Beatty, Warren (1937—)

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Beatty, Warren (1937—)

One of the most extraordinarily handsome screen actors of his generation, Warren Beatty proved remarkably sparing in exploiting his image. That image has tended to seem contradictory, often puzzling, to commentators and critics, but there is universal agreement that no subsequent disappointments in Beatty's work could obscure his achievement in portraying the impotent, crippled, trigger-happy Clyde Barrow, at once inept, ruthless, and curiously touching, in Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Brilliantly directed and photographed, with meticulous attention paid to historical accuracy, Bonnie and Clyde was a watershed in the then thirty-year-old Beatty's career, for it was he who masterminded the entire project, from buying the script to hiring director Arthur Penn and choosing the cast. The superb production values and style of the film which, in its fearless and poetic use of bloodshed, made it both influential and highly controversial, stamped Warren Beatty as a producer of flair and intelligence, and his evident ambitions might account for the discomforting and enigmatic sense of detachment that has robbed several of his performances of conviction.

Born Henry Warren Beaty in Richmond, Virginia, Beatty is the younger brother of dancer and actress Shirley MacLaine. He acted in amateur productions staged by his mother, who was a drama coach, during childhood and later studied at Northwestern University and with Stella Adler. A slow progression via television in New York and a stock company took him to Broadway for the first and last time in William Inge's A Loss of Roses, where Beatty was seen by director Elia Kazan. Beatty made his Hollywood debut opposite Natalie Wood in Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961), a somber, archetypically 1960s examination of teenage sexual angst and confusion, in which the actor gave a suitably moody performance and mesmerized audiences with his brooding good looks.

For the next six years Beatty gave variable (but never bad) performances in a crop of films that ranged from the interesting through the inconsequential to the bad. Interesting were The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), in which, despite a bizarre attempt at an Italian accent, he smoldered convincingly as the gigolo providing illusory comfort to Vivien Leigh; and Robert Rossen's Lilith (1964) with Beatty excellent as a therapist dangerously in love with a mental patient. The inconsequential included Promise Her Anything (1966), a romantic comedy set in Greenwich Village and costarring Leslie Caron. His reputation as a Don Juan was already in danger of outstripping his reputation as a star, and when Caron left her husband, the distinguished British theater director Peter Hall, he cited Beatty as co-respondent in the ensuing divorce.

Arthur Penn's Mickey One (1965), a pretentious failure, did nothing for Beatty, and neither did the comedy-thriller Kaleidoscope the same year. Next came Bonnie and Clyde followed by the first of several absences from the screen that punctuated his career over the next thirty-five years. His reappearance as a compulsive gambler in The Only Game in Town (1970), a film with no merit, was a severe disappointment and indicated a surprising lack of judgment, redeemed by his mature performance as another kind of gambler in the Old West in Robert Altman's imaginative evocation of frontier town life, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Julie Christie was his costar and his new headline-catching romance. In 1974 Beatty was perfectly cast as the lone investigative journalist at the center of Alan J. Pakula's compelling conspiracy thriller, The Parallax View, after which he turned producer again (and cowrote) for Shampoo (1975). A mildly satirical tale of a hairdresser who services more than his clients' coiffures, it was a good vehicle for Beatty's dazzling smile and sexual charisma, and it netted a fortune at the box office. After joining Jack Nicholson in The Fortune —awful—the same year, Beatty disappeared again.

He returned in 1978 with Heaven Can Wait, a surprisingly well-received and profitable remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) that earned four Oscar nominations. Beatty coproduced, cowrote with Elaine May, and codirected (his first attempt) with Buck Henry, and won the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy before another three-year absence. This time he came back with Reds (1981), the high-profile undertaking that brought him serious international recognition. A sprawling, ambitious epic running more than three-and-a-half hours, Reds recounted the political activities of American Marxist John Reed (Beatty) in Manhattan and Moscow, and Reed's love affair with Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton, the star's new off-screen love). The film, in which real-life characters appeared as themselves to bear witness to events, was better in its parts than in its sum, but there was no doubting Beatty's seriousness of purpose as producer, cowriter, director, and star. If his ambition had appeared to overreach itself, he was nonetheless rewarded with both the Golden Globe and Oscar for best director, Oscars for cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and supporting actress Maureen Stapleton, and an impressive number of other honors. He was thenceforth to be regarded as a heavyweight, and his future projects were eagerly anticipated.

These expectations remained unfulfilled for seventeen years, during which Beatty made only four films. The motive for making the $50 million catastrophe Ishtar (1987) has remained inexplicable, while Dick Tracy (1990), in which he directed himself as the comic-book hero, displayed an undiminished sense of style but failed to ignite. Bugsy (1991), about the notorious Bugsy Siegel, was slick and entertaining although both star and film lacked the necessary edge, but Beatty found true love at last with his costar Annette Bening and married her. It could only have been his desire to find a romantic vehicle for both of them that led him to such a failure of judgment as Love Affair (1994), a redundant and poor remake of a 1939 classic, already wonderfully remade by its creator, Leo McCarey, as An Affair to Remember (1957).

Four years later came Bulworth (1998), a striking political satire that reflected his own long-standing personal involvement with politics and a canny sense of commercialism in purveying a liberal message through a welter of bigotry. By then happily settled as a husband and father, Warren Beatty at last demonstrated that the faith of his admirers had not been misplaced.

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Malcolm, David. "Warren Beatty." The Movie Stars Story. New York, Crescent Books, 1986.

Parker, John. Warren Beatty: The Last Great Lover of Hollywood. London, Headline, 1993.

Quirk, Lawrence J. The Films of Warren Beatty. New York, Citadel Press, 1990.

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Beatty, Warren (1937—)

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