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“I felt, ‘Let’s do a movie about the little I know about Howard Hughes and see where it takes me, and also cover what it was like to come to Hollywood in 1958,” says the legendary producer, director, writer and actor Warren Beatty of Rules Don’t Apply as we sit down at his home in Beverly Hills to record the 100th episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast. Rules is the first film in which Beatty’s acted in 15 years and the first he’s directed in 18 years, and it will open AFI Fest on Nov. 10 before hitting theaters on Nov. 23. “It’s very important to realize that this movie is not a biopic of Howard Hughes,” he emphasizes. “It’s a story more of two young people, very religious, who come to Hollywood in 1958, at the threshold of a revolution in feminism and sexual mores.” In those respects, if not all others, it’s also Beatty’s story.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or here to access all of our 90+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet and Michael Moore.)
Beatty, who has not granted many interviews and had never done a podcast before this one, will turn 80 on March 30. Considering the length of his film career, which began 55 years ago, he hasn’t made many movies, but his “batting average” is as high as anyone’s — his other credits include, of course, Splendor in the Grass (1961), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Parallax View (1974), Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Reds (1981), Dick Tracy (1990), Bugsy (1991) and Bulworth (1998). All of the above are essential classics. Four were nominated for the best picture Oscar. He personally was Oscar-nominated 14 times, including as a producer, director, writer and actor for both Heaven Can Wait and Reds, a quartet of mentions only one other person ever has claimed for a single film: Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. He won the best director Oscar for Reds, 35 years ago. And in 1999, he was awarded the Academy’s highest honor for a producer, the Irving G. Thalberg Award.
Life began for Beatty — and his older sister, Shirley, “a huge influence” who changed her last name to MacLaine and became a movie star shortly before he did — in Richmond, Virginia. Born to academics and raised in a religious and conservative environment, he was a high school football star who turned down college scholarships in order to attend Northwestern University, which had a strong theater school. “If you had asked me what I was going to do [for a career], I would probably have told you that I was gonna go into law,” he reflects. But after graduating, he moved to New York and, between part-time jobs, began taking acting classes with Method master Stella Adler. “It was she who convinced me that I was okay to not go into law.” The handsome youngster quickly began landing work on live TV, which brought him to the attention of the MCA agency, which, in turn, helped him to land a $400-a-week contract with MGM, prompting a move out to Los Angeles.
Following a brief return to New York to star in playwright William Inge and director Danny Mann‘s A Loss of Roses, a bomb for which he nonetheless received a Tony nomination and caught the attention of Elia Kazan, Beatty returned to Hollywood and auditioned for the lead in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, an exploration of what Beatty calls “America’s sexual puritanism” that was written by Inge. “It was a huge stroke of luck,” he says of the project, on which he was teamed with future girlfriend Natalie Wood and learned directing and producing from Kazan. It proved a hit and made him a star — and “it also gave me a sense of freedom,” he says, “not to go and do one movie after another, which, obviously — if you look at my history, I’ve made fewer movies than anybody!”
A creative disagreement during the making of 1965’s What’s New, Pussycat? — a title inspired by a classic Beatty pickup-line — led to him walking off the picture and adopting a philosophy that has guided him ever since: “I thought, ‘Oh, I get it, I have to control it.’ And that’s when I went ahead and did Bonnie and Clyde.” (Beatty cracks, “If you were to call me a ‘control freak,’ I would take a pause and… have a sip of coffee.”) That 1967 film, about Depression-era bank robbers, was the first one in which he not only starred but also produced. He acquired the rights to Robert Benton and David Newman‘s script, at the urging of Francois Truffaut, and hired Arthur Penn, with whom he’d worked on 1965’s Mickey One, to direct. “It got turned down in a lot of places,” he recalls. “The general feeling was that you couldn’t mix that kind of violence with that kind of comedy. But finally Jack Warner went with it.” Beatty had considered casting MacLaine opposite Bob Dylan in the lead, but ultimately went with Faye Dunaway and himself. The resulting film changed the business forever — it sparked wars between critics, helped to implode the Production Code and made Beatty one of the most formidable multi-hyphenates in Hollywood history.
Over the next decade, Beatty continued to act, for other top directors, in memorable films. He played a gambler who operates a bordello in Robert Altman‘s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (“a good example of a movie that comes into its own years later”); a reporter investigating a U.S. Senator’s assassination in Alan J. Pakula‘s The Parallax View (he and Pakula also penned much of the script due to a writers’ strike); and a randy hairdresser in Hal Ashby‘s Shampoo (“a political movie” that was the first film on which he also received a writing credit, along with Robert Towne).
Then, beginning with Heaven Can Wait, Beatty ventured into directing, too, co-helming that film with Buck Henry. (In it, he plays a football player-turned-angel in a sweatsuit — but only because Muhammad Ali turned down the part when it still called for a boxer. “He could have been a brilliant actor, but he wouldn’t quit fighting,” Beatty laments.) And three years later, with Reds, he flew solo as a director for the first time, making a three-and-a-half hour epic about the Russian Revolution — which doesn’t exactly scream mass-appeal — and scored critical plaudits, a hit at the box-office and a best director Oscar. “It, of course, was against the grain in so many ways,” he acknowledges. “I’ve taken some pleasure in exercising my ‘capacity,’ let’s call it, to get something like that done.”
Not every project with which Beatty was involved was as warmly embraced. He teamed with Dustin Hoffman on 1987’s Ishtar, an “unusual” comedy inspired by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s Road movies, under the direction of Elaine May “a very brilliant woman” with whom he’d closely collaborated on Heaven Can Wait and Reds. The production ran long and went over-budget, which contributed to the notion that it was troubled — but 30 years later, Beatty insists otherwise. “The previews were the most successful previews that either Dustin or I had ever had, and we’ve had some very successful previews,” he insists. “And then the time came to have the press come, and a very unfortunate thing happened that became public involving the head of the studio, and it had a very negative effect on the very day of the screening of the movie… The studio personnel that greenlighted the movie were no longer at the studio, had been replaced by someone who wanted to change American filmmaking, and it really didn’t have a lot to do with the movie itself… There was an agenda there, and it was very sad that Ishtar was not treated with the respect that it deserves.” He adds, “One day, I would predict to you, somebody will have a lot of fun looking at it again and examining the history of what had taken place.”
In the nineties, Beatty produced and starred in a few more films. There was Dick Tracy, a comic book movie before they became de rigueur, which he also directed; Barry Levinson‘s Bugsy, in which he plays the mobster Bugsy Siegel during his years in Hollywood; Glenn Gordon Caron‘s Love Affair, a 1994 remake of the 1939 classic of the same title; and another he directed himself, Bulworth, in which he plays a rapping U.S. Senator who hires a person to kill him (“I got friendly with Dre and Snoop and Tupac,” he notes). Mostly, though, his attention was on his domestic life. In 1991, the fabled bachelor fell in love with Annette Bening, his leading lady on Bugsy and later Love Affair — “I wouldn’t call it immediate,” he says with a pause before adding with a smile, “maybe over two or three seconds.” He asserts, “There is no better actress alive, in my opinion,” calling her performance in 2016’s 20th Century Women “spectacular.” Together, they have four children, aged 24, 22, 19 and 16.
Throughout the 21st century, Bening and the kids have been Beatty’s primary focus — but all the while, and indeed dating back to the sixties, he’s contemplated making a movie about Hughes, a man he never met (although they wound up staying in neighboring bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel in the seventies), but had develped a fascination with. “I sometimes feel I knew everybody who knew Howard Hughes,” he says. “I always thought there was room there for a fun movie.” In more recent years, with financial backing from 16 producers whom he refers to as “patrons of the arts,” he set about making that film a reality, casting up-and-comers Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins to play the youngsters under Hughes’ employ as a driver and a contract starlet, respectively. (“I feel they’re two of the most remarkable young — I call them “kids” — that I’ve ever met,” he gushes. “I think both of them will be producers, I think both of them will be directors and I will be trying to get them to hire me.”)
Together, they made a charming dramedy in which eccentric Hughes, played by Beatty, figures prominently, but which really revolves around a love story (like virtually all of the films Beatty has produced). As he puts it, “It’s really a movie about what I could call the consequences — some comical and also sometimes sad — of what I would have to call the ‘American sexual puritanism’ that existed very much in the fifties, but then began to break loose with the rise of feminism in the late fifties and early sixties, and what I guess is called today ‘the sexual revolution’ of the sixties and seventies.” (Who, better than Beatty, could understand the part of a smart and dashing Hollywood bachelor who, in those times, was involved with many beautiful women, and then worked less and less frequently as time went by?)
As Beatty sends Rules Don’t Apply out into the world and nears the beginning of his ninth decade, he’s open to all sorts of possibilities about what to do next. “While I’ve been making Rules Don’t Apply,” he volunteers, “there are other ideas that have been percolating. Maybe after emptying the nest of these brilliant people who I call my four small Eastern-European countries that I negotiate with, I’ll be more interested in one thing that has been percolating than another, you know? It’s a mistake not to have things percolating. What also percolates are things that one hasn’t done.” He quickly adds with a smile, “And I know what you’re gonna say: ‘Well, what?’ That’s none of your business!”