AFI Fest: Warren Beatty's 'Rules Don't Apply' Stakes Claim in Awards Race

The film also stars up-and-comers Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins and features awards-caliber work by numerous veteran craftsmen.
Francois Duhamel/Twentieth Century Fox
Lily Collins in 'Rules Don't Apply'

Rules Don't Apply, which opened the 30th AFI Fest on Thursday at the TCL Chinese Theatre and received voluminous applause, marks a major comeback for legendary filmmaker Warren Beatty. No, not only as a writer/director/producer (his last such credits came 18 years ago on Bulworth), nor as an actor (his last onscreen work was in Town & Country 15 years ago), but as an Oscar force to be reckoned with.

Beatty, you might remember, has garnered 14 noms across categories recognizing work in all of the top categories and won best director honors for Reds and the Irving G. Thalberg Award. Now, for this old-fashioned-in-the-best-sense film — which is not, contrary to widespread rumor, a Howard Hughes biopic, but rather a love story that takes place in Hughes' orbit, which happens to be the same orbit once occupied by Beatty and his many Golden Age contemporaries in the Academy — he may well have more accolades coming his way. (I've spoken with a number of old-timers who attended an earlier screening of the film and they ate it right up.)

His new film, which has been in the works for decades, centers around two fictional youngsters under the employ of Hughes (Beatty) in 1958 Hollywood: Marla Mabrey, a contract starlet played by beautiful Lily Collins, and Frank Forbes, a lowly driver played by handsome Alden Ehrenreich (who starred in another 2016 film about Hollywood's Golden Age, the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar!). The famously eccentric, controlling and womanizing Hughes — you remember him from 2004's The Aviator — forbids romantic relations between people who work for him, but they happen anyway, as Mabrey waits for an assignment, Forbes shepherds her around, sparks fly between them and Hughes takes a special interest in both.

The casting of the leads couldn't be better — Collins, convincingly sweet and innocent, with her doe eyes and thick eyebrows, reminds me of a young Natalie Wood, while Ehrenreich, unassumingly charming and dashing, evokes memories of, well, a young Beatty. In part for those reasons, and in part because of the film's subject matter — which Beatty describes as "America's sexual puritanism" — Rules Don't Apply reminds me a lot of 1961's Splendor in the Grass, which starred Beatty and Wood in his first big-screen appearance. That film won the best original screenplay Oscar and garnered Wood an Oscar nomination for best actress. It did even better at the Golden Globes, where Beatty won best male newcomer and the film was nominated for best picture, best actor and best actress on the drama side.

This one has been submitted on the musical/comedy side at the Globes, where the same noms all are achievable. (All three principal performers are being pushed in the lead categories; Beatty and Ehrenreich might well land noms alongside each other.) At the Oscars, the climb for recognition is steeper. In the picture category, there could be as few as five nominees; in the best actress category, Collins is competing in an unusually strong year; and best actor won't be any easier for Ehrenreich. As for Beatty? Others apparently disagree, but I feel that his Hughes, while very solid, largely is in the background (and literally in the shadows) as the youngsters drive the story, which, to me, justifies pushing him in the supporting category, where he could win — it might also be called "the gold watch category" since so many revered vets have won it — as opposed to the lead category, where even a nom isn't a sure-thing. Alas, it doesn't look like those categorizations will be shifting anytime soon.

Whatever happens in the above-the-line categories, look out for Rules Don't Apply to show up in several below-the-line categories, where period pieces often register strongly. It is represented by top-of-the-line pros in almost every area — cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (five Oscar noms), production design by Jeanine Oppewall (four Oscar noms), costume design by Albert Wolsky (seven noms, two wins) and the list goes on. Plus, Eddie Arkin and Lorraine Feather's wistful original song that recurs throughout the film — titled "The Rules Don't Apply," even though the film's title lacks the "the" — might also land a nom, since the music branch loves nothing more than a memorable tune that's actually incorporated into the plot, as this one is.

A film editing nom probably is a stretch, since the main gripe I've heard about Rules Don't Apply is that it goes on a bit too long — but after more than a decade away from the business, can you really begrudge Beatty a few more minutes? Many of us relish every one.

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