Warren Beatty

The ambitious and radical star -- actor, producer, director -- crafted a remarkable and uncompromising slate of mainstream movies.

Published March 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"The rays which shone from the faces of the two girls in the intoxication of their delight were fiery; I adored them and adored myself." -- Giacomo Casanova, "History of My Life"

Until Warren Beatty settled down and married Annette Bening a few years back, an event that had women around the world beaming with approval as if the Earth's last truly wild beast had finally been domesticated, his chief sin in the eyes of the public may have been knowing all too well how to look at a woman -- how to look at her and really see her. Over the course of his career, Beatty became romantically involved with everyone from Natalie Wood and Julie Christie to Diane Keaton and Madonna, and in the process earned one of Hollywood's most enduring reputations as a womanizer. But it's entirely possible that he was at heart an unrepentant serial monogamist: The two are not necessarily the same thing.

Beyond speculating about Beatty's personal life -- no one can really know the truth of it anyway, except the people involved -- it's safe to surmise that Beatty earned his reputation as a man who can't resist women at least in part by the kind of attention he lavished on his partners on-screen. Actors, of course, act. A screen kiss is not a substitute for a real one; the most penetrating gaze of longing doesn't necessarily denote real-life passion.

But if the only evidence a movie audience has of an actor's heart is what we see on-screen, then Beatty has probably opened his more honestly, and more nakedly, than any actor of his generation. When his eyes light on Faye Dunaway in "Bonnie and Clyde," it's as if the world has suddenly opened up around him -- the exact opposite of locking an object of desire up in the shackles of appraisal and assessment. Or as Beatty's George, the perpetually lovestruck hairdresser in "Shampoo" explains, or doesn't explain, in a tumble of half sentences that add up to a shattering helplessness, "I go into the shop, and they're so great looking, you know? And I'm doing their hair, and they feel great, and they smell great. Or I could be out in the street, you know, and I could just stop at a stoplight or go into an elevator or ... there's a beautiful girl -- I mean, that's it, it makes my day. I mean, makes me feel like I'm gonna live forever."

When the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences decided to honor Beatty with the Irving G. Thalberg Award, which he'll take home from the Oscars ceremony Sunday, it's pretty unlikely they were thinking of his reputation as an ace girl-watcher. The award is not so much designed for actors (Clint Eastwood, who won it in 1994, is the only other recipient who's generally best known as an actor); it's given to directors and producers to recognize a lifetime body of work. Even though Beatty may be most frequently thought of as an actor, his work in other capacities has earned him the lion's share of his Oscar nominations. He's been nominated 14 times, and only four of those nominations have been for best actor. (He's won one award: best director in 1981 for "Reds.")

But for people who take the academy's decrees with a grain of salt -- and ideally that should encompass every moviegoer with half a brain -- this particular award could well be considered a way of acknowledging not just Beatty's overall sense of vision but his distinct and radical guiding sensibility, a sensibility that has fueled his ambitions and inspired a remarkable and uncompromising slate of mainstream movies.

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At the astonishing age of 30 he produced and starred in Arthur Penn's 1967 brutal and exquisite masterpiece "Bonnie and Clyde," a picture that rattled and thrilled audiences at the time and still cuts deep. And in 1998 he produced, wrote, directed and starred in the flawed but fascinating "Bulworth," in which he brandished his politics unabashedly, decrying in particular the fact that drug traffic represents the only vitality and growth in our inner-city economies.

You could call it brazen and self-aggrandizing for one man to pour so much money and energy into a movie that seems to exist chiefly as a personal political statement -- but then, it's not all that common for a successful Hollywood type to pour much of anything into making a political statement, even though there are plenty who have the means to do so. Actors are in the same game as politicians: Popularity means everything. Beatty had much more to lose by making a political picture than he had to gain.

Beatty is that rarest of creatures: A longtime lefty who didn't change his tune once he started to make real money. "Bulworth" suffers now and then from a slightly shaky focus, but in the end it's blazingly passionate. And even if it presaged Beatty's timid flirtation with the idea of running for president, which culminated in an op-ed piece for the New York Times last year and fizzled anticlimactically not long after, it can't be viewed even in retrospect as any sort of slick promo. Beatty sank his heart too deep into "Bulworth" for it to be slick in any way. It's hilarious at times, but by the end it feels brushed with deep tones of despair and melancholy -- and who ever wins votes with that?

"Bulworth" wasn't Beatty's first overtly political movie -- nearly 20 years earlier he'd made "Reds," which told the story of journalist and Communist John Reed and his life partner Louise Bryant -- but it was definitely his most relaxed statement, a movie made by a man who's completely comfortable with who he is. In "Bulworth," Beatty wasn't afraid to clown around, to make himself look silly; in "Reds," which is ambitious, sprawling and at times deeply touching, he seemed intent on hanging on to his dignity at all costs. Beatty's vision for "Reds" may have exceeded his grasp. It works better as a slightly overwrought love story (particularly given Keaton's nicely shaded portrayal of Bryant) than as a sweeping epic. His desire to cobble together a real masterwork is so obvious that it often makes the movie overly creaky. It's hard to know if including the documentary-style commentary of real-life figures who knew Reed and Bryant, among them Henry Miller and Rebecca West, was inspired or ultimately hobbling: Sometimes (especially in the cases of Miller and West), the stories they're telling are more engaging than the ones unfolding in the picture's narrative.

Perhaps one of the problems here is that Beatty's intentions are always so noble that they sometimes override his instincts. Like many people who are both fiercely intelligent and charismatic, Beatty doesn't want people to think he's coasting on natural charm -- or, in fact, coasting on anything. Beatty's portrayal of Reed in "Reds" has depth, but you get the sense that he's angling a bit too hard for the audience's approval. It's a problem that's occasionally surfaced throughout in his career. In "Love Affair," his 1994 remake of "An Affair to Remember," and in 1990's "Dick Tracy" (both of which Beatty produced; he also directed the latter), Beatty seemed only to have been snared by the desire to row audiences gently down the stream, back to a simpler time.

There's nothing wrong with creating trifles and diversions. But Beatty is so much better when he allows his tough-mindedness and his tenderness to mix it up, as he did in 1991's "Bugsy" (which he starred in and co-produced); he's too complex a performer to settle into any kind of hoary silver-screen nostalgia. Then again, one of the wonderful things about Beatty -- and probably one of the reasons he's getting this Thalberg -- is that he never quite settles into anything. Every project, and every performance, is different, even when they share some similar thematic threads. His restlessness is his driving force.

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That restlessness may also be the thing that makes him such a terrific actor. Beatty should be recognized for the range and scope of projects he's taken on, for his dedication to approaching the business of movies with intelligence and integrity.

But no matter how much I admire Beatty's versatility, or appreciate some of the pictures he's brought into being, it's his acting more than anything that steals my heart. Although he's generally categorized as being matinee-idol handsome, if you watch his performances carefully you realize it's virtually impossible for him to get hung up on himself: He's too busy giving secrets away -- and although it takes a certain amount of arrogance to believe that one's secrets are worth giving away, it takes even more generosity to be as unguarded a performer as Beatty is.

Beatty didn't grow into that unguardedness by gaining confidence as an actor. It seems more like something he preserved from his youth, something that he never quite allowed himself to shed. You can see it in his film debut, Elia Kazan's 1961 "Splendor in the Grass," in which he and Natalie Wood play teenagers in a small Midwestern town in the late '20s, confounded less by their love and desire for each other than by the rules and mores of the society around them. Beatty, then 24, didn't even look handsome yet: His features were too soft, too boyish, to throw off any real sexual charge. But that's what makes his performance so affecting. It doesn't matter that Beatty's character is a great-looking, popular school athlete: Beatty plays him as a man who's at that tender stage when he's still got too much leftover boy -- when, even beneath his dashing football uniform and his nicely combed hair, his belief in his potential is all he feels he's got.

Six years later, in Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde," Beatty would play Clyde Barrow with that same ultramasculine uncertainty. But Beatty's Clyde is much more wrenching: He's still believing in his potential long after he should have realized its limits. Beatty shows us both Clyde's weakness and his raging but ineffectual sexiness in the way he walks down the street with Dunaway's Bonnie in an early scene: It's less a walk than a reckless amble, a swagger that also incorporates a slight limp -- Beatty writes a novel's worth of possibilities and limitations into a few arcs of movement.

That's not to say that Beatty has always traded solely on his ability to show vulnerability. As he grew older, he found different ways to trace masculine insecurity and bravado back to their tangled roots. As '30s mobster Bugsy Siegel in Barry Levinson's "Bugsy," Beatty gives a ruthless and unnerving performance. When Bugsy kicks his girlfriend's ex to a pulp in the backroom of a nightclub, it's not really aggression you see on Beatty's face; instead he seems almost feverishly dispassionate, and it's scary. Yet his Bugsy also carries the corny (or at least it would be, if it weren't so sincere) banner of being a dreamer. He stakes his life on being able to open a tony casino and hotel in the then-wasteland of Las Vegas, and it gets to the point where making money off the deal means less to him than the process of turning his dazzling pipe dream into a reality.

Beatty's Bugsy is a rough guy undone by all kinds of romance, and by one woman in particular, toughie starlet Virginia Hill, played exquisitely by Bening. She's his match in all ways. As she sits on the stairs, listening as he beats up a colleague of his, the look of disbelief, shock and disgust that crosses her face is genuine; what's also genuine is the fact that afterward, she's completely turned on. Bening holds those two contradictory elements together beautifully (no wonder she and Beatty fell in love during the making of the picture), and Beatty responds to her with complete naturalness. When his friends refer to her as a whore, he's quick to defend her verbally, but he says more in the way his face falls just a little bit. It's not that he's angry because her honor has been trashed. What you see is his disbelief and disappointment that others don't love her as much as he does -- the kind of response that's infinitely more subtle and more difficult for an actor to get at.

But if I were ever forced to come up with quintessential Beatty performances, I'd have to choose bookends: Beatty's hairdresser George in Hal Ashby's 1975 "Shampoo" and his John McCabe in Robert Altman's 1971 "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." If they seem like jarringly dissimilar movies, they're not. "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is set in a just-being-built old West frontier town that looks as if it's perpetually just awakening from a dream; "Shampoo" also takes place in the West (Los Angeles) at the end (and the peak) of the '60s, in the moments of Nixon's rise to the presidency, when we were all on the cusp of another kind of awakening. But "Shampoo" isn't hip. It's just as elegiac as "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is, albeit in a different way. It's just that its deep sorrow, and its almost unbearable wistfulness, wears polyester shirts and bell bottoms instead of John McCabe's almost comically mangy bearskin coat.

In "Shampoo" Beatty played the kind of character everyone believed he was in real life -- an insatiable satyr who couldn't settle down with just one woman. But from the beginning of the picture, it's clear that it's not the women who are prisoners. George can't resist them -- he has no problem keeping three in rotation at once -- but he feels so much tenderness for them (even if it's not always exactly love) that it seems more likely they'll be the death of him than the other way around. These women aren't victims: Goldie Hawn (in an amazing performance), one of his three regular paramours, listens patiently as he explains why he "cheated" on her. She processes the information so clinically there's no question that she doesn't understand it. And then, having surveyed the situation, she walks out coolly, leaving George to deal with his own continual and self-perpetuating despair.

Beatty's George is the heart of "Shampoo," and you can feel it in the way he practically falls apart, nearly every time, at the sight of the one girlfriend he deeply and truly loves, Christie's Jackie. Christie's cool beauty, and that cutting jaw line, can soften in a flash -- it's what makes her so effective, and so affecting, as an actress. Her performance here is devastating precisely because she softens toward George so little. It doesn't matter how much lovesickness and helplessness show up in his eyes (despite the effortless cool of his body language, and even the set of his own jaw). She can't afford to give him a chance, and although you want it desperately for his sake, you can't blame her. When he realizes she's left him for good, what kills you isn't that his face shows that he can't believe it. It's that it shows he can. In the last frame, we see him only from the back, watching her drive off; his muscles shift a little under his shirt as he takes a breath. The fact that we can't see his face doesn't increase our distance from him; it collapses it. This isn't the end of an era -- it's the end of a man.

Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is a completely different story, but its ending has a similar effect. And again, it's Christie, as the obsidian-hard (and again, impossibly lovely) bordello madam Mrs. Miller, who's got him undone. (Christie and Beatty, one of the most natural pairings in the history of movies, would team up again in his 1978 directing debut, "Heaven Can Wait.")

In "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," when his shambling, muttering frontierman McCabe tries to fathom Christie's sailor-on-shore-leave toughness, the stars in his eyes signify confusion and awe more than raw desire -- more than anything a helpless acknowledgement that there's no way to possess any woman. In "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," Beatty is an unlikely Casanova -- and yet maybe more than in any other performance he represents the essence of trembling, delightful, uncertain yet exceedingly selfless love. He yields; she (mostly) takes, and it's a heartrending equation.

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Beatty's great subtlety as an actor comes from that openheartedness. In the old days, there was plenty of feminist lit about the tyranny of the male gaze -- how dangerous it was for a woman to define herself as men see her. But the whole point of love is that lovers, men and women alike, shouldn't look at each other in just any old way. Beatty's McCabe may be perpetually confused, but he gives Christie's Mrs. Miller the world in a single glance, over and over again. There's a defiant order to his unselfishness, and there's great beauty in it, too.

In his best moment in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," he stumbles around his room, mumbling in stream-of-consciousness free verse, as he musters the courage to go talk to her, to really make her listen to him for once. "I got poetry in me," he says, and the line jumps right out from its hazy context. It's a declaration of self-love, the kind of self-love that finds its truest home not in the reflection of a mirror, but in another person's eyes. Of course he's got poetry in him: He knows it, and we do too. It was there in the way he looked at her, as generous and compact as a sonnet. It's not the kind of thing you give just any girl.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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