Friday, December 2, 2016

the Directors: Warren Beatty

What’s so interesting about Warren Beatty’s career is that his films act as generational entry points. Dick Tracy was my first exposure to Warren Beatty. In the film, he’s tough and sarcastic, a brooding presence, with a smile. I loved it. My dad, a longtime Beatty fan, grew up with Bonnie and Clyde, and later, Heaven Can Wait. His appreciation became my appreciation. Most everyone discovers Beatty at a different time, and because his work is so eclectic, there is never a shortage of discussion concerning his work.

Beatty’s career is a celebrated and complex one, so I’m doing something different in this Directors post. Beatty has directed five feature films, but he’s been responsible for the creation of many more. As a producer, Beatty was able to throw his clout around and help make some of the finest American films of all time. He starred in most of the films he produced, and co-wrote a few as well. He was responsible for securing the directors and casts of those projects, and earned final cut on many of them. In short, because Beatty’s influence on the film’s he produced is paramount, I’ve listed them here as well.

as Director
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
So you’re dead. You had your whole life ahead of you – a young, professional athlete with a healthy heart and a bright mind – but now you’re gone. Problem is, an angel (Buck Henry, who co-directed the film) plucked you from life prematurely. Given this fatal error, Joe Pendleton (Beatty) is now entitled to a new body on Earth. He eventually settles on the figure of millionaire Leo Farnsworth, who was recently poisoned to death by his wife and his wife’s lover.

Heaven Can Wait has a lot packed into its 101 minutes, and it’s a credit to everyone involved (many of whom were nominated for Oscars), that every subplot is engaging and necessary. Beatty’s performance in the film is pleasantly manic. Joe is a young buck who is kind and bursting with energy, which creates a performance that is warm and alive. The scene where Joe (as Farnsworth) invites members of the press and public to sit in on a board meeting remains one of the great Warren Beatty acting moments. As Joe tosses millions of dollars around in an effort to make Farnsworth’s company a respected one, Beatty fires off his lines with gusto. The scene encapsulates the heart of Joe, and the core sentiment of the entire film. None of us know how long we’re around for, so while we’re here, let’s do our best to make some good of it. A-

Reds (1981)
On paper, Reds is a standard “homework” movie. The film is a 195 minute-long period drama about young, American journalist, Jack Reed, who becomes enamored with Communist ideals. It’s one of those classic films you keep hearing you should see, but conveniently never make time for. I’ve made time for it twice: once in college, and again for this post, and both instances were beneficial. While perhaps arduous to undertake, once Reds gets going, it breezes by.

The cast is stacked (Diane Keaton as Reed’s longtime lover, Jack Nicholson as the man who comes between them, Maureen Stapleton in an Oscar-winning turn as Emma Goldman), the look is beautiful (cinematographer Vittorio Storaro won an Oscar for his work), and the scope is massive. Detractors say Beatty won the Best Director Oscar as a consolation prize for his influence on the film industry as well as the hard work he put into Reds. I disagree. Reds is a grand film and deserved a grand reception. Then and now, the film is worthy of attention. A-

Dick Tracy (1990)
Dick Tracy was one of my favorite films as a kid. Drowning in lush primary colors, the sets were big, the costumes were bold, and the cinematography was gorgeous. It was so much fun to watch all the big names (Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, etc.) ham it up while caked in comic book make-up. Thankfully, it’s one of those childhood favorites that still holds up. Watching Dick Tracy for this post, I felt like a joyful kid again, smiling at Tracy’s wisecracks, marveling at the massive matte backdrops. I was also reminded how much of a novelty big studio comic book film adaptations used to be. They were events; maybe one released per year, each actively trying to distinguish themselves from others in the genre. I’ll never tire of revisiting this film; it remains a wholly unique take on a genre that has been saturated to the point of indifference. A-

Bulworth (1998)
The biggest compliment you can issue a political satire is that, once a few years have passed since its release, the irony becomes reality. Bulworth is about a politician who has a breakdown and begins doing crazy things in public because he no longer gives a shit. The crazier his antics, the higher his popularity surges. Sound familiar?

Senator Jay Billington Bulworth has nothing politically in common with our President-elect, but the song remains the same: do and say crazy stuff, and the press will fuel it while (some) members of the populace will award it. I’ve always enjoyed Bulworth – it’s hilarious, looks great, and the soundtrack still hits (everyone had this album back in the day) – but it’s better now. Having rewatched it post-2016 election, I value the film much more, not only for what it’s saying, but how it says it. I didn’t remember cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s use of stark colors in the film. Nor did I recall Don Cheadle’s incendiary work as an L.A. gangbanger (he was still in Mouse/Devil in a Blue Dress mode). Moreover, I never fully “got” what Beatty was doing with Bulworth until now. Shame it had to come to this for me to realize it. B+

Rules Don’t Apply (2016)
Beatty has been trying to make his Howard Hughes movie since the ‘70s, and now that it’s finally here, Rules Don’t Apply has revealed itself as a forgetful romance film featuring Howard Hughes, when the character should surely be the highlight. Beatty is older now, and it may seem vaguely ludicrous to cast him as Hughes for the duration of the billionaire’s life, but Rules Don’t Apply would be a much better film if it had more of Beatty’s Hughes. Many of the macro events depicted in Rules Don’t Apply were also portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (namely the flying of The Hercules). Hughes was 42 when he flew The Hercules, DiCaprio was 30 when The Aviator was released, Beatty is 79. And honestly, it doesn’t really matter. Beatty is so goddamn good in the role, he’s able to transcend the continuity of age (it helps that make-up makes Beatty look considerably younger).

It feels like Beatty was too afraid to make Hughes the center of the film, and Rules Don’t Apply suffers for it. Lily Collins (who plays a county-girl trying to make it big in La La Land) and Alden Ehrenreich (who plays a Hughes-employed chauffeur hired to drive Collins’ character around) are both fine actors, but their central romance in the film is vanilla at best. Rules Don’t Apply is competently made, looks great, and features a killer supporting cast. But the fact is, the movie is only really alive when Beatty is on screen, which isn’t nearly often enough. B-

as Producer
What’s New Pussycat (1965)
dir. by Clive Donner & Richard Talmadge
Beatty’s biggest contribution to the romp comedy What’s New Pussycat was that he got Woody Allen his first screenwriting and film acting credit. But shortly after Beatty put the film in motion, he threw a series of fits and left the project. Peter O’Toole took over Beatty’s acting role, and Beatty is now listed as an uncredited producer on the film. The movie itself, about a sex addict trying to stay faithful, is ‘60s fun, but I can’t help wonder how it would’ve turned out with Beatty at the helm. B-

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
dir. by Arthur Penn
The funny thing about game changers is that you can’t talk about them without discussing their influence. If I judge Bonnie and Clyde based solely on the merits of filmmaking, then I can easily hail it as a great film. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s brutal. The acting is superb and the French New Wave-inspired pace is refreshing. But perhaps the most interesting thing about Bonnie and Clyde is what it did. And what it did was change American filmmaking. Movie critics got fired after panning it, while others became stars for hailing it. Violence and sexuality were never depicted the same in film. And, most significantly, Bonnie and Clyde helped pave the way for the audacious American filmmaking that dominated the ‘70s.

Beatty had the pull to handpick the director himself, and he went through a host of candidates before going with Arthur Penn. Casting Bonnie was another long task, with seemingly every actress in town vying for the part. In short, Bonnie and Clyde is a confluence of talents who came together and excelled beyond what anyone could’ve imaged. A+

Shampoo (1975)
dir. by Hal Ashby
Shampoo is fun, dangerous, classic American ‘70s cinema. The movie takes place in the 36 some odd hours directly before, during, and after Nixon’s 1968 Presidential win, and there isn’t a single scene that needs to be added or cut. Shampoo is a perfect assembly of 109 minutes of film. It knows when to be hilariously faced paced (Beatty leaving a party, then coming back, then leaving), and when to slow down (Beatty telling Jack Warden what women talk about). Shampoo could be Hal Ashby’s best film (that’s a tough call), but it certainly contains my favorite Warren Beatty performance. His George is so blasé, so lackadaisical – he’s so… L.A. He never raises his voice above speaking level and always manages to keep cool, even when he’s not. There’s a certain fuckitall attitude George mixes with his frenzy that I’m so drawn to. Shampoo came out in one of the best years ever for film, and was slightly overlooked because of it. I’m thrilled time has lent itself well to this one. An American classic. A+

Ishtar (1987)
dir. by Elaine May
I hadn’t seen Ishtar before this post, but I was certainly aware of its infamy. A notorious flop, one of the worst films ever made, a career-ender for many involved, and on and on. Having finally watched it, such negative hyperbole is nonsense. Ishtar was judged unfairly due to how it was made – inflated budgets, behind-the-scenes tension, studio interference. A film should be based on the quality of the film itself, not on the rumored antics that occurred to get it made. This still happens today. Seemingly every review of Nate Parker’s The Birth of Nation mentioned Parker’s exonerated rape charge from 1999, while reviews of Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here were dominated by that film’s controversial Kickstarter campaign. These are instances where film criticism fails. Dig into anyone’s past or dive deep into most any production, and you’re bound to find something you don’t personally agree with.

Ishtar is a funny film, and I enjoyed a lot of it. Admittedly, I went in with negative preconceived notions, but even before the opening credits were finished (“When you’re hot, you’re hot.”), I knew I was in for a good time. The movie is about two awful lounge singers (a headstrong Dustin Hoffman, a dimwitted Warren Beatty) who book a gig in Morocco but quickly get mistaken as CIA spooks. The plot is thin (not unusual for out-and-out romps) but the slapstick physical humor and verbal sarcasm was more than enough to keep me entertained. Every film deserves a fair shot, especially if you are paid to review them. C+

The Pick-up Artist (1987)
dir. by James Toback
Writer/director James Toback is best when he’s breaking the rules. There was a certain defiance to his first film projects, including The Gambler, Fingers, and Exposed, that I loved. The Pick-up Artist, however, is slight by design, to its own detriment. Toback wanted to make something sillier than he had before, so he wrote a script about a notorious philanderer who gets a taste of his own medicine, with Beatty in mind for the lead. Beatty passed but stayed on as a producer, helping secure the likes of Dennis Hopper, Danny Aiello and Harvey Keitel in supporting roles, while a fresh-faced Robert Downey Jr. took the lead. I get what Toback and Beatty were going for with The Pick-up Artist, but the film is ultimately a waste of the skills of everyone involved. D+

Bugsy (1991)
dir. by Barry Levinson
I can’t hate on The Pick-Up Artist too much, because had Beatty and Toback not worked together on that film, Beatty’s long gestating biopic about mobster Bugsy Siegel may have never been made. Or certainly not made this well. Bugsy is a joyous gangster throwback flick. The movie lives and breathes the Hollywood Golden Age – the big cars, the lavish get-ups, the gangster wealth. Toback ached to direct the film, but Beatty wisely chose Barry Levinson, a great director with polished skills. The result is one of the best films all of the men have ever been involved with.

I’m also glad Beatty didn’t direct this himself, because it gave him more time to focus on his performance. As Bugsy, Beatty does something he hasn’t attempted before or since. The effortless Warren Beatty charm is there, of course, but Beatty captures Siegel’s explosive anger shockingly well. He plays the mobster as a fiery manic depressive, screaming his head off at a guy in one room (“Did you think you could steal from ME?!”), then calmly finishing his meal in the next room. There’s a chaotic energy Beatty brings to Bugsy that helps makes the film such a success, and that’s just one reason Bugsy is worth watching. A

Love Affair (1994)
dir. by Glenn Gordon Caron
Love Affair is a healthy reminder that it is never wise to write films off. I assumed Love Affair was going to be schmaltzy and melodramatic; a way for Beatty and his new wife, Annette Bening, to cinematically express their newfound love. The film is about a famed former athlete (known for his many female conquests), who meets the woman and finally decides to settle down. Because this plot sounds eerily similar to Beatty and Bening’s real life courtship, I unfairly dismissed Love Affair. I’m so happy I watched it for this post, because while it may be a tad sentimental, it’s damn well made and boasts a universally qualified cast. Beatty and Bening’s real life chemistry transcends the screen effortlessly, but perhaps the main incentive to watch the film is to witness Katherine Hepburn’s final film performance. Playing Beatty’s aunt for one extended scene, Hepburn steals the moment so profoundly; you simply can’t take your eyes off her. The woman remained forever magnetic.

Love Affair was made twice before, originally in 1939, and more popularly in 1957 as An Affair to Remember. Most viewers of this Love Affair know how the film is going to end, but Beatty and Bening have a ball getting us there. B

In Summation
Masterful
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Shampoo (1975)

Great
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Reds (1981)
Dick Tracy (1990)
Bugsy (1991)
Bulworth (1998)

Good
What’s New Pussycat (1965)
Ishtar (1987)
Love Affair (1994)
Rules Don’t Apply (2016)

Eh
The Pick-up Artist (1987)

Just Plain Bad
None

16 comments:

  1. Always love reading these director posts. Get on Tarkovsky dammit! ;)

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  2. From the films he's directed so far from what I've seen, with the exception of bits of Heaven Can Wait. Here is how I would rank from what I've seen from him so far...

    1. Reds
    2. Dick Tracy
    3. Bulworth

    Reds was something I think I finally saw last year and how the fuck did Chariots of Fire beat that film over Reds is just baffling. Reds is an achievement in film. Dick Tracy was a film I saw as a kid and thought it was cool. Especially for the cast as seeing Pacino, Hoffman, and Caan in all of that makeup with those gorgeous colors was fun and it had Madonna in one of her better performances. Bulworth I like a lot as it wasn't just funny but had a lot of truth about the bullshit that is politics. I hope to check out Rules Don't Apply soon on TV as I'm in no rush to see it.

    For his work in producing, Bonnie & Clyde, Shampoo, and Bugsy are great while I did like the remake of Love Affair as he and Benning definitely had chemistry while seeing Katharine Hepburn in one of her final roles was a joy to watch. I've only seen bits of Ishtar but not enough of it to give it an opinion while I don't remember The Pick-Up Artist at all.

    I'm glad Warren Beatty is back as reading his most recent interview shows someone who is just glad to be back and seem to be really humble these days from his time off and just wanting to be a dad and husband. I recently bought McCabe & Mrs. Miller last month as it's a B-Day present for me this Monday.

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    1. Chariots beating Reds is utterly baffling. Chariots winning anything at all has always surprised me. Maybe it was a more important film at the time, in the context of what was going on in the world. I dunno. But that movie has never done anything for me. And happy birthday man, hope you had a good one!

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  3. I have seen none of these, this is a bit embarrassing. lol

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    1. Ohhhh you would LOVE Shampoo. Love love love.

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  4. Been trying to get a hold of Shampoo for some time now. I adore Bulworth and Dick Tracy is a film I have lots of nostalgia for.

    Also, the films known as notorious flops- Heaven's Gate and in this case, Ishtar- are actually more interesting than many films of today. Insofar as the ideas and narrative ambition they have.

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    1. Dude, I love what you said in your last paragraph. That is so, so true. After the films get some distance, you realize the infamy surrounding them can be nonsense. Some films are just dogshit, of course. But I'd rather rewatch Ishtar twice than rewatch most of the new films I saw in 2016.

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  5. Do you ever plan on doing one of these for Charlie Kaufman?

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    1. He would be good to cover, but I typically only cover directors in this series. Touching on Beatty's producing credits was a first. Still, Kaufman is an absolute genius.

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    2. Still, Kaufman is far more synonymous with many of his films than the directors are. When I think of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine, Charlie Kaufman is the first person I think of, not Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry.

      Also, you have covered a non-director before: David Mamet.

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    3. Oh I totally agree. What's your favorite Kaufman script/movie?

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    4. Easily Eternal Sunshine. It was the first Kaufman film I saw and his remained in my top 5 ever since. Synecdoche, NY is equally brilliant, but is undeniably a more difficult and less accessible film. It contains my favorite PSH performance, which is saying something, and is the only performance of this century that, at least in my opinion, is on par with DDL's work in TWBB. Kaufman's other work (w/ the exception of Human Nature and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which I haven't seen) are amazing films as well.

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    5. Being John Malkovich is my favorite Kaufman script, but man, PSH's performance in Synecdoche is incredible. It's so interesting (and sad), but that performance fully clicked for me once Hoffman died. It's such a moving film.

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  6. The only movie i have watched here is Dick Tracy as a child and i remember all the characters in it gave me nightmares. Especially Little Face. I will never forget him.

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    1. So creepy! The make-up in that movie is so damn good.

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