph Morgenstern, noticed this feeling. Kael wrote in the New Yorker that Altman's Western was like nobody else's Western, as if Altman had never seen a Western before and had to invent the genre for himself as he went along. Morgenstern said in Newsweek that by the time the movie is over, you half-believe you could draw your own street map of Presbyterian Church.

"I'm glad that feeling came across," Miss Christie said. "I was afraid it wouldn't. Altman works in such an interesting way, letting things occur in the film even if he didn't particularly plan them. We lived in that town, you know. Everybody lived there. We were up to British Columbia and built the town as the movie was made, all raw lumber and mud in the streets. And the cast and crew lived in the buildings. It was uncanny; I think perhaps Presbyterian Church seems like a real place to the people in the movie because it was a real place for all of us."

The question is, will the film take off? Beatty said he thinks maybe it will. He remembers "Bonnie and Clyde," which flopped in seven of its first nine American engagements, and then got a new lease on life after the London critics fell over each other in praising it. "Bonnie and Clyde" has earned $34,000,000 to date, and 40 percent of the profits go to Beatty, so perhaps he has an excuse for not working for two years.

"Now, with 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller', he said, "it's a funny thing. We're getting the same sort of strong critical response we got with 'Bonnie and Clyde': strongly positive or strongly negative."

By this time all of the grapes were finished, and all of the rainbow trout, too. There had been talk of catching the 10 p.m. flight to New York, but then one thing led to another and it was 9:25, with no chance of getting to O'Hare on time.

"When is the next flight after that?" Miss Christie said.

"I've got it all written out here...let's see. One o'clock."

One o'clock?" Miss Christie said. "And we get in at three?"

This was dismal news, because Beatty and Miss Christie had taken the overnight from Los Angeles to Chicago, and neither one can sleep on an airplane, so they were already beat when they got here. And Miss Christie had to be conscious and functioning in New York because her other new film, "The Go-Between," was opening there.

She was particularly happy about "The Go-Between" because of the way Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and its president, Jim Aubrey, had treated it, which was very badly. The film was directed by Joseph Losey and is, she said, "a dreamlike, very personal film. Aubrey saw it and went out of his head. He couldn't believe it. No sex, no violence, nobody took off their clothes. MGM was just going to dump it on the market and get rid of it. Losey talked him into selling it to another distributor, instead, and Columbia picked it up. And then it won the Cannes Film Festival!"

She grinned. "God, can you imagine how Aubrey must feel now?"

"I'll tell you what," Beatty said. "I tell you what we should do. Get a good night's rest here, and fly to New York in the morning."

"But...I particularly wanted to go to New York tonight," she said. "Particularly."

"Well, we've missed the ten o'c1ock," he said. "And, I mean, if we got there at three in the're mad at me, aren't you?"

"Lovey," she said, "why would I be a thing like that?"

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.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

We Grown Now
Blood for Dust
Dusk for a Hitman
Stress Positions
Hard Miles


comments powered by Disqus