AFI Life Achievement: Warren Beatty

AFI honoree Warren Beatty has defied categorization

Within the storied frame of Warren Beatty lurk two distinct personalities.

The first is a mover and shaker par excellence, a man with a metaphorical doctorate in navigating the industry.

This is the Warren Beatty who arrived in Hollywood in the late 1950s after dropping out of Northwestern University -- a high school football champion with staggering good looks and ingratiating charm who, within a few years, had penetrated the inner sanctum of the business and made friends with everyone from Billy Wilder to William Wyler.

This same Beatty carved out one of the shrewdest careers in Hollywood history, remaining at the top of the film industry's pecking order for almost 50 years, along the way negotiating some of the richest deals it had to offer -- as with "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), which earned him a whopping chunk of the studio's gross.

Then there's his reputation as a legendary playboy, seducing some of the world's most stunning women -- a superstar who became tabloid fodder before the term "tabloid" even existed.

But there's another Warren Beatty, a subtler, more clever, more mysterious and far more radical individual. This is the Beatty who demanded to be taken seriously as a producer at a time when actors were treated like cattle, as Alfred Hitchcock once described them; the Beatty who can surprise even his wife by playing a jazz tune at the piano; the Beatty so knowledgeable about medicine that he diagnosed director Hal Ashby as having pancreatic cancer when Ashby's own doctor had failed to do so.

This is the Beatty who sat at the knee of Jean Renoir in his Hollywood Hills home and learned about filmmaking from the master, then risked alienating his fans with his resolute commitment to liberal politics. He consistently prods at the underbelly of the very establishment that has nourished him.

These Beattys all exist in tandem. Which of them will be honored when Beatty receives the AFI's Life Achievement Award Thursday night is anybody's guess.

Robert Benton, who co-wrote "Bonnie and Clyde," says Beatty's internal tension fuels his work.

"It's that split that leads to a kind of voice that is his voice," he says. "He's used that conflictedness to his advantage, wanting to be accepted by the Hollywood community and wanting to fly in its face. ... He's very good at knowing how far to go."

Beatty's wife, Annette Bening, agrees that the personalities co-exist, but she sees less conflict between them.

"I don't think he's ever been someone who couldn't exist comfortably in both worlds," she says. "He's able to sit down with (former MCA chief) Lew Wasserman and understand the moneyed interests of show business and the ruthlessness of those who are out to make a buck."

Born in Virginia in 1937, Beatty was the son of a drama teacher. His elder sister, Shirley MacLaine, became a Broadway star while he was still in high school. After a yearlong stint at Northwestern, he studied with Stella Adler and began to find work in television in the 1950s.

Beatty's studio-perfect looks initially masked the more probing figure inside. But the first sign of another Beatty came when he left a TV sitcom, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," for the theater, appearing in some 40-plus theatricals before landing a Tony nomination for writer William Inge's "A Loss of Roses" in 1960. Inge also penned Beatty's first feature and first hit, "Splendor in the Grass" (1961).

But the man who starred in that film was rather different from the one he would become. On one hand, he was a humble student who respected the authority of experience.

"Being exposed to (people like Inge) and learning from them was quite different from arguing with them," Beatty says. "It wasn't easy for me to argue with people who weren't my contemporaries." On the other hand, he "wanted it all and wanted it his way," filmmaker Elia Kazan wrote in his autobiography, "A Life."

He learned the finer points of being a producer from Kazan on the set of "Splendor," and assumed his first producing role with "Bonnie and Clyde," a project that had been waiting for the right helmer for several years.

He chose Arthur Penn to direct. The film's combination of comedy, romance and violence made it as original in its time as 1994's "Pulp Fiction" would be decades later. But not everyone saw it that way.

"The older critics felt it was immoral," Beatty recalls. "(They said), 'You can't laugh about this. You can't switch from comedy to tragedy; you can't mix them like that.' And they were wrong."

"Bonnie and Clyde" heralded a remarkable era for Beatty, as he went from that to movies such as "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), "The Parallax View" (1974) and "Shampoo" (1975).

It was during this time that Beatty made a move to direct. He had already shared a writing credit on "Shampoo" with Robert Towne ("He's astute on just about every level, in just about every way," says an admiring Towne); now he teamed with Buck Henry to direct a remake of "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), based on a screenplay he had written with Elaine May.

"Heaven" was a giant hit. But rather than follow it with another lightweight blockbuster, Beatty's next film was "Reds" (1981), an epic set in and around the Russian Revolution.

In many ways, "Reds" seems to capture Beatty's dual personality. What star would ever make a film glorifying a radical journalist who gets caught up in the 1917 Russian Revolution? What radical would ever make it as luscious as this Hollywood epic?

"It has always been evident to me that there is a conflict between personal life and political life," Beatty says. "(Lead character John Reed) was interesting to me because he was very emblematic of a person torn between these things."

Though "Reds" was a triumph, earning 12 Oscar nominations and a statuette for best director, several years passed before Beatty made his next film.

Unfortunately, some might say, it was "Ishtar" (1987), an overblown comedy featuring Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as two over-the-hill crooners who get caught up in an international power play. The film became a byword for disaster -- though both Beatty and Hoffman defend it today.

In some ways, "Ishtar" marked a turning point in Beatty's career.

While "Bugsy" (1991) was a success, it would be hard to argue that this was one of the quintessential films of its era, as Beatty's films were in the late '60s and '70s. His other hit of the '90s, 1990's "Dick Tracy," was a huge boxoffice success and notable for its visual flair, but it seems minor compared with his more provocative work.

"Tracy" was followed with the disappointing "Love Affair" (1994), then "Bulworth" (1998).

"The fear and paranoia surrounding the suspicions of conspiracies in the '60s and '70s of 'The Parallax View' ultimately led me to do (a film about) a contemporary politician who is driven quite nuts by the incongruities and unacceptability of the conditions of the U.S. Senate," he says. "That caused me to go to the much more comedic and more vulgar approach of 'Bulworth.'"

His last film, "Town & Country" (2001), reportedly cost some $90 million and made only $10 million worldwide.

That, in turn, was followed with silence.

In the past eight years, Beatty has pursued other interests -- not least marriage and fatherhood -- but he hasn't committed to a film.

"I'm always trying to get him to do a movie," Bening says. "I'm an actor, and every once in a while I really need to act; but Warren doesn't have that -- he's got a different kind of character. He's always working on things, but it's like osmosis -- he's bringing in something of himself, but in a really delicate way."

Beatty admits that the amount of work involved in writing, producing, directing and acting holds a certain "dread" for him. It makes him feel like "vomiting. ... I have to do it, and then I feel better afterward. That's why I haven't made an awful lot of movies."

But he's adamant that there are other movies within him. And one can only hope so. Beatty's is a smaller body of work than that of many contemporaries, but the quality is there -- and perhaps because of it.

"I've never been in a rush to make a movie," he says. "You could on one hand say that it's just a question of self-indulgence. But I make movies when I think they are finally ready to make."

Beatty on Politics

Warren Beatty is one of Hollywood's best-known liberals and a man whose name frequently has been mentioned for political office. So why hasn't he ever run?

"You can be a political activist without running for public office; it's somewhat more difficult to run for office without being a political activist. I was never generous enough to give up my personal and artistic life for public office. I might have come close at one time or another, but no cigar."

Working With Warren

Barry Levinson (director, 1991's "Bugsy")
"He didn't have any doubts about (playing a psychopath); in fact, he embraced it. Here's a leading man in a movie who says good-bye to his wife and kids, drives downtown, meets a woman in an elevator, has sex with her, goes to a place where he shoots a person in the head -- and this is in the first 15 minutes! You say, 'My God! This is a monster!' And Warren wasn't even slightly troubled about that. He was very, very willing to take that kind of risk."

Robert Towne (writer, 1975's "Shampoo")
"We were discussing doing a movie about a compulsive Don Juan, and I brought up the possibility of basing it on an English Restoration comedy, (William Wycherley's) 'The Country Wife' -- where the character, in order to make hay with the ladies, has given out that a Dr. Quack has made him a eunuch. The first thought was to make him an actor that everybody thinks is gay; but I had known someone and suggested a hairdresser. It took Warren maybe three seconds to absorb, and he said that was right. He's astute on just about every level, in just about every way."

Robert Benton (writer, 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde")
"We (Benton and David Newman) wrote an 80-page treatment. It was sent to virtually every director, and every studio turned it down from 1963 until 1965. One day the phone rang, and it was Warren. And he said, 'I hear you have this script. Can I can come over?' And he showed up 15 minutes later! Warren picked up the script and called 30 minutes later and said, 'I love it.' I said, 'What page are you on?' He said, 'Page 21.' I said, 'Wait till you get to 45,' because that was when a menage a trois kicked in. At that time, the character of C.W. (later played by Michael J. Pollard) was a dumb stud and there was a menage a trois between Bonnie and Clyde and C.W. that we were going to hold onto come hell or high water. And Warren called back about an hour later and said, 'I still want to do it!' "

Dustin Hoffman (actor, 1987's "Ishtar")
"The toughest aspect of the shoot was psychological. We were being shredded by certain people that had access to the media, even before we started filming. David Puttnam was head of (Columbia Pictures) and one of the first things he said when he got the job was, ' "Ishtar" isn't my film.' That was before we even started shooting! The media were antipathetic because Warren hadn't given an interview in 10 years. It was odd. Later, when the film came out, we couldn't understand (why the media savaged it). For Warren, it was just befuddling. We were trying to do good work, and they were lying in wait."

Annette Bening (wife, actress, "Bugsy")
"The first time we met, I was struck by how intelligent he was -- that was the thing that really impressed me. And not only intelligent but really energetic and interesting, and he clearly wanted a dynamic in the movie that had some contention. It was about two people who were very strong and also played by their own rules. The way he thought and expressed himself had real vitality."

The Life Achievement Award gala helps fund AFI programs throughout the year
By Stephen Galloway

When the American Film Institute holds its gala honoring Warren Beatty Thursday at the Kodak Theatre, the celebration will be more than just an occasion for Hollywood backslapping. The 36th annual event and its broadcast on the USA Network is the prime fundraiser for one of the most important film institutions in the world.

"We raised nearly $2 million in the one night (last year)," says Bob Gazzale, AFI president and CEO. "And that's vital to support the institute's programs."

Those programs now include a host of screening events and administration of one of the country's leading film schools. Specifically, Gazzale says, the money will help pay for:

* The AFI's Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies, where some 250 students each year learn about moviemaking in a conservatory environment
* The AFI Catalog of Feature Films, the definitive record of every film ever made in America, a scholarly compilation that, Gazzale says, "is at the heart of what the AFI was established for"
* The AFI Digital Content Lab, where "we gather artists and leaders of technology to sit and define how (technological) tools are best utilized by today's storytellers"
* Exhibition programs. As the largest nonprofit movie exhibitor in the nation, the AFI puts together three major film festivals: AFI Fest in Los Angeles; the AFI Dallas International Film Festival; and SilverDocs in Washington D.C.

These festivals come on top of special events like last year's 40th anniversary celebration at Hollywood's ArcLight Cinemas, where 10 classic movies were screened in one night, with introductions from Kirk Douglas (1960's "Spartacus") and Jack Nicholson (1975's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest").

It is causes like these that have made previous recipients of the AFI Life Achievement Award so keen to take part -- from the very first, John Ford, to last year's honoree, Al Pacino.

From romantic comedies to political satires, Warren Beatty's films -- and the awards that have honored him -- reflect a career of excellence

AFI Life Achievement Award

Golden Globes, Cecil B. DeMille Award

Kennedy Center Honors
Producers Guild of America, Milestone Award

"Town & Country" (actor)

Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, Academy Awards

"Bulworth" (actor, director, story, screenplay, producer)

"Love Affair" (actor, writer, producer)

"Bugsy" (actor, producer)

"Dick Tracy" (actor, director, producer)

"Ishtar" (actor, producer)
"The Pick-up Artist" (executive producer)

Academy Award, best director, "Reds"
DGA Award, best director, "Reds"
Golden Globes, best director, motion picture, "Reds"
WGA Award, drama written directly for the screen, "Reds" (shared with Trevor Griffiths)

"Reds" (actor, director, writer, producer)

Golden Globes, best musical or comedy, "Heaven Can Wait"
WGA Award, best comedy adaptation, "Heaven Can Wait" (shared with Elaine May)

"Heaven Can Wait" (actor, director, writer, producer)

WGA Award, best comedy written directly for the screen, "Shampoo," shared with Robert Towne

"The Fortune" (actor)
"Shampoo" (actor, writer, producer)

"The Parallax View" (actor)

"$" (actor)
"McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (actor)

"The Only Game in Town" (actor)

"Bonnie and Clyde" (actor, producer)

"Kaleidoscope" (actor)

"Promise Her Anything" (actor)
"Mickey One" (actor)

"Lilith" (actor)

"All Fall Down" (actor)
Golden Globes, most promising newcomer, male

"The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" (actor)
"Splendor in the Grass" (actor)

"Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond" (TV, actor, 1 episode)

"The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" (TV, actor, 6 episodes)

"Playhouse 90" (TV, actor, 1 episode)

"Suspicion" (TV, actor, 1 episode)
"Studio One in Hollywood" (TV, actor, 1 episode)
"Kraft Television Theatre" (TV, actor, 1 episode)
"Look Up and Live" (TV, actor, 1 episode)