WARREN BEATTY’S RULES
Warren Beatty is one of those actors who truly deserves to be called a filmmaker. Having produced many of his films, the five that he has also directed (four of which he wrote or co-wrote) are unique confections that reimagine their own genres. Beatty has a genius for making substance entertaining, or entertainment substantial; he’s been in the public eye for nearly sixty years, and his social conscience has always infused the work.
He has gone from friendship with Robert Kennedy and participation in the progressive movements of the 60s to confronting the urge to nihilism that seemed to bubble up for some when that decade failed to produce its hoped-for utopia (Bonnie and Clyde); to opening audience’s minds to the rise of socialism in the US, imagining what it might be like to build a society in which people actually cared for each other (Reds); to satirizing the suicidal damage of a political system funded by special interests in one of the most truthful mainstream Hollywood movies ever made (Bulworth).
Then he disappeared from the screen for almost two decades.
He hasn’t written or directed since 1998, declaring the joys of parenting superior to making movies, with the lovely phrase, “Each one of my kids is more interesting to me than any five movies.” For a time some of us wondered if he would ever make another movie; when news began to emerge that his long-gestating Howard Hughes project was underway, with the title Rules Don’t Apply, some of us were quietly delighted, and quietly nervous. You never know when the muse will disperse, and we all knew that an eighteen year gap could point one way or another.
We remembered what we loved about his films – the edge-of-the-world moroseness of McCabe and Mrs Miller; the glamor and cruelty of Bugsy, equally tempting and repellent (and a film in which Elliott Gould proves that sometimes supporting roles can steal scenes if not entire movies); the self-effacement of the absurdly underrated, extraordinarily funny-smart Ishtar. Then there are the films he (co)wrote or directed – Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Dick Tracy, and Bulworth – a screwball comedy, a romantic social epic, a comic book adventure, a political satire; four familiar genres, reinvented each time.
Heaven Can Wait exchanges predictable alpha masculinity for subtle expressions of the universal need for companionship; Dick Tracy may be the most exquisitely designed comic book movie ever made, not to mention a semi-musical with Stephen Sondheim songs to boot; Bulworth is a wildly entertaining political satire (a tough-minded, big-hearted Hollywood comedy with a Greek chorus played by the political activist poet Amiri Baraka) that in a parallel universe might have been co-written by Howard Zinn and Michelle Alexander. Meanwhile, Reds is an out-and-out masterpiece – a romantic epic about the rise of communism in the US with a convincing central love affair and dramatization of what building a social movement is actually like. What Warren Beatty does is rare: big canvas storytelling in which the central male figure is never perfect, always vulnerable, never saves the day by himself (if at all), but always in partnership with a strong woman, sometimes a strong community. There’s a nice symmetry in the fact that he seems to create community on his sets – the same names pop up in his supporting casts more than once: Paul Sorvino, Oliver Platt, the delightfully grumpy and much-missed character actor Jack Warden.
In some respects, he’s the philosophical opposite of the star whose creative endeavors his most resembles: Clint Eastwood has produced and directed and acted in his own movies, too, but his archetype always goes it alone. Beatty’s protagonists are actually just lonely – desperate to connect or be understood whether they know it or not. It’s one of the chief gifts of his work that it allows us to connect with our own insecurities and uncertainties, and feel ok about them. Warren Beatty may not have made as many films as some of us might have hoped, but if the distance between them is the price we pay for their authenticity, then that’s ok too.
It comes as a delight that Rules Don’t Apply is original, even magical entertainment, with something lovely to say about the real world. Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich perfectly play Howard Hughes employees who fall in love in 1958, despite the “rules” that say they shouldn’t. They’re caught between the kind of religion that denies love between people, or can’t cope with the fact that we will all make mistakes on the way to knowing who we are; and the temptation to put money, position, and ultimately power before people. Playing Hughes, Beatty invests the character with a kind of vulnerability rare in portrayals of too-easily caricatured famous men. The psychological complexity that overcame Hughes is handled with sensitivity, and Beatty never lets the performance turn into attention-seeking awards bait or a joke at the expense of a powerful but distressed person. The side of Hughes’s character with which we empathize doesn’t erase the part that invites critique: his greed, control-freakery, and manipulations are here too. But what the film is really about is the constrictive rules that affect us all, and how to discern those that make sense, those that are life-giving. Rules Don’t Apply is a kind of serenity prayer for people caught between twin American obsessions: God grant me the courage to transcend harmful religious puritanism, and individualistic expansionism both.
With it, Beatty has made another genre-transcender: a compelling drama, with delicious light touches, that stirs the heart too. It’s a film that believes in the mysteries of love, and the necessity of forgiveness. Released after such a divisive election, it’s also a gift from one of the US’s most important film-makers: an invitation to reimagine the rules we live by, especially when they keep us apart.
Gareth Higgins spoke to Warren Beatty for The Porch Magazine; Rules Don’t Apply is released on November 23rd
Gareth Higgins: I’ve seen you for a long time talking about wanting to make a Howard Hughes film, and I’m wondering about the gestation of that?
Warren Beatty: I never got as interested as I need to be in doing a biopic of Howard Hughes – I didn’t even feel the inclination to necessarily make him the center of the picture as I did with Bonnie and Clyde or Bugsy or John Reed in Reds. The more I thought about it, I wanted to do a movie involving the Hollywood that I came to in 1958/59, and what it was like, and the effects of what I would call changes that were taking place with the rise of feminism, and the effect that that had on what we have grown to call the sexual revolution of the 1906s.
With Howard, I wasn’t even sure that I was headed to do something that was more comedy than dramatic, or whether it was what we’ve grown to call a dramedy. But I always felt that the word that I would use in relation to the feelings I’ve had about Howard Hughes is that I’ve always been “amused by Hughes” – the unusual things that he could demand and get away with. You know I never met him, but I sometimes feel that I met everyone that ever met him. What was so interesting to me is that people did not speak ill of him, they didn’t speak badly of him, everybody kind of liked him – but they found him impossible to accommodate and deal with. They had respect for him, and I would say that his loneliness was a quite evident, and the idea that his being the recipient of enormous inheritance, wealth, one can see as being not only a big asset but also a burden.
GH: He actually feels to me of a piece with several of your other characters, thinking about Bulworth and John Reed particularly. They’re all men out of their time, or trying to move time forward. They don’t belong in the moment in which they exist – they’re trying to push for something to happen that hasn’t happened yet. That’s quite a vulnerable thing. One of the things I liked is that you portray a man who has been previously portrayed as beyond eccentric, but this was quite a tender portrayal of a man who was scared and needed to hide.
WB: I think that Hughes’ need to hide is one of the things that is most distinguishing about him, and it definitely has its comedic side. He needed to be in control – he felt he needed to be in control of the way he was seen.
GH: Because he was scared?
WB: Well we could interpret it in varying ways – we could say that it was a product of a very high level of narcissism, that he wanted to control how he was viewed. You could compare it to a number of movie actors – Greta Garbo comes to mind, who was always very mysterious – people always wanted to see more of her because you couldn’t see her at all. I think that the ability to do that has sort of evaporated now with the technology that we are graced with and sometimes I say saddled with. There’s not the level of privacy that used to be.
GH: How have you been able to cultivate a personal life or an inner life having been in the public eye for most of your life?
WB: Well, I guess I have a level of caution that sometimes I would have to define as a sensible paranoia, but I find that in the last years I’ve let go of that more. But in fact maybe I just feel that I’ve let go of it more because I really don’t spend a lot of time in public.
GH: Let’s talk about the religious questions in Rules Don’t Apply. You’ve got two lead characters caught between rules that no longer function and their desire for each other: the religious puritanism of both Lily Collins’ and Alden Ehrenreich’s characters, and the careerism of Alden’s character which he doesn’t really realize is getting in the way of his love. Where did this religious question arise for you?
WB: As a teenager in Virginia, I went through a very religious period of a few years that was concentrated in the Baptist church. I was not pushed or encouraged in that by other people, it was something that I did on my own. I didn’t go immediately to Hollywood – I went to Northwestern university for a year, and then I went to New York, and studied acting for a year with a great teacher called Stella Adler. Then I played piano in a bar for a little while, playing what Joni Mitchell once called “vodka and tonic music”, and then I got lucky and I started to get work as an actor to my surprise, and then I came out here. This all happened very quickly, and it was a very apparent difference in what you’ve referred to as the puritanism of the Baptist church in Virginia, which was not similar to a town, Hollywood, whose industry is in the merchandising of sexiness. With the rise of feminism in the late 50s and early 60s it became clear to me that America would not forever in regard to the subject of sex continue to be the laughing stock of France and other countries. That freedoms were inevitable The conflict and the consequences of these changes I found to be both comical and sad at times. Having these two young people come to Hollywood at the same time, she being a religious Baptist and he being a religious Methodist, and the restrictions and the guilt on one hand. Then on the other hand a very eccentric unpredictable billionaire who did not feel that he had these restrictions, whom they worked for and to some extent had to accommodate in order to maintain their work relationship. In the whole conflagration of events that was entertaining.
GH: I think it really is. I think you may be the only director who has used Onward Christian Soldiers in two different films – in Reds, clearly a joke at the extent of puritanism. Presumably there was a point where your personal beliefs that you had participated in and found solace in the Baptist experience gave way to a different set of rules: a point where you changed your mind? I wonder if you’d be willing to talk about that, and whether you think Rules Don’t Apply has particular relevance for today?
WB: The answer to the first part of your question, yes, there was a moment when I accepted that the first person that I would have a sexual loving relationship with would not be in the eyes of God my wife. I would not be married to that person because I had a sexual relationship with her.
GH: What was that point?
WB: Well, I could make it funny, but I won’t – it was a moment of what I, in retrospect, view as great clarity. I’ve had interesting and sometimes amusing conversations with others in describing that moment.
GH: I think it’s a fairly common moment for people with a religious background. The question is whether or not you develop a healthy integrated life beyond that. I think a lot of people stay stuck or they live with misplaced guilt for a long time. I’m interested in what helps people integrate a sense of ethics and the common good with the knowledge that it’s ok to have a few loving relationships in the course of a life.
WB What I would say is that it produced something in me in viewing the society around me that it was not that I was afraid of marriage, having waited quite a long time to get married, it was that I was afraid of divorce. As I saw the huge increase in divorce and the acceptance of divorce, it was something that I simply didn’t want to go through. I think that the number of divorced parents that I see in my kids’ schools tells me that I was not wrong. I’m not being disapproving of divorce, I’m simply saying that it was something that I didn’t want to go through the pain of, nor did the people that I had loving relationships with. We agreed on the subject.
GH: As to what Rules Don’t Apply might say to this moment? What I felt was that this film was not mocking one side or the other of a cultural divide but proposing a third way, and it has one of the most romantic, hopeful endings i’ve seen in recent years. It’s ok for people from different backgrounds to choose a different set of rules than the ones they came up with because love trumps these. I’m wondering if that speaks to you, if you feel any different about now that we’re after the election and so much seems to be uncertain.
WB: I’m much more comfortable not trying to sum up what I feel the contemporary relevance of the movie is at this point. I have a fear of being reductive. I really like what you said about it, and I agree with you, but I don’t want to say what I think something means. I want the thing that I did to say it and for people to derive what they feel from it. And if you started me on the election we would be on the phone into the next century!