A Day and Night With Warren Beatty
Here are the notes from my interview with Warren Beatty. As I said, even though the two hours he promised me turned into nine hours and a Chinese dinner, I didn’t really get a chance to ask him many of the questions I’d prepared. He took the interview away from me in the first minute and by the time I got it back, it was midnight and my mind was as weak as the batteries in my tape recorder.
I’m not complaining about the assignment. Beatty, as advertised, is good company: bright, thoughtful, funny and as openly excited about his life as anyone I’ve met. At times, he would lapse into reverie about the great people he’s known in film and politics--even journalism--and talk about the upside of fame as if he’d won it all in a lottery.
Of course, he will only talk about himself in the abstract. He will not go on the record on any subject where he would appear critical of someone, or reveal some tidbit about a relationship. He keeps up on the gossip about himself, I can tell you, but he isn’t about to contribute to it. At least not on the record. By the end of the evening, he had told some of the greatest Warren Beatty stories I’ve ever heard, but only after he’d reached over and turned off my tape recorder.
The reason the interview got away from me--other than the fact that he’s kind of a take-charge guy--is that I prepared for the wrong things. Having seen the Barbara Walters interview, which consisted mostly of them agreeing on how badly the interview was going, and reading the recent Rolling Stone piece, in which his answers to questions about his virility and image included pauses that lasted as long as a gall bladder infection, I decided to take the high road and focus on his attitudes about filmmaking, Hollywood and his own career.
For more than 20 years, he’s been one of the ultimate Hollywood insiders, a double-threat power player in the sense that he can tie up important projects as both an actor and a producer, and he’s a Hall of Fame limousine liberal.
What I didn’t know was that he had been preparing for the interview longer than I had. In fact, he’d been working himself up for it for three years, ever since Sunday Calendar published a story about the making, marketing and swollen budget of “Ishtar.” I didn’t write that piece, as he knew. But there I was.
“Before we start, let me ask you a question,” Beatty said, as soon as we had closed the doors in a small cutting room of the Hollywood studio where he was doing some final tweaking of the sound track of “Dick Tracy.” It was about 3 in the afternoon. “May I write a letter to the Los Angeles Times that you would print?”
It sounded like a trick question, and it was. Sure, we’d print his letter, I said. “But why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind and maybe it could be incorporated into this story?” Did I get an earful! That “Ishtar” article had formed a lump in his throat the size and flavor of a camel and he was using me to dislodge it. He was also angered by a rumor whispered to him by one of his publicists that he’d better give us a better interview than he had given ABC-TV’s Barbara Walters or he’d end up on our cutting room floor.
“To me, (the Walters interview) was funny,” he said. “But I hate it when somebody says, ‘Well, he didn’t talk to her.’ I talked to Barbara Walters at length about a myriad of crap. . . . Do you think I sat for the 15 or 20 minutes the way they used it? The frustrating thing is you sit there and go through the serious stuff and then it’s not what (they use).”
There’s the irony, huh? I went in planning to talk only about the serious stuff and suddenly I’m Father Kerrigan in “The Exorcist,” covered with the green curd of the devil’s breath. But as harsh as all this seems when it’s played back, there wasn’t an uncomfortable moment in the entire day. Beatty’s attack had a specific target--entertainment journalism, particularly as practiced in his hometown newspaper--but his approach was intellectual, reasoned, almost fraternal (you’ll recall he played a journalist in “Parallax View” and “Reds”). The Beatty graciousness we’d heard about (“Would you like something to drink?” “Is that chair comfortable”) was evident at all times.
But the camel had to come out.
“The Los Angeles Times doesn’t seem to take itself as seriously as the paper of record for a place that is the cultural engine in several fields of the country,” Beatty said. “Calendar doesn’t know if it wants to be a cultural section or a business section so it mixes the two. . . . It seems that (the newspaper) thinks that what sells, sells.”
Beatty said the media’s routine reporting of things like box-office grosses, film budgets and production problems demeans the actual films, and that while they may make good business stories, they shouldn’t be published in the cultural pages where readers and potential investors will get the idea that the only measure of success is the bottom line. He went farther, saying that box-office reports are promoting bad movies: “People see that one movie is making more money than another and think, well, maybe that’s a better movie.”
Beatty says that “money” stories can both heighten and lower interest in movies for reasons unrelated to the movies themselves, and--here comes the camel--he cites “Ishtar” as one of the victims. Beatty does not acknowledge that “Ishtar"--directed by Elaine May, produced by him, and released by Columbia Pictures in the spring of 1987--was any kind of creative failure. He calls the film a “nice little comedy that cost too much money” and blames both the studio management and the media for killing it before it reached the theaters.
“You cannot make a movie today that has any visibility for it and not be supported by the studio,” he said. He made his strongest comments about former Columbia chief David Puttnam off the record, but he let this much stand: "(Puttnam) never talked to the director, he never talked to me, he never saw the movie. He just said, ‘This is not going to work.’ You know, the movie was previewed three times before all that negative publicity was unleashed on it, and each of the previews were great. I have never had a more successful preview. And your own critic gave it a good review.”
True, but there weren’t many good reviews. Most critics panned it.
“How could they not? After all that (negative publicity), how could they like it? You can’t laugh at a $40 million movie.”
Beatty said that he and Dustin Hoffman foresaw the problems coming on “Ishtar” and offered to defer their salaries (reportedly $5.5 million each) in order to keep the cost of production down, and that Columbia declined. The Times was not the first publication to cover “Ishtar’s” production problems in Morocco, but it was “the most vicious,” according to Beatty, and because of the paper’s influence, it caused a negative backlash with critics elsewhere and with people in the film community.
Although he does not like to have press people on the sets of his movies, he said he “opened” “Dick Tracy” to deter speculation. “I’m scared to have a closed set now,” he said. “The only way you can combat the negative rumors is to invite anyone in.”
“Ishtar” and the larger subject of cultural reporting took up the first three hours we were together and then became the leitmotif for the rest of the day. Even though the conversation--that’s what it was, not an interview--took some interesting side roads through his film and political past, and his attitudes about today’s Hollywood versus the one he found when he arrived 30 years ago, virtually every subject spun from his current fixation on America’s swing to the right, which he partly blames for the Decline and Fall of American Journalism.
“Movies have gotten tamer, politics have gotten tamer, everything’s gotten tamer,” he said, at one point. “And I’ll tell you something else. In actual political analysis, journalism has gotten tamer. Much tamer. It’s a catastrophe! They’re not very tame about trying to uncover sexual peccadilloes of people and things like that, but getting down to what’s really happening in the country, it’s very tame.”
That last reference includes the media flashfire that incinerated his friend Gary Hart’s political hopes during the last presidential primary campaigns. Beatty stumped for Hart, as he did years earlier for Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, and he thinks the media speculation over the relationship between Hart and model Donna Rice may have cost the country a great leader.
Certainly, he is sympathetic to any public figure whose sex life becomes more important to the public than whatever it is that made him a public figure in the first place. He accuses the media of loading up with demographic research, then pandering to the majority’s worst instincts.
“Not only does (this approach of discussing sex) reduce me as a human being, it reduces the writer as a human being, and it reduces the reader as human beings. Do we all want to be reduced? Is that what we want?”
Not me, and true to my word, I did not ask him about his sex life. But the Beatty Legend is there and to identify him as someone who makes movies is like identifying Casanova as a guy who worked in a library. Beatty won’t discuss any personal relationship--"never have, I won’t now, I don’t intend to"--but the smile says everything when you suggest that there are worse things than being thought of as intelligent, stimulating and sexually indefatigable.
“Oh, oh, oh, yeah. It could be a lot worse,” Beatty said.
“I mean, if you have to have an image, this one’s not bad,” I offered.
“Listen, I’ve been famous since 1960 and . . . and . . . I’ve been lucky.”
Beatty’s image was formed almost immediately when he got to Hollywood in 1960 to play the high school heartbreaker in Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass.” Kazan was a director noted for his work with such emotionally mercurial and sexually charismatic actors as Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean, so all eyes were on Shirley MacLaine’s little brother. The movie was a critical success and Beatty’s star has not really dimmed since, even though he has done only 18 films altogether, and just four in the last 15 years, including “Dick Tracy.”
Less than half of his films can be regarded as socially, critically or commercially important and of the five films he’s produced, only three--"Bonnie and Clyde,” “Shampoo” and “Reds"--tapped into any of the serious social issues in which he has been personally interested. The only one of those he directed was “Reds.”
Those are great movies and it says something about Beatty’s appeal that he has remained one of Hollywood’s most prized actors despite his light workload. But the question is begged: For someone as hypercritical of others in the media, why hasn’t he done more--through his own medium of movies--to address some of the social problems he’s complaining about?
He thought for a while and spoke very slowly.
“Well, the answer to (that) is I think I will (make more of those movies) and I’m slow. It takes me a long time to develop things and I think about them a long time. I’ve been developing a movie about Howard Hughes quite a long time. I developed ‘Reds’ for a long time. There’s a movie I’ve been working on that deals with some of this stuff. . . . But when you’re asked why don’t you work harder, I think the answer is I ought to work harder and I ought to work faster, but I don’t.”
He then drifted into another explanation that seemed to raise a second contradiction.
“I think your whole life is not made up of making movies. . . . You have another side to your life, your own personal exist ence. And if you’re not totally self-indulgent and self-concerned, you have a political side of your life in which you relate to the society you live in. I don’t know that movies have to be as articulate about your society views as you would be if you just went ahead and said what you think.”
Other than speaking out for political candidates, Beatty has been notoriously mum on other subjects. When Paramount released the $33 million “Reds” in 1981, some right-wing publications attacked Gulf & Western, the studio’s parent company, for financing it. Beatty did no interviews, prompting others to scold him for hanging Gulf & Western out to dry.
“I felt that people didn’t understand the nature of it and actually there was nothing I could do by running around proselytizing for it,” he said. “I always had doubts that a movie about a communist who dies at the end, a movie about a dream that seemed to be not working, a movie that was 3 1/2 hours long, would (have a big audience).”
Beatty said the communications revolution has made the speed with which information can be moved more important than the information itself, and the result is a lot of bad info being taken seriously. He blames Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, for failing to warn the nation about the downside of the new technology, in the way Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the military industrial complex when he left office 30 years ago.
“Because you can’t cut down on the technology, there has to be a lot more talk. I’ve decided that it’s stingy of me not to participate in that talk. . . . It’s self-defeating, non-contributive and ultimately antisocial not to participate.”
So he’s making himself more available as “Dick Tracy” approaches, and if people want to ask him about his sex life or his image, he’ll wait them out with pauses. If you want to know what’s really on his mind, you get these passionate speeches about what’s going wrong with the world and your part in it. And if you listen long enough, the subject of gossip comes up because it’s played such a big part in his life.
Knowing his background as a confidante to Bobby Kennedy and other major liberal Democrats during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, you have to wonder how much of his current anger is fueled by memories of a period that was not only more dynamic politically and socially, but for him personally. He admits that as a young actor, it was a heady experience getting to know people like Kazan, Michelangelo Antonioni, Francois Truffaut (who put him up to doing “Bonnie and Clyde”), Jean Renoir, Clifford Odets and David O. Selznick. As he drifted into politics, he got to know his political heroes too--the Kennedys, Eugene McCarthy, Stuart Symington, Abraham Ribikoff. And through politics, he met his heroes in . . . journalism.
“It was a great (expletive) time,” Beatty said, excitedly. “I was ecstatic that I had access to newspapermen at that time. I had access to Arthur Krock, Walter Lippman, James Reston, Izzy Stone. These amazing people, this amazing period.”
It’s an even more amazing time looking back, and when I wondered out loud what it must have been like to have been in Bobby Kennedy’s inner circle during that intoxicating, ill-fated 1968 campaign, there was a real moment. Beatty put his feet up on a table, crossed his arms and sighed loud enough to leave a skid mark on my tape. He paused several seconds, his eyes misted over, then he began softly: “It’s funny. When I see those people from those years, you couldn’t pay me enough money to do movies (that would) take me away from that involvement. . . . It’s very different, it’s the real thing.”
Beatty’s artistic contributions to that tumultuous period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were “Bonnie and Clyde,” which came to be regarded as a metaphor for America’s restless youth, and the 1974 “Shampoo,” a social comedy about sexual and political self-indulgence in 1968 Beverly Hills.
The release of “Bonnie and Clyde,” which was produced by Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn, is one of the great success stories in Hollywood history. Warner Bros. had no faith in the movie and when it was panned by critics at the New York Times and at Time and Newsweek magazines, the studio pulled it from release. Beatty recalled the unusual review he got from Jack Warner when he and Arthur Penn showed him the rough cut at his house. They had been warned that if Warner went to the bathroom during the screening, they knew they were in trouble. Beatty said that by his count, Warner rated “Bonnie and Clyde” “a three-piss movie.”
“He said, ‘How long was that picture?’ At that time, it was about two hours and 10 minutes. He said, ‘That’s the longest damn two hours and 10 minutes I’ve ever spent.”’
Beatty stumped for his movie with critics and when Pauline Kael weighed in with a 9,000-word New Yorker review extolling “Bonnie and Clyde” as a breakthrough in film art, both her and Beatty’s careers were elevated. Other critics--including those who’d panned it earlier for the news magazines--reconsidered and Warner re-eleased it to great commercial success, followed by nine Oscar nominations. (A decade later, Beatty recruited Kael to work for him as a production executive, but the relationship was severed soon after and Beatty said they haven’t spoken since.)
Because the studio had no faith in “Bonnie and Clyde,” Beatty was given a greater percentage of the gross profits than he would normally get and the movie made him rich. He had taken roles earlier because he was broke, but suddenly he was free to do as he wanted, and mainly, that was to get involved in the political campaigns of liberal Democrats.
Although he acted in four films (and two very good ones: “The Parallax View” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”), it was six years before he would produce again. That was “Shampoo” and though Beatty seems more enthusiastic about that film than any other he’s done, he again faced a disinterested studio chief.
“I remember after the first preview of that movie, the head of the studio put his hand on my knee and said, ‘Look, they can’t all be good. So you just go on to the next one.’ The very next night we ran it again in Beverly Hills and the roof went off. They loved it and we didn’t change a thing.”
“Shampoo” starred Beatty as a philandering hair dresser who can’t commit himself to anything but satisfying the swarms of sexually exercised women around him. The film is extremely political at its core, one of the most telling films of the sexual revolution, but it was the assumption that Beatty was playing himself that dominated much of the analysis.
“I think they thought it was somehow sexually self-advertising in an arrogant way,” he said.
Beatty loves the movie. “It’s a great film, it’s as political as you can get and it’s outrageous. . . . There was a real revolution, a cultural and sexual revolution, that ‘Shampoo’ tapped into.”
Since “Shampoo,” Beatty has had one monster commercial hit--"Heaven Can Wait,” which he co-wrote (with Elaine May), co-directed (with Buck Henry) and produced. Beatty agrees with Pauline Kael, who called it a “piffle,” but Academy members anointed it with nine nominations. “Reds,” while not a financial disaster, had the trouble Beatty predicted for it at the box office, but ran up a total of 12 Oscar nominations and made Beatty the only person besides Orson Welles to receive four nominations--writing, directing, producing and acting--for one movie. Beatty won that year for best director; “Chariots of Fire” won for best picture.
“Bonnie and Clyde” and “Shampoo” were part of a political Golden Age in Hollywood, a period of about 12 years where issues-oriented filmmakers flourished. It was an accidental gap, according to Beatty, “a little period between the loss of studio bullying and the advent . . . of heavy television marketing. . . . It was a period where you could make a movie that could grab the attention span of the public and not have to do it in a week. A picture would come out in a very small number of theaters, then move to greater number and by the time you got to (wide release), people had some understanding of the subject. . . . The period came to a close when people got serious about it and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get some demographics, some research.’ ”
The upshot: Today, movies are opened in 1,500 to 2,500 theaters, supported by massive TV ad campaigns, and the opening is like a presidential election. Studio executives know by Saturday morning whether a new release is going to be a hit or not, and can either yank their advertising to cut their losses or up their budgets to fan the fire. Movies that are difficult to sell don’t have much of a chance.
“They’re like fast food hamburgers,” Beatty said. “They sell a lot of them. The movie business is very successful and you hope that the success of those hamburgers will finance more original dishes. But more often than not, I’m afraid it just finances more hamburgers.”
Dinner wasn’t on the schedule for this interview, but it got to be about 8:30 and Beatty suggested we go out to Ginza Sushiko, a Japanese restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. It is, he said, the most expensive restaurant in Los Angeles. He and Madonna had gone there recently and the bill came to about $450 . . . at the sushi bar!
“Would the Los Angeles Times think you were compromised if I took you there?” he said.
“Not if I pick up the check.”
We ended up at the Mandarette Chinese Cafe on Melrose Avenue instead. (The check came to $56; it’s on my expenses.) The Mandarette, an unpretentious corner restaurant featuring home-cooked Chinese food, is one of Beatty’s frequent late-night haunts and neither the waiters nor the other diners paid much attention to us.
The dinner subject, we decided, would be “Dick Tracy.” The movie had barely come up during the first five hours, but we had just arrived at the restaurant when he got a telephone call from Madonna. She had just finished a concert in Toronto where she had performed under the threat of being arrested for lewdness and she called to tell him about it.
Somehow, the subject of gossip came up again and--click!--the tape recorder was turned off. There followed some marvelously ribald tales of the “here is what you might have read and here is what actually happened” variety. This was a double-feature for me; I hadn’t even heard some of the rumors that the true stories were dispelling.
Finally, sometime after 11, on the ride back to the studio and during 30 minutes or so in the parking lot, we got around to discussing what he had in mind in making “Dick Tracy,” a movie that--whether you like it or not (and I do)--will meet Pauline Kael’s definition of a “piffle.”
“People had come to me over the years with ‘Dick Tracy’ wanting me to act in it. I could not imagine doing it because I didn’t think I looked like Dick Tracy. Then I realized nobody looked like him, thank God, and that I could play him as well as anyone could.”
For a long time, “Dick Tracy” was in development at Universal where such directors as John Landis, Richard Benjamin and Walter Hill had been involved at one time or another. Landis got Beatty interested in it and years later--with Landis out of the picture and Beatty in possession of the rights--the project ended up at Disney. It was Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and his boss, Michael Eisner, who had originally put “Dick Tracy” into development at Paramount.
Beatty said he did not want to direct “Dick Tracy,” and only decided to do it after being turned down by so many others, including Bob Fosse and Martin Scorsese. Scorsese had actually agreed to do it at one time, Beatty said, but he moved on to some other projects and lost interest.
“Finally, I just said, ‘I’ve got to do this movie now and the way to do it is to just go ahead (and direct).”
Without admitting that either instance was premeditated, Beatty said he got Al Pacino to play the part of Tracy’s archenemy Big Boy the same way he got his friend Jack Nicholson to play Eugene O’Neill in “Reds”: by asking them for their advice on who to cast.
First, Nicholson: “I called Jack and said, ‘I’ve got to get an actor to play Eugene O’Neill and it’s got to be somebody who leaves not a shadow of a doubt that he could take Diane (Keaton) away from me.’ He said, ‘Well, you have no choice. There’s only one person.’ ”
Then Pacino: “I saw Al in a restaurant and I said I want to get somebody to play this part. ‘Who’s a good idea?’ He said, ‘Well, let me think about it.’ He called me later in the day and said, ‘What are you really thinking about? If you’re really thinking that, why don’t you just say it?’ I said, ‘Well, OK, I’m really thinking that.’ He said, ‘Then let’s talk.’ ”
Beatty doesn’t spend a lot of energy trying to oversell “Dick Tracy.” He said he did it for fun and it worked out that way. He talks about the fun of matching Madonna with Stephen Sondheim songs, of watching Al Pacino and the others chew up his comic book scenery, of the elegance that Dick Van Dyke, who plays Mayor Fletcher, brought to the set.
But he may soon begin exercising his more serious side. There is that unnamed project dealing with unnamed social issues, and, of course, his long-planned biography of Howard Hughes, a man whose appetites for the company of famous women was, according to the gossip of his day, more than a match for the appetites of Warren Beatty, according to the gossip of his .
How long can he wait? Beatty is 53 and the subject of rumors that even on “Dick Tracy” close-ups were reshot by his friendly director to make him look younger. Not true, he said. “You try to look as good as you can, I guess, but I didn’t reshoot one close-up. I didn’t reshoot anything on this picture.”
He said his physical condition has often been a point of attack. “When I was finishing ‘Reds,’ the story went out that I had gained 70 pounds in the cutting room. . . . I weigh the same now as when I played high school football. I think I’m in slightly better shape.”
In any event, Beatty isn’t in a hurry to meet anyone’s expectations except his own. Sorry, but this life belongs to him.
“There are certain things that had to get done by me and I did some of them. And there are certain things that I have to get done now and I hope I’ll be able to do them. There are a lot of things in my life that have nothing to do with movies. . . . There’s so much to do and only so much time to do it in.”
Or, to put it another way, so many women, so little . . . No, I promised.