WARREN BEATTY & DESERT EYES: A Life & a Story by David Thomson (Doubleday: $18.95; 456 pp., illustrated)

"CAN ONE ATTEMPT THE 'LIFE' OF ANYONE STILL ALIVE?" David Thomson asks at the outset of this stunning and unprecedented work. "Does responsible biography need as a first condition the death of his subject and the stillness of his life?"

Thomson's implicit answer is that, yes, the attempt on the life of the living can be made, but that ordinary biographical methods will not quite suffice. Will not work, certainly, in the biographical exploration of Warren Beatty, he who in Thomson's words "is a Prospero who has kept the look of an Ariel," and who will turn 50 on the night of this year's Academy Awards, March 30 ("a time of life where grace needs surgical support").

Even among superstars, as Thomson demonstrates with lucidity and grace, Beatty is special, commencing with his ambivalence about himself. "Who else," asks Thomson, "has been so shyly conscientious about being the larger-than-life figure stardom requires, or so irked by its excesses and so determined to withhold himself? These warring impulses make a perplexing result--Warren is simultaneously legendary, yet barely existing. Everyone 'knows' him, but wonders what is there. His superiority is that which a ghost might command."

To get at this extant but ghostly legend--get at in the most favoring and admiring sense--Thomson has quite unprecedently written two books in one. Chapters of his subjective and interpretive biography, which we can call simply "Warren Beatty," alternate throughout with chapters of a slightly fantastic, futuristic Hollywood novel Thomson has titled "Desert Eyes."

The central figure in the novel, although he remains off camera until the last reel, is an elusive superstar named Eyes, who presently lives in the desert and who could be Beatty, or could be played by Beatty, or could be thought to resemble Beatty in certain hierarchical and behavioral ways, or all of those things.

The purpose of the fable, Thomson says in a note, "is to shed light on a world inhabited by both Warren Beatty and his unknown spectators." For, as he remarks later--one of a body of acute perceptions--"the potency of movie stars depends on their remarkable bond with strangers. . . . It is a measure of the great stars that they seem to speak privately to the individual stranger: that is their shyness and our sensitivity."

We approach Eyes through a hard-luck screenwriter called only D, who lives in a far down-market section of a Los Angeles that suggests the city as portrayed in "Blade Runner," all fumes and harsh despair. But Eyes' entourage, who have names like Clear and Doc, have taken a liking to D's script and he is drawn into the sybaritic circle of the entourage, high in the Hollywood Hills, possibly even off Mulholland, where Beatty has a house.

Eroticism is part of Beatty's allure, and central to his public-private persona, and Thomson in both fact and fiction gives it earnest attention. The novel is very erotic, although the handling is phantasmagoric rather than aphrodisiac; D cannot believe his luck, and I think we are meant to know satire when we read it.

An earthquake sends the entourage piling into luxury cars for a flight toward Eyes' castle in the desert, pausing only long enough to pillage a grocery store and waste two black men who meant no harm. The echoes here are less of Beatty than of Godard, Antonioni and Fellini rolled into one.

In the end, in the desert, one of the entourage is tinkering with holograms that will build new performances from the bits of old ones. "Just generate fresh likenesses to the end of time," Eyes says. Not only that, he could launch battleships, address the houses of Congress, all on television.

"Will there be a world, you wonder, to take care of one's immortality?" D asks. "'God, yes!' Eyes said vehemently. He was close to tears."

Thomson says he did not seek to interview Beatty. He settled by choice on collateral interviews and printed material (and gives line by line sources for his quotes and facts). But then he adds that "Research bestows order and temporal progress on life. But it makes muddlers and neurotics seem more purposeful, and it forgets how life can feel empty, untidy and beset by indecision."

This is, apparently, not to suggest Beatty's life is necessarily untidy or indecisive, but it does suggest that biographical facts cannot of themselves reconstitute a personality, and that the biographer must at last deal with his feelings about his biographee's feelings.

Thomson's novel, "Suspects," from a couple of seasons ago, seemed to me the wildest and most imaginative use of the movies as material that I had ever read. The real lives of performers over a wide stretch of film history were cross-pollinated with the characters they had played and the situations they acted out.

The result (insofar as it can be described) was a picaresque fantasy-thriller that led to a bizarre climax, but that in getting there hinted of the way our memories and imaginations have blurred the line between facts and fictions and left the role and the role-player often indistinguishable.

A British-born film critic whose "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" is by now a standard work, Thomson is an elegant prose stylist who has also published a biography of Laurence Sterne, the 18th-Century author of "Tristram Shandy."

Thomson's speculations are not simply about Beatty but about the nature of stardom and about the almost mystical relationship between film and film-viewer. He writes as a man who loves the movies deeply, and understands them perhaps even more profoundly--enough to perceive what is engrossing about so-called failures ("Mickey One," "All Fall Down") and disappointing about successes ("Heaven Can Wait").

"To know a movie actor, you must have been moved when his films were new," Thomson writes. "It is impossible now to feel all that Lillian Gish meant before 1920, or Garbo in 1930. The excitement turns camp nearly as quickly as ripe cheese becomes inedible."

On the lure of acting, for Beatty we must assume as for others, Thomson says that it "does beckon those with a special, heightened mixture of insecurity and arrogance, knowing nothing but the lines, their part and the cues. They want the stage, they want to take it over, so their pain, their indecision, their pause, can reign there."

Beatty's first three films were commercial flops, but they were all despondent views of life. "All too plainly," Thomson says, "they deal with reality, and both the entertainment force and the artistic achievement of American films have always and will always depend upon turning reality into energized metaphors--they are called genres--that take the crowd for a ride and let the moral sink in peacefully."

"Bonnie and Clyde" was the turning point in Beatty's career. It was his picture, more than Arthur Penn's, more than anyone's. Out of Jack Warner's and the studio's disappointment with the film, Beatty ended up, according to Thomson, acquiring 40% of its profits, which turned out to be a sufficient annuity that he need not work again unless he wants to, which he does, selectively.

Orson Welles wrote "The Big Brass Bed," a story with a double-character part which was offered to Beatty, with Welles to direct. Beatty insisted on being the producer and, more demeaningly to Welles, on having the final cut. Welles refused. "Who knows," says Thomson, "how valuable a picture is lost here, or how tender and stirring a screen meeting."

What Beatty himself will make of the book would be, will be, interesting to know. Thomson, rather tongue-in-cheek, asks him not to call. (He says that Beatty sent word through a mutual friend of his bafflement that anyone could undertake a biography without interviewing the subject.) Thomson urges him to write his autobiography, confident that he won't because he is unwilling to demystify himself, to himself, let alone to his viewers.

The Warren Beatty who emerges--aloof, manipulative, clever, charming, seductive, mesmerized by political power--is in the end a real surprise, yet it is hard to believe that a more thoughtful portrait of the man and his milieu will emerge, with or without his cooperation.

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