By Gary Bettinson.
In 1967, movie actor Warren Beatty assumed the mantle of producer with Bonnie and Clyde. His decision to harness greater production responsibility not only coincided with a pivotal shift in Hollywood’s history; it also contributed to this shift, establishing Beatty as a significant force in Hollywood’s changing industrial and aesthetic practices in the 1960s. Upon its release, Bonnie and Clyde vibrated with controversy. It splintered critical opinion, pitting unfashionable critics (e.g. Bosley Crowther) against hip, liberal provocateurs (e.g. Pauline Kael).[i] It elicited critical volte-faces, as when Newsweek recanted negative criticism of the film.[ii] And its influence rippled into the wider milieu, spurring youth audiences to emulate the film’s 1930s fashions (berets, maxi-skirts, double-breasted suits). Most important, it had far-reaching effects on the Hollywood film industry, supercharging Beatty’s career, bringing forward a brace of new talent (Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, David Newman, Robert Benton, and others), and inaugurating a breathtaking phase of countercultural American filmmaking at the end of the 1960s.
Suddenly Beatty was emblematic of a new type and era of Hollywood filmmaking, but his own career did not repudiate studio-era tradition. Beatty revered classical filmmakers. Risking the charge of conservatism, he next acted for George Stevens (The Only Game in Town, 1970), a veteran of the same tradition Beatty was seen to be usurping. Though he was a catalyst in the studio system’s demise, Beatty has enduringly provided a hinge between Hollywood’s classical and ‘postclassical’ phases. His own persona has radiated contemporary hipness while harking back to the glamour of bygone matinee idols. As producer, he has spearheaded affectionate remakes of classical movies (Heaven Can Wait, 1978; Love Affair, 1994). As director, he furnishes respectful allusion to figures such as Capra (Bulworth, 1998) and Lean (Reds, 1981). And much of his late output registers misty-eyed nostalgia for golden-era Hollywood, exemplified by some sentimental casting choices (e.g. Katharine Hepburn, Charlton Heston). In addition, Beatty’s entry into the Hollywood milieu came at a juncture of institutional decline and renewal, preceding both the withdrawal of the studio behemoths and the incoming crop of fresh talent. From this angle, Beatty comes into focus as an intermediate figure straddling old and new Hollywood.
Born Henry Warren Beaty [sic] in Virginia in 1937, he began to study acting in New York at age twenty, his sister – Shirley MacLaine – already a successful movie star. Attention-getting roles in television and local stock propelled Beatty onto the Broadway stage. He won approving notices for his 1959 debut in William Inge’s A Loss of Roses, and instantly turned his sights toward movie roles. Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961) launched Beatty’s Hollywood career, bringing the debutant immediate stardom. Signed by Inge, the film’s script called upon Beatty to convey a tormented masculinity, prompting critical comparisons with Brando and other screen rebels of the 1950s. Beatty had not studied at the Actors Studio, but his early career intersected with the film work of numerous Studio alumni – a happenstance that seemed to confirm Beatty’s kinship with Brando, Clift, and Dean.
Wary of typecasting, Beatty sought to diversify. He was improbably but ingeniously cast as an Italian libertine in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1962), adapted from the only novel by Tennessee Williams. And he gravitated toward roles that defied viewer sympathy, embracing wayward characters both apathetic (All Fall Down, 1962) and opaque (Lilith, 1964). These films, along with Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (1965), showcased Beatty’s steadily expanding repertoire, and augured the Hollywood assimilation of European art filmmaking that would shape Beatty’s output in the early 1970s. A brief hiatus in Britain yielded two unsuccessful comedies (Promise Her Anything, 1965; Kaleidoscope, 1966). Though Beatty was able to cultivate a deft comedic skill and deepen his screen persona, neither film achieved acclaim. Against these prosaic comedies, the adventurous Bonnie and Clyde stood out in startling relief.
During this period Beatty’s screen persona coalesced, and it found an ideal context in the 1970s New Hollywood. Without rejecting Hollywood optimism, the Beatty protagonist proved apt to support the pessimistic and revisionist storytelling being imported from Europe’s art cinema. In Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), Beatty’s frontier hero fosters romantic ideals, but these aspirations fizzle into dashed illusions thanks to the character’s fatal hubris. With its hesitant and ineffectual protagonist, the film constitutes a piercing rebuttal not only of the myths of American ideology and identity, but of the classical Hollywood Westerns that promote and propagate them. McCabe & Mrs Miller also cemented Beatty’s taste for entrepreneurial characters blighted by personal failure or external aggressors. Sometimes the Beatty protagonist is motivated by wholly material concerns (Dollars / $, aka The Heist, 1971), but often he harbors more exalted aspirations, as in McCabe & Mrs Miller and Bonnie and Clyde. Recurrently, the character’s psychological flaws accelerate his failure or death. This doomed element of Beatty’s persona meshed with the downbeat denouements of the New Hollywood trend, and such later films as Bugsy (1991) and Bulworth would extend this trope into the blockbuster age. For some critics, the bleak climax supplied evidence of Beatty’s vanity and narcissism; for others, it revealed the poignancy of curtailed enterprise, delivering affecting stabs of pathos.
Away from cinema, Beatty attracted notoriety for sexual promiscuity and political activism. Critics claimed that this obscured Beatty’s artistic significance, but they overlooked the way that Beatty’s offscreen reputation informed his films. Agitated by the Kennedy assassinations, he embraced overtly politicized subject matter. The Parallax View (1974) presents a formally spare depiction of political conspiracy and cover-up; shot in the wake of Beatty’s Democratic fundraisers for George McGovern, the film’s shadowy intrigue offers an apocalyptic view of Nixonian America. Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) yokes sexual frankness to a politicized Beverly Hills locale, its depiction of promiscuity pointedly set against Nixon’s election victory in 1968. The film pressed the limits of sexuality in 1970s mainstream cinema, outraging conservative factions. By now, Beatty could exploit the parameters of his virile image, swerving toward reaffirmation (Shampoo; Town & Country, 2001) or ironic disavowal (Bonnie and Clyde; Ishtar, 1987).
Unadorned by political pretensions, The Fortune (1975) and Heaven Can Wait are apt to look frivolous compared to Shampoo, but both films are consistent with Hollywood cinema’s growing optimism from 1975 onward. Both movies exhibit and sharpen Beatty’s comedic skills. In The Fortune he recruits darting glances, knitted brows, and clipped speech into a staccato performance rhythm, providing a staid counterpoint to Jack Nicholson’s zany swindler. He finds a gentler comic register in the wistful Heaven Can Wait, a film which – like Shampoo – generated huge profits worldwide (over $80 million). With these latter films, Beatty seized greater artistic control, turning to screenwriting and directing, and assuming the role of producer for the first time since Bonnie and Clyde.
In the 1980s Beatty’s output dwindled, and its critical reception touched extremes. Reds, Beatty’s most ambitious film, augmented his critical cachet and won him the Best Director Oscar. A biopic of American revolutionist John Reed, the film managed to fuse historical sweep with intimate drama, bathed in Vittorio Storaro’s delicate cinematography. Unlike Beatty’s 1970s films, Reds seemed wholly incongruous with its industrial and cultural context. Institutionally, its historical subject matter flouted a current trend for conservative filmmaking based on spectacle. Politically, its sympathetic approach to the Russian Revolution contradicted an ethos of Reaganite capitalism. That the film was financed by a major studio (Paramount) testifies to Beatty’s bargaining power by the early 1980s. In the same years, his oeuvre came to display a distinctly auteurist cast. He had assembled a recurrent cadre of collaborators, and the films he produced brimmed with favorite themes. Moreover, Reds is irrefutably an instance of ‘personal’ filmmaking, and many critics consider it Beatty’s major achievement. By the late 1980s, however, his prestige was punctured by Ishtar, an innocuous comedy whose modest scope was incommensurate with its bloated budget ($40 million). A massive box-office failure, Ishtar was feverishly lambasted by critics eager to decry Hollywood profligacy.
As if to restore his preeminence, Beatty embarked on a relative flurry of activity. His Dick Tracy (1990) was a triumph of special visual effects, pulling matte shots, miniatures, split-field diopters, and optical compositing into a splashy comic strip aesthetic. Steeped in noir iconography, the film revives archaic techniques from classical cinema, and is a nostalgic paean as much to 1930s Hollywood as to Chester Gould’s original comic strip. Dick Tracy yielded a strong profit to Disney, but unwarranted comparisons with Batman (1989) and censure from Disney’s chairman hurt its reputation. In 1991, Beatty volunteered pungent observations about the eponymous documentary subject of Madonna: Truth or Dare. And he again reached down into American history for Barry Levinson’s gangster biopic Bugsy.
Increasingly, critics characterized Beatty as an actor flirting with absence, not only in terms of meager film output, but as a spectral, remote figure on screen.[iii] Yet this description downplays the searing, indelible quality of much of Beatty’s screen acting, not least in his portrayal of Bugsy Siegel – perhaps his richest, most riveting performance – and in his penetrating political satire Bulworth. Beatty abdicated control of Peter Chelsom’s maligned Town & Country, an uneven bedroom farce crammed with comic misdemeanors and mishaps. Suffering huge losses (estimated at $90 million), it constituted a far more conspicuous failure than did Love Affair a few years earlier. During the next decade, Beatty favored familial domesticity over filmmaking, limiting public appearances to political events and career retrospectives. But in 2011 he returned to shoot a film characteristically shrouded in secrecy, ensuring that his legacy and mystique – long since guaranteed – would endure for yet another generation.
Gary Bettinson is Lecturer in Film Studies at Lancaster University and co-author (with Richard Rushton) of What is Film Theory? An Introduction to Contemporary Debates(Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2010), and editor of Directory of World Cinema: China (Bristol: Intellect Press, 2012).
[i] Bosley Crowther, ‘Bonnie and Clyde Arrives’, The New York Times, August 14, 1967; Pauline Kael ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, The New Yorker, October 21, 1967. Both reviews are reprinted in Lester D. Friedman (ed.) Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
[ii] Joseph Morgenstern, Newsweek, August 21 and August 28, 1967.
[iii] See, for example, David Thomson, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes: A Life and a Story.London: Secker & Warburg, 1990.