Warren Beatty, filmmaker
This year's Cecille B. DeMille Award honoree says it all with an unforgettable body of work.Barry Diller has always prided himself on knowing everything about everyone, his ascent to Hollywood's loftiest ranks aided in great part by the judicious use of privileged information. But there are some secrets beyond the reach of even the most powerful moguls. Sometime around 1980, the then-head of Paramount Pictures stalked into the office writer-director James Toback shared with Warren Beatty, vexed.
"Warren was in London at the time shooting 'Reds,'" Toback recalls of the 1981 Paramount release. "Barry came in and was kind of pacing around, and he finally came out with, 'You know, I don't really like Warren!' And I said, 'Get outta here! You love him! What are you talking about?' And he said, 'No, I don't because every time I get off the phone with him, I've told him everything I know, and he's told me nothing!"
Such is the Beatty mystique. The man is notorious for spending hours on the phone with friends and associates, no doubt leaving them no better off than Diller. For Beatty, the pictures tell the story: the still photographs of the impossibly handsome artist possessed of an equally overachieving intellect and the films he's brought to life as a force in front of and behind the camera. And for the amazing cinematic legacy he's created, Beatty is being recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. with its prestigious Cecille B. DeMille Award.
Beatty gained leading-man status in the waning days of the studio system with Warner Bros. Pictures' 1961 film "Splendor in the Grass."
But acting was only the start. Beatty would go on to become an award-winning writer, director and producer.
He is the only person besides Orson Welles to be nominated for four Academy Awards in the same year, and Beatty has accomplished that feat two times -- picking up best picture, director, actor and screenplay nominations for 1978's "Heaven Can Wait" and then for "Reds."
As an early member of the New Hollywood movement epitomized by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, Beatty starred in, developed and produced the avant-garde hit "Bonnie and Clyde," proving himself a conduit for social commentary. It was 1967. He was 30. His film boasted shocking levels of humor, violence and realism along with a provocative tagline conceived by Beatty himself to jump-start a stagnant marketing campaign. Director Arthur Penn remembers today, "Warren came up with that slogan: 'They're young ... they're in love ... and they kill people,' and that was what (Warner Bros.) used."
Acting in only 22 feature films -- many with scripts he spent years developing and even then didn't think they were as good as they could be -- and always focusing on the specifics of projects, Beatty is a perfectionist who can create a movie and open it, too. The corollary to that being: Nothing happens very fast in Beatty's world. And that has prompted Beatty himself to quip that since projects tend to take him so long, he's perpetually considered to be making a comeback. No matter. At 69, he's still able to nab the romantic leads if he wants them.
Warren Beatty was born Henry Warren Beaty on March 30, 1937, in Richmond, Va., the son of a drama-teacher mother and musician-turned-teacher father. Often in the shadow of elder sister Shirley MacLaine, Beatty was a sensitive teen given to reciting lines from the plays of Eugene O'Neill in the family basement. He pored over novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night" and Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel" -- he would later call the latter the most important book of his teenage years, according to Suzanne
Finstad's biography "Warren Beatty: A Private Man" -- then headed north to attend Northwestern University. A year later, he dropped out and moved to New York to study acting with Stella Adler.
Adler's classes led to a recurring role on television's "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" from 1959-60. Not enamored of television, Beatty then turned his attention to the stage, resulting in a 1960 Tony Award nomination for his onstage performance in "A Loss of Roses." At 24, as the lovesick Bud paired with Natalie Wood in Elia Kazan's searingly romantic "Splendor," Beatty broke through to stardom, with the New York Times observing that his character's "emotional exhaustion and defeat are the deep pathos in the film." A flurry of films followed, including 1961's "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone." Then after a years-long involvement with Woody Allen's 1965 comedy "What's New, Pussycat" -- inspired by Beatty's own catchphrase when phoning girlfriends at the time -- resulted in Beatty's being excluded from that movie, the actor decided to take more control as a producer.
Having heard about the "Bonnie" script from Francois Truffaut, Beatty developed it with writers Robert Benton and David Newman, then convinced Arthur Penn to direct the graphically-violent film, which culminated in a hailstorm of bullets -- something that would be much-imitated. Swaggering through the Depression Era crime drama as real-life rural robber Clyde Barrow, Beatty picked up Faye Dunaway in the first scene, held up a general store five minutes later and proclaimed, "I ain't good. I'm the best!"
Recalls Penn today, "His skill and his characterization were really quite extraordinary and very much of his own invention." Beatty proved inventive again when it came to marketing the movie. Penn says, "He more or less rescued the film. It was released by Warner Bros., who had nothing but contempt for it. So, it was sort of dropped in the theaters for about 20 minutes. Warren then went to work. He got the advertising people at Warner Bros. activated." Made for a reported $2.5 million, it earned 10 times that at the U.S. boxoffice and garnered 10 Oscar nominations.
As the male lead -- and an uncredited writer -- Beatty made another complex character sympathetic in Robert Altman's moody 1971 Western "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." Riding into the film on horseback in a rainstorm, wrapped up in an animal-skin fur coat and hat, McCabe tersely characterized himself as a "businessman," not a gunfighter. Between playing cards and traipsing up and down the windy snow-crusted mountain street where a perpetually blueish-purple dusk chilled the scenes, Beatty made a tragic hero of the small-time saloon owner.
Beatty received full recognition for co-writing the sex-fueled 1975 hit "Shampoo," with its satirical view of pop culture on Election Day 1968. Starring as the hip, sweet-talking, modern-day Lothario with a blow-dryer hanging from his belt, Beatty also produced the Hal
Ashby-directed film and wrote it for five years with frequent collaborator Robert Towne. The two earned an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, reportedly basing their protagonist on Beverly Hills hairdressers Gene Shacove and Jon Peters (now a producer).
Beatty's writing style: "Total immersion and sometimes adversarial," Towne chuckles. "It's important in working with him -- and this is something he made me realize fairly quickly -- that if you're advocating a course of action in a script, it better stand up to careful scrutiny. That very often means having to fight for the idea. He will test the validity with very close and sharp questioning. You can call it maybe the 'Last Man Standing' approach."
Now, Beatty was in full stride. He starred in, co-wrote and directed the 1978 fantasy smash "Heaven Can Wait" for Paramount, about a football player seized too soon by an overanxious angel.
Meeting writer Trevor Griffiths at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, they began developing a script called "Comrades." It evolved into Beatty's producing, co-writing, directing and starring in probably his most important film: "Reds," a three-hour-and-20-minute epic of early 1900s Russia as seen through the life of American activist John Reed and his tumultuous love affair with journalist Louise Bryant, played by Diane Keaton. Pioneering what would later become known as the docudrama -- with facts and fiction intermingled for social commentary -- Beatty pitted Reed's chauvinism against Bryant's feminism for dramatic tension, setting their heated romance against the backdrop of Communism. For the role of his romantic rival, literary boozer Eugene O'Neill, Beatty reportedly contemplated casting James Taylor or Sam Shepard, both of whom had the demeanor of a complex man with internal demons. But ultimately, he cast his friend, Jack Nicholson. With 50, 60, even 70 takes of some scenes, Keaton remembers, "It was half-insane working on 'Reds' because he was so engrossed in making a great movie. I've never seen anybody work like Warren. The details! And the fact that he was tireless! He could never stop fine-tuning a scene."
If "Reds" -- with 12 Oscar nominations -- has stood the test of time and then some, the 1987 comedy "Ishtar" proved a public misfire, though Beatty reaffirmed his staying power by producing and directing the 1990 release "Dick Tracy," then did even better by producing and starring in 1991's "Bugsy," directed by Barry Levinson. Who could forget the crawl-bark-and-oink scene when Beatty's Ben "Bugsy" Siegel sadistically asserted himself over another gangster? Or his rough sex scene with Annette Bening over the shrimp scampi?
Says "Bugsy" screenwriter James Toback: "That barking and oinking scene was based on something that actually happened to me in real life. I told Warren about it, and he said, 'Write it in.' And I said, 'You'll never do it!' And he said, 'Write it in.' Not only did he do it, he pulled it off!" Toback adds with just a tinge of awe, "Never has there been a leading man who was so against the expectations of the audience to give them something they can root for."
Beatty's lifelong interest in politics motivated 1998's arch satire "Bulworth," about a disillusioned liberal politician who goes so far as to take out a contract on himself. In 2001, he came back as Diane Keaton's cheating husband in "Town & Country," which was both a critical and commercial failure. However, the film gave Beatty the chance to utter the self-aware line, "I'm not a kid, and I know now no amount of empty philandering is going to make me feel like one."
And Beatty's romantic liaisons are second only to his filmic lore. A partial list of those with whom he's been romantically linked includes Candice Bergen, Leslie Caron, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Elle Macpherson, Madonna, Michelle Phillips, Carly Simon and Natalie Wood. But at age 55, Beatty settled down and married Bening, with whom he then paired in the 1994 drama "Love Affair." The couple has four children.
Now, at 69, nobody is aging better than Beatty, who obsesses as much over a healthy lifestyle as over his creative endeavors. Says Towne, who has collaborated with Beatty more than anyone, "There's just no detail of a film that is going to escape his questioning and figuring out how to make it better."
Agrees Toback: "He's very smart, very articulate. What impresses me most about him as a filmmaker is 'Reds.' I think that's a fundamentally revolutionary movie. No pun intended." And as a movie star? "The most important thing is that an audience wants to keep watching him, that they simply haven't seen enough yet," he continues. "They want more, don't go! Warren has that more than anybody. You can watch those movies over and over again."
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