• U.S.

Warren Beatty Strikes Again

21 minute read
Frank Rich

He is a millionaire many times over but lives in two small, slovenly kept hotel rooms. He travels with the fastest crowd in the country but rarely drinks and never snorts or smokes. He is offered the best jobs in his profession but turns most of them down. His idea of sin is to eat ice cream. His idea of a great time is to talk on the phone. His idea of heaven is to spend hours debating the pros and cons of Proposition 13. He wears dirty jeans three days in a row, chews vitamin pills and remembers everything. He makes coast-to-coast plane reservations for six consecutive flights, then misses all of them. Almost the only appurtenance consonant with his celebrity is an address book Don Juan would envy. As one of his best friends puts it, “He can be an idiot, and he can be brilliant. The thing is, whatever he does, he does it bigger than the others do it. It’s his appetite. His appetite is epic. He looks at the world, and there are things in it he wants. There are things he must do. There are people he must have. His appetite is enormous, and he has a wonderful time getting what he wants.”

The life-style may be odd, the methods unorthodox, but Warren Beatty gets what he wants. And it almost invariably works —and sells. No actor of his generation, not Redford or Nicholson, has been a star half as long as Beatty has. Few in the film industry make as much money. No one can do so many of the jobs required to create a successful film as he. In the most visible function, acting, Beatty, unlike Travolta or De Niro, began at the top. He has been a sensation ever since he first appeared on the screen, in Splendor in the Grass, 17 years ago.

He also revels in his life. Having no strong family ties, he goes wherever he wants whenever he wants. Having no strong compulsion to work, he takes off months to hop around the world, read, dabble in politics and consort with beautiful and in teresting women. (He has made only 15 movies in 18 years.) While other stars hang out with one another in Malibu, Beatty moves and mingles with the “right” people. He has had breakfast with Henry Kissinger in San Clemente and dined back in town with Vladimir Horowitz. He has numbered among his friends the likes of Lillian Hellman, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern and Jerry Brown. The countless women in his life have included Natalie Wood, Julie Christie and his current flame, Diane Keaton.

With all this going on, he might well show signs of wear, but at 41, Beatty has the looks of a crown prince. He carries his 6-ft. 2-in. frame like a youth of 20. Maybe there are a few crows’-feet around Beatty’s bedroom eyes and a small bald spot, but these are minor imperfections. When people lead charmed lives, they age remarkably well. Explains Beatty’s friend, Screenwriter Robert Towne (Shampoo): “People say you don’t learn from success but from your failures. Warren learns from success.”

This week fortune is ready to smile on Beatty yet another time. Heaven Can Wait, his new film, opens at 625 theaters nationwide and is almost sure to be the most popular entertainment of the summer. A remake of a classic Hollywood comedy called Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Heaven Can Wait is a light, screwball fantasy about a Los Angeles Rams quarterback (Beatty) who dies and comes back to life as an eccentric millionaire. The movie has everything going for it: big laughs, populist politics, billowy sequences set in heaven, a murder plot, a climactic Super Bowl game, a supporting cast of choice comic actors (Charles Grodin, Dyan Cannon, Jack Warden) and, best of all, a touching (but P.G.) romance between the hero and Co-Star Julie Christie, who communicate largely through passionate eye contact, the heat of which has not been felt since Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh met in Gone With the Wind. From beginning to end, for kids and adults, Heaven Can Wait is nonstop —and blissfully uncomplicated—pleasure.

Beatty is not only the star of Heaven Can Wait but the co-writer (with Elaine May), co-director (with Buck Henry) and producer. Having already produced two smash hits in his only previous tries, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Shampoo (1975), Beatty must now be regarded as a major film maker as well as a star. “He is really a perfect producer,” says Arthur Penn, who directed Bonnie and Clyde. “He makes everyone demand the best of themselves. Warren stays with a picture through editing, mixing and scoring; he plain works harder than anyone else I have ever seen.”

The job of producing Heaven Can Wait began over a year ago. Beatty was gearing up for two massive pet projects, film biographies of Billionaire Howard Hughes and John Reed, the messianic leftist author (Ten Days That Shook the World). Then Beatty decided to make a simpler movie first. “I thought I better do a nice yarn with a strong narrative,” he says, “and Heaven Can Wait is all plot.” Since the hero of Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a boxer, Beatty considered the film a good vehicle for Muhammad Ali, a friend whom he regards as a potential movie star. But Ali had a couple of fights on his schedule, and Beatty cast himself as the hero instead. “I couldn’t see myself as a boxer,” he says, “but I had been a football player as a kid. So I changed it.”

After commissioning and polishing Elaine May’s screenplay, Beatty got to work on casting. Possibly the hardest role to fill was that of Mr. Jordan, a heavenly bureaucrat played by Claude Rains in 1941: both Cary Grant and former Senator Eugene McCarthy were talked about for the part before it went to James Mason. Only at the last minute did Beatty decide to try directing for the first time. “I asked Mike [Nichols] and Arthur [Penn], but they were busy,” he says. “Then I thought the next best thing would be to do it myself.” But Beatty, who becomes deadly serious when working, decided he needed a co-director to keep the movie from becoming ponderous. Buck Henry got the job, as well as the on-screen role of Mr. Jordan’s celestial assistant. It was not an easy experience. “We had plenty of disagreements, but they weren’t violent,” says Henry. “When Warren wants to do something his way, he has it all figured out. So you goddamn well better be prepared to argue your case if you differ with him.”

What began as a throwaway film became, for Beatty, an exhausting effort. As he told TIME West Coast Bureau Chief William Rademaekers in his reporting on Beatty: “I was looking for fun, but it took more time and work than I thought. The essence of producing is to get a good collaborative mix of talent. Yet, no matter what you do, a film is still a film—a couple of hours of moments, some good, some bad, and you have to replace the bad with the good.” Only days before its opening, Beatty was in New York City refining the details of his movie’s release. “Anyone who would make films and ignore the final phase—how it’s projected on the screen, the speakers in the theater—is not realistic,” he says. “You can put in years and have the entire thing erased by a light bulb. As the producer, I have nobody to blame but myself if the movie doesn’t come off.”

There is unlikely to be much blame in the case of Heaven Can Wait. Besides contributing a likable and funny performance as the movie’s hero, Beatty has brought out the best in lis collaborators. May’s work on the script is her wittiest since A New Leaf: she has spiked a sentimental story with misanthropic jokes about money, marriage and adultery that are not in the old film. Grodin and Cannon, who have May’s sharpest lines, give impeccable, dry comic performances. Some of the humor—involving batty butlers and rough football players—is knockabout, but the gags never go on too long.

Nor do the co-directors ignore the poignancy of their tale. Though the film is set almost entirely in modern Los Angeles, it never gives the audience time to question its fantastic premise or its hopelessly romantic conviction that love can triumph over class differences, physical metamorphoses and even death. It is the first film Beatty has produced with a happy ending, and, as he says, “Let’s face it, what makes you feel good about the movie is that it says you’re not going to die.”

The old-fashioned appeal of Heaven Can Wait gives the film some of its glow. It is easy to imagine Beatty spending his boyhood watching double features at the neighborhood movie palace. That was not the case. Growing up in Richmond and later Arlington, Va., Beatty (then spelled with one t) was a bookworm. His father, a high school principal, taught him to read at the age of four. He had a formidable sister, Shirley MacLaine (MacLean is Mrs. Beaty’s maiden name). Three years older than Warren, she was the tomboy. Today she feels that both children were greatly influenced by the powerful personalities of their parents:

“Dad had this Southern talent of commanding attention in any room with his storytelling; Mom would react to him in an intense way. Though not social or gregarious, they were like a vaudeville team at home, and Warren and I would sit there and watch. It made both of us rather shy, and one of our quests in life has been to overcome that shyness with self-expression.”

As a teenager, Warren threw away the books. He was only a fair student but was captain of his high school football team and president of his class. He quit Northwestern University after his freshman year and moved to New York to study acting. Then as now, Beatty kept professional distance between himself and his sister. He told interviewers that “nobody likes to be in somebody else’s shadow.” He was also far from certain that he wanted the flashy career she already had.

“I wanted to be a stage director—that was legitimate!” says Beatty, “and I wanted to write for the theater. I sort of backed into acting as a way of learning the theater.” In New York in the late ’50s, he worked at odd jobs, such as playing “bad cocktail piano” at a dim midtown club. After appearing in a few stock and live television productions, he got a screen test with Director Joshua Logan; another novice movie actor, Jane Fonda, auditioned with Beatty. Nothing came of it, but three months later MGM offered Beatty a five-year contract at $400 a week. He moved to Hollywood and, at 22, sized up the pitfalls of the studio system in record time. Without ever unpacking his bags, he borrowed money to buy his way out of MGM. Back in New York, he landed a supporting role in a William Inge play, A Loss of Roses. Though the show flopped on Broadway, Elia Kazan happened to see it. “I liked Warren right away,” the director recalls now. “He was awkward in a way that was attractive. He was very, very ambitious. He had a lot of hunger, as all the stars do when they are young.” Kazan signed Beatty immediately for Splendor in the Grass; to this day, Kazan remains Warren’s favorite director.

Even before movie audiences got their first glimpse of Beatty, he was starring in Hollywood gossip columns. Nominally engaged to Actress Joan Collins, Beatty carried on a public affair with Splendor Co-Star Natalie Wood. It broke up her marriage to Actor Robert Wagner, though they later remarried. (A few years later Director Peter Hall named Beatty the corespondent in a divorce suit against Leslie Caron.) Beatty was notorious as a rake, and not of the garden variety, by the time his first film opened. At the time, his feelings about his profession were mixed. “When I would fly in from Europe,” he recalls, “it was embarrassing for me to put ‘actor’ on my landing card.”

Beatty followed Splendor with a string of movies—The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, All Fall Down, Lilith—that turned out to be disappointments, but enlarged Beatty’s image. Along the way, he earned a reputation for being hard on directors. “If the director was indecisive, Warren would absolutely destroy him,” says Robert Towne. “He’d ask so many questions—and he can ask more questions than any three-year-old—that the director didn’t know whether he was coming or going. I think Warren’s drive to be a producer was that he feared he would get into more films where the person in authority didn’t quite know what he was doing.” Beatty agrees: “Once I became interested in stories and getting stories told, I realized I had to be a producer to get them told in the right way.”

With Bonnie and Clyde, Beatty’s chance to tell a story in his own way arrived. He didn’t fool around. “He bund the script and brought it to me,” says Director Jenn. “He put together the financing and did the casting jointly with me. Warren is a great fighter. Warner Bros, didn’t like Bonnie and Clyde and released it poorly. Warren got in there and reorganized the advertising and the release pattern. He made himself a real pain in the ass to the people at Warner’s. ‘Why do we have to deal with this good-looking actor?’ was their attitude. People didn’t recognize him as the superior businessman he is. They do now. The results of his efforts were absolutely electrifying.”

To say the least. Bonnie and Clyde became a classic of ’60s pop culture and the year’s highest grossing film. Beatty became an international culture hero. Visiting France after the movie opened there, he found that “people everywhere were dressed like Bonnie and Clyde; it was the pervasive theme.” And Beatty was celebrated as its prophet. At haul monde parties in Paris, he recalls, “you would be seated at a table with Maurice Chevalier on one side, Arthur Rubinstein on the other and Mr. and Mrs. Pompidou across the candlesticks. There were old men with beautiful young girls—not one but clusters of them. There were women dripping jewels, and somehow you felt, this will never come again.” He had just turned 30.

After the Bonnie and Clyde hysteria died down, Beatty acted only occasionally. His single memorable performance was in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971); it was also his first appearance opposite Julie Christie, who had been the most important woman in his life since 1965.

Beatty was drawn into politics by Viet Nam and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. He took a year and a half off to work for the ’72 Democratic ticket. George McGovern was impressed by his newfound fund raiser’s seriousness: “Warren not only cares about issues, but his judgment is very perceptive.” Mostly to be available for McGovern, Beatty rejected a number of major films: The Godfather, The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby and The Sting. Once the campaign was over, Beatty got to work producing and starring in Shampoo, a trenchant social comedy about a randy Beverly Hills hairdresser. Its sexual frankness was almost as hotly debated as the violence in Bonnie and Clyde, but it was enormously successful.

These days Beatty continues to pursue his three obsessions —movies, politics and women—in about equal measure. His base for the past dozen years has been his apartment high in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The suite, aptly named “El Escondido” (The Hideaway), is a mess. Half-eaten room-service sandwiches, old magazines, scripts, books and political journals lie in heaps throughout the living room: the place looks more like the office of the editor of a liberal weekly than the salon of a movie star. Beatty, who likes to wear old jeans and open shirts, slips in and out of the Wilshire through the garage.

Two and a half years ago, Beatty began building a mansion near his pal Jack Nicholson’s spread on Mulholland Drive; there isn’t a soul in Hollywood who believes that Beatty will ever move into it. “There’s no anchor in Warren’s life,” observes one friend. “Warren is always on the go,” says Arthur Penn. “He travels light and takes one small suitcase from coast to coast. I guess you’d call him a very rich migrant worker.” Last week Beatty arrived in New York to organize the advance screenings of Heaven Can Wait and harass the Paramount sales force with endless queries. It took the elegant Carlyle Hotel two days to determine whether or not he had actually checked into his suite. At one point a maid burst into his room, found Beatty on the telephone and complained: “Nobody has slept in the bed again. I want to know—are you going to stay here tonight?” Finally Beatty sheepishly threw up his hands and announced, “Well, it looks like this hotel has blown my cover.”

Such tales about Beatty are legion. He rarely, if ever, is on time for any kind of appointment: Agent Sue Mengers, a friend inured to his late arrivals, says she now “plans buffet entertaining if Warren is coming to one of my parties.” Wealth makes him uncomfortable. He would rather hear Mabel Mercer sing in a quiet club than boogie at Regine’s; he owns a Cartier watch, but prefers to wear a Timex. An articulate man who refuses to use either Hollywood lingo or the latest L.A. hip-speak, Beatty likes to take long pauses in the middle of sentences to make sure that he doesn’t say more than he intends. In action, he is fast and effective. Lillian Hellman describes Beatty as a “foul-weather friend,” the first person to call in a crisis. Says Mike Nichols: “He can make 65 calls in three hours and plan anything.” Beatty is also a health-food enthusiast and, as Nichols notes, “a postgraduate hypochondriac.” He tells of the time that Beatty crossed wires making a call and overheard two strangers discussing the symptoms of a friend who was about to have her gall bladder removed. Beatty listened and then broke in: “Hey, she doesn’t have gall bladder problems; she should be tested for hypoglycemia.” Sure enough, he proved to be right.

In business, Beatty is a tough operator. He will collect industry gossip without offering his sources any information in return. Says Beatty: “You never really know whether you are being perceived as a monster if you are a star.” A few of his colleagues do see him that way. Says one highly respected studio head: “Warren won’t make commitments and negotiates forever, trying to get his fees up. I wouldn’t wish a negotiation with him on anyone.” Buck Henry takes a more benevolent view: “Beatty is psychotic about the possibility of overlooking anything. If he could, he would be up in the projection booth of the theater showing his movie, pushing the projectionist aside, still trying to cut or add frames, humming music he might have forgotten to include in the sound track. ‘Easygoing’ is not a quality he has. You know how Presidents age in office? If Beatty were President, either he would be dead after the first year or the country would be dead, because his attention to detail is maniacal.”

His romantic commitments are, as ever, ephemeral. Says his sister: “Neither of us would have a conventional marriage because of the intensity of the marriage we witnessed every day as children. We need more breathing room in our lives. I can’t imagine Warren with children. When he first met my daughter, he examined her quietly as though she were just a specimen of human life instead of his niece.”

Some friends find their relationships with Beatty one-sided. But women who have had flings with Beatty speak of him more often with amusement than rancor. One survivor of a brief affair recalls: “He doesn’t just want to seduce you but to quite literally charm the pants off you. He tells you you’re fabulous and laughs at all your jokes. When we first met, we spent six hours talking about politics and articles in The Atlantic and sex and show business and Julie Christie. He’s so in love with himself that it’s contagious. He’s very funny. I certainly don’t regret knowing him.” Actress Lee Grant, a longtime Beatty watcher, feels that “Warren’s conquests of women are not totally successful. His percentage is about fifty-fifty. Those he can’t conquer don’t want to be part of a crowd—one of Warren’s girls. But the Peter Pan quality in Warren is very attractive to some. He teaches them to fly, and they have extraordinary experiences with him. Then they grow up and go on, and he keeps flying. Like Peter Pan, he always comes back to another little girl who’s ready to fly off with him to never-never land.”

By now Beatty is used to having others theorize about him, though press accounts still test his not inconsiderable sense of humor. “I have never talked about my personal relationships—with women, my sister, my parents —because these are important people to me. I don’t want to hurt them by discussing them in public. As for my love life, I can’t control what others say about it; it is what it is. I know that movie actors are overrewarded in our society, and that the press has to cut people like me down to size. So they come up with all sorts of wild things. They make me into an insane eccentric with an incredible fear of losing my youth, who lives in a bomb shelter, who contemplates or is going through plastic surgery, who has devastating relationships with women. It goes through cycles. First they say that women like me too much; then that women don’t like me at all; then that they like me too much again. Somewhere along the way they say that I secretly like men—but then that men don’t like me! I’m old, I’m young, I’m intelligent, I’m stupid. My tide goes in and out.”

Beatty is not contemplating any changes in his ways. If he has any personal complaints, they are only about the drudgery of producing. “I enjoyed it the first time, on Bonnie and Clyde,” he says, “because I wanted to see if I could play with the big boys. But, you know, they don’t look that big after you’ve been playing with them.” The prospect of running for public office also has lost some appeal for him, though he doesn’t rule it out altogether. “The relationship between theater and politics fascinates me,” he says. “They both communicate ideas and both involve persuasion and compromise.” More than ever, though, Beatty loves acting; he looks forward to playing many more roles after John Reed and Howard Hughes. This is good news, for Beatty has evolved into an exceptional movie star. Once a moody, latter-day James Dean, he is now the wittiest of leading men. He brings eroticism to the screen, but not at the expense of sensitivity and self-effacing charm. At his best—especially in McCabe and Heaven Can Wait—his acting belies his looks; he makes the audience feel protective of him.

Actually Beatty thrives on taking care of himself. He likes to be alone and sometimes dreams of the day when even his work will be solitary. “My idea of freedom and independence,” he says, “is to live on top of a hill with clean air—no smog —and some good food vaguely in the area. The window is ajar, and there’s a breeze that smells of geraniums or honeysuckle. And there’s a room with a typewriter, where you go in for a few hours a day and tell your version of things. And you get a call from someone in a distant, dirty city who tells you that you can have more money and more time to write because people are so eager to read what you have to say. That’s the fantasy of quitting. The other day I was thinking about quitting, and it was really attractive to me—for 15 or 20 minutes.”

He pauses and goes on: “But then you go out to a movie theater and get this thrill when something good goes on the screen. And you want to raise your hand and say, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, I want to make one of those!’ ”

Frank Rich

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