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BOOK REVIEW

'Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America' by Peter Biskind

The biography is filled with salacious details of his personal life, as well as anecdotes about his painstaking approach to filmmaking.

By Lawrence Levi

January 7, 2010

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In the introduction to "Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America," Peter Biskind calls Beatty an "indecently gifted" artist whose work has "enriched the cinema." But that's just foreplay. Here's the first sentence of Chapter 1:

"On a hot summer night, in 1959, Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda were having dinner at La Scala, on Little Santa Monica in Beverly Hills, when Beatty spied Joan Collins at a nearby table."

Within the next few pages of this totally entertaining, giddily salacious book, we're hearing how the 22-year-old Beatty took calls while making love to Collins "relentlessly." We also learn shocking things about Fonda's jaw.

Later Biskind attempts to calculate the number of lovers Beatty had before settling down with Annette Bening more than 30 years later. His guess: 12,775.

Beatty's ascent to stardom is, of course, inseparable from his legendary womanizing, and Biskind -- a Vanity Fair contributor whose previous two books, "Down and Dirty Pictures" and "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," similarly balanced the nitty-gritty of filmmaking with dishiness -- revels in the details.

Standing under the Moroccan sun on the set of the ill-fated "Ishtar," Beatty's costar, Dustin Hoffman, asks him, "Theoretically, is there any woman on the planet that you would not" sleep with?

Beatty ponders, then replies, "No."

The Beatty depicted here is witty, cunning and freakishly charming, which is hardly news. (You won't believe what he asks Mrs. Douglas MacArthur at her 92nd birthday dinner.)

He also comes off as possibly the most exasperating person who ever lived.

'Difficult' at work

Packed into these pages, along with Beatty's conquests, are the testimonies of dozens of people who have worked with him over the decades, and even those who adore him sound worn down. "He will suck you dry of all your creativity," says one. "He exploits everybody," another adds.

Beatty is famously private. Biskind lets him tell his side of every damning story. (Earlier this week, Beatty's attorney Bert Fields told the Huffington Post that the book "contains many false assertions and purportedly quotes Mr. Beatty as saying things he never said.") But Beatty's reputation for being "one of the most difficult people to work with or for in the entire industry," as Biskind hears it, seems earned.

The contentions (also old news): He's a perfectionist, a control freak, a master manipulator, a bully. He takes credit for others' work. He's maddeningly indecisive and hopelessly self-defeating.

Yet he's responsible for "Bonnie and Clyde," "Shampoo," "Reds" and other excellent movies, and he remains the only filmmaker aside from Orson Welles to be nominated in four Oscar categories -- something he pulled off twice, for "Reds" and "Heaven Can Wait."

On his understated style, Biskind says admiringly that Beatty "strove for directorial transparency": "His movies are less aesthetic objects in themselves than windows on the world."

At the same time, his approach is painstaking enough that some "Reds" crew members called him "Masturbeatty."

This schism underlies Biskind's breezy and often painfully vivid accounts of the making of Beatty's films.

Some stories are familiar; many of the juiciest anecdotes and quotes about "Bonnie and Clyde" and his 1970s movies come straight from "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls."

Endure 98 takes of Beatty stirring soup for "The Parallax View"! Suffer with Buck Henry as he and Beatty co-direct "Heaven Can Wait"! Storm permanently off the set with Diane Keaton ("Reds") and Katharine Hepburn ("Love Affair")! Declare your independence with Trevor Griffiths, the British playwright and co-writer of "Reds," when Beatty says, "You can't go home. Once you sign on with me, you surrender all rights to your life"!

Perhaps the most dazzling and depressing set piece is the grueling, round-the-clock, 18-month postproduction of "Reds," which occurred in a Midtown Manhattan editing studio under the leadership of the film's chief editor, Dede Allen.

Some 70 people were involved, toiling on the 1 million feet of film that Beatty had printed. One looping editor, a single mother, had to sneak out each night to see her son; an assistant editor attempted suicide. Accepting his Oscar in 1982 for directing the film, Beatty neglected to thank them.

Surprise ending

Biskind tosses off the occasional groan-worthy phrase and leaden simile. He has the jarring habit of quoting dead people in the present tense, from interviews he conducted years ago. His chapter titles ("Easy Writer," "One From the Hart") are cheesy. This hardly matters.

On Beatty's forays into politics, Biskind is incisive, sussing out his extensive influence in the presidential campaigns of George McGovern and Gary Hart, and getting the scoop on his considered 2000 presidential run.

Journalist Marc Cooper, one of Beatty's advisors that year, says: "Many times we said Annette would be a better candidate, because she was more decisive, more outspoken, more willing to rock the boat, and more willing to be unpopular."

Biskind ends with the possibility that Beatty, who is 72 and has not made a movie in about a decade, might pick up a long-gestating project about Howard Hughes. But it's a different concluding statement that resonates.

"Warren is an underachiever," says screenwriter Bo Goldman, who worked with Beatty on "Dick Tracy" (and received no credit). "He could have made five more wonderful movies, he could have been governor, he could have done everything, but his ego gets in the way."

Levi is co-author of "The Film Snob's Dictionary."