Hanging With Warren B

Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

The guard at the entrance to Universal Studios studies the man in sunglasses who’s pulled up at the gate in a Mercedes convertible. “Your name, please,” he says.

“Beatty,” answers Warren Beatty, wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants as black as his Mercedes.

The guard scans his drive-on pass sheet, then stares quizzically at his visitor, trying to place the face. “First name,” he says politely. Beatty slides his sunglasses down his nose so the guard can get a better look.

“Warren Beatty,” he says. The guard’s eyes finally widen. “Oh, Mr. Beatty,” he says, handing him a drive-on pass. “Do you know where you’re going?”

“I’m going to New York Street,” Beatty says, sliding the sunglasses neatly back in place. “It’s where it’s always been, isn’t it?”


Wherever Warren Beatty goes, he seems to know the way. Today he’s paying a surprise visit to the set of a music video promoting “Bulworth,” his new political farce that opens May 15. The ads for the “Bulworth” soundtrack running in hip-hop magazines don’t even mention Beatty--the only names on display are rap stars. So “Bulworth,” which is getting a 2,000-theater opening weekend blitz, will serve as a compelling test of Beatty’s box-office clout. Can the man who once dated Natalie Wood, Joan Collins and Susan Sontag still cut it in a culture that grooves to a hip-hop beat, cackles at the brazen gags of “South Park” and avidly follows the how-low-can-you-go antics of “The Jerry Springer Show”?

As Beatty strolls down New York Street, surrounded by baby-faced extras, it’s impossible not to wonder whether this might be the last hurrah for a movie star who was as much of a cool-guy icon for baby boomers as Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum were for previous generations. As Beatty puts it one night: “You’re talking to a guy who’s been famous longer than anyone you probably have ever known, though believe me, it doesn’t always work to your benefit.”

But it’s one thing to be famous; it’s another thing to still matter. At 61, Beatty is now a paterfamilias, with a wife--actress Annette Bening, 39--and three small children. He is still strikingly handsome, though the look is more distinguished than sexy, like an aging TV anchorman. It’s been 30 years since “Bonnie and Clyde” brought a new youth-culture vibe to movieland. It’s been 17 years since Beatty won a best director Oscar for “Reds.” Since then, he’s only made four movies--two of them stinkers (“Ishtar” and “Love Affair”), two minor enjoyments (“Dick Tracy” and “Bugsy”).

Beatty’s style, self-consciously cool and opaque, is out; jokey irony and explicitness is in. When Paul Thomas Anderson wooed him for the Burt Reynolds part in “Boogie Nights,” a daring career rejuvenator, Beatty turned him down, worried that the film might romanticize the sordid world of porn. Beatty’s sense of history--a quality in short supply in Hollywood--betrayed him.

He remembers when porn wasn’t smirky dumb fun. In 1976, when Harry Reems was going to jail on obscenity charges from his performance in “Deep Throat,” it was Beatty who held a benefit for the imperiled porn star.

One of the rappers who might help give “Bulworth” some streetwise credibility is Canibus, a New York underground sensation who co-wrote “How Come,” the song being made into a video on the Universal back lot.

“It’s embarrassing, because I really didn’t know who Warren Beatty was,” the young rapper says, waiting for his next scene. “It took a while to figure out he was the guy from ‘Bugsy’ and ‘Dick Tracy.’ But when I told my mother, she freaked. She said he was on a caliber with Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier.”

Canibus was clearly enthralled by the actor’s old-school charisma. “He’s got the classic hype. When kids hear him rhyming and getting out of line, they’re gonna go, ‘Yo, man, what kind of [expletive] are you saying? Warren’s buggin’ out!’ ”

On the video set, Beatty is the picture of regular-guy charm. The video’s producer, actress Lynn Whitfield, teases him, saying, “We were told we couldn’t afford to put you in the video.” Beatty acts surprised: “No one called me.” When Whitfield asks if he’ll appear in a scene, Beatty instantly accepts. “Hey,” he says. “It’s my video, isn’t it?”

He spends hours waiting for his moment, munching on pizza with the extras. When the cameras roll, he wears street clothes, seated in the back of taxi, acting like a startled passenger as Canibus bemoans everything from the assassination of Malcolm X to politicians “making certain decisions, like puttin’ minorities in prison.”

Between takes, Beatty chats with an executive from Interscope Records, which is releasing the soundtrack. He says he’s flying east to show the movie to a host of political bigwigs. Beatty’s Rolodex would be the envy of any fund-raiser--one early “Bulworth” screening included Norman Mailer, Henry Louis Gates, Martin Scorsese, Cornel West, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Sondheim.

Beatty is particularly excited that Julian Bond, the civil rights hero who now heads up the NAACP, wants to see the movie too. The young executive nods her head, caught up in his enthusiasm. “Julian Bond,” she says, repeating the name with wonderment. “Who’s he?”

“You can’t hear this conversation,” Beatty says, ducking out of one office into another in his suite of offices near the summit of Beverly Glen Boulevard and Mulholland Drive. Beatty has been squabbling with 20th Century Fox, the film studio bankrolling “Bulworth.” He’s nervous about Fox’s commitment because no one at the studio has any personal stake in the movie; the studio boss who greenlighted the movie, Joe Roth, moved on years ago. So Beatty, who is something of a one-man show--he’s the film’s producer, director, star and co-writer--has been wrangling with Fox for months, convinced that a giant conglomerate is better at promoting blockbusters like “Titanic” than a political spoof.

Of course, it isn’t easy pleasing someone with such a fanatical attention to detail. Beatty says that Fox’s marketing department never came up with any poster ideas so he hired a cartoon artist to create the film’s striking poster; Beatty, disguised in hip-hop garb, emerging from Beatty the politician’s wide-open mouth. Concerned that an early print of the film he was showing looked too dark, he had his Oscar-winning cinematographer, VittorioStoraro, check the screening-room projector by reading how many foot-candles were being cast on the screen.

The hands-on approach extends to the press. Beatty has no press agent, makes his own phone calls and does his own makeup for photographs. He does have a movie star’s fluid schedule: His photo session for this article, originally scheduled at 2 p.m., took place at 2 a.m. A dinner interview can turn into an all-night cruise, with Beatty responding to shouted hellos at red lights and pulling in and out of service stations without actually ever stopping for gas. It’s seductive, but exhausting--after a while you feel like a tiny satellite trapped in the gravitational pull of Planet Beatty.

“Warren is immensely canny,” says Norman Mailer, who first met Beatty on the 1972 McGovern campaign. “Even when you’re his friend, the relationship is edgy. A conversation with Warren is like a Ping-Pong match. He loves to fake you out, to say, ‘Gotcha!’ ”

In public, Beatty often seems stiff and solemn--a Hollywood version of Al Gore. In private, he is relaxed and funny. Garry Shandling, a close friend, says Beatty has masterful comic instincts.

“He has a wonderful dry sense of humor,” says Shandling, who persuaded Beatty to appear on the final episode of his “The Larry Sanders Show,” airing May 31. “I was once trying to remind Warren of something I’d said a week earlier and as he was struggling to remember, he said, ‘Where was I standing?’ ”

Beatty often puts his wide array of contacts to work exploring uncharted territory. Before he shot “Bulworth,” he met Death Row Records founder Marion “Suge” Knight at a deli in the Valley. Knight showed up at 1 a.m., three hours late. Beatty waited--he wanted the 411 from Knight on the politics of hip-hop.

More recently, Beatty had lunch with entertainment mogul Edgar Bronfman Jr, where they discussed Bronfman’s widely derided notion to charge different admission prices for films with different budgets. Beatty not only thinks it’s a good idea (“It’s creative--books and magazines don’t all cost the same price”) but reveals that years ago he tried to get Paramount to consider the idea for “Reds,” hiring political pollster Pat Caddell to survey moviegoers about how much extra they’d pay to see a special film.

The plan went nowhere, but it illustrates Beatty’s restless intellect; it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s as knowledgeable about the history of both the Bullmoose Party and the National Assn. of Theater Owners. (Asked if “Bulworth” owes its name to the Teddy Roosevelt-founded progressive party, Beatty responds witheringly: “I don’t believe in giving interviews where you say, ‘Follow the dots.’ ”)

“When you deal with Warren, you’re dealing with a level of quality and intelligence that you rarely see in my job,” says New Line Cinema chief Mike DeLuca, who’s been working with Beatty on an upcoming film called “Town and Country.” “I love talking to him about movies, even if just to hear why he turned down different parts.”

In a way, “Bulworth” borrows from much of Beatty’s earlier work. The theme of political assassination dates back to “The Parallax View,” while the tone of tragic farce evokes “Shampoo,” which was set during Nixon’s 1968 election victory.

By 1992, Beatty had simplified the idea to a simple pitch: “A man is depressed, makes a deal for life insurance, takes a hit out on his life, then falls in love with a girl, changes his mind and tries to call the whole thing off.” Beatty got Joe Roth, then running Fox, to commit $30 million to a movie based on that one-sentence pitch.

“It was an extraordinary deal,” says Roth, now head of Walt Disney Studios. “But Warren has such a fantastic track record that when he takes responsibility for everything above the line, you trust him.”

It was only after he had a commitment from Fox that Beatty added a spicy political point of view: The film’s hero would be an unhinged politician who started speaking the truth, in hip-hop lingo, about race and power in America.

“I made the deal before I did the script so I wouldn’t have to deal with what was acceptable to the studio,” Beatty says one day over lunch. “As long as I fulfilled my end, sticking to a slim plot and a $32-million budget, I had the simple freedom to make the movie.”

Yet nothing is simple with Beatty. To put “Bulworth” in motion, Beatty sought input from several writers. Jeremy Pikser, a historical consultant on “Reds,” was brought in to bat around ideas. James Toback, who wrote “Bugsy” and “The Pick-Up Artist,” which Beatty produced, wrote a partial script for the project.

Pikser, who shares the “Bulworth” screenplay credit with Beatty, describes him as a “great sponge and synthesizer” of ideas. “But with Warren, you have to be ready for a knockdown, drag-out war every day. You’ll go off to capture an idea he’s had, but when he reads what you’ve done, he’ll say, ‘This is awful. What kind of idiot told you to write this?’ And if you say, ‘You did, Warren,’ he’ll say, ‘Do you really think I’m that much of an idiot?’ ”

Beatty has had rocky relations with collaborators. Robert Towne, a friend of 30 years who wrote “Shampoo” and did rewrites on innumerable other Beatty projects, no longer speaks to Beatty, a result of clashes they had on “Love Affair.” Aaron Sorkin, who wrote “An American President,” did a rewrite on “Bulworth,” then sued Beatty for $475,000 for working on another script, “Ocean of Storms.” Sorkin says he’s been paid and is back to work on the script.

Most of Beatty’s recent clashes have been with Fox over the film’s marketing. It’s an old story. On “Bugsy,” Beatty drove the TriStar brass crazy, accusing them of not believing in the movie and once calling a marketing meeting on Christmas Day. He has acted similarly with Fox, though he soft-pedals any direct criticism.

“The Fox people are all good people individually,” he says. “My only concern is the condition of movie-making today that makes corporate conformity antithetical to showing enthusiasm and doing a good job.”

Fox Domestic Film Group Chairman Tom Sherak is equally diplomatic when asked about Beatty’s insistent behavior. “It isn’t always easy to work with true genius, but in the long run it’s always more fun,” he responds. “When the work is done out of passion, you respect it and try to do that much of a better job.”

Karyn Rachtman, executive producer of the “Bulworth” soundtrack, admits that Beatty has often tested her patience with his perfectionism. “When Warren was being impossible, I’d say, ‘Look, I’m going to cancel the session or maybe I’m going to cancel the whole damn project!’ ” she says. “And then I’d hang up on him. And he’d just call back later and say in this sweet little voice, ‘So, did you really cancel everything?’ ”

Gary Hart can’t believe you haven’t figured out why Warren Beatty is so fascinated by politics. The former Colorado senator and presidential candidate--and longtime Beatty crony--sees it as plain as day. “Warren loves the drama of it,” he explains. “There’s so much of consequence, from the political issues to the behind-the-scene power struggles. It’s very real to him.”

Raised in Arlington, Va., Beatty remembers being passionate about politics from an early age. “Bobby Kennedy was my first real political hero,” he says at dinner one night after finishing off a third plate of strawberries and whipped cream. “He was a leader, he wasn’t led by demographic research and public opinion polls.”

This is a favorite Beatty theme, that politics suffers from the same problem as mainstream movies. “We think we know too much,” he explains. “We think by asking superficial questions that we’re carrying out democracy, when we’re really manipulating public opinion with expensive advertising and marketing. Our political parties need to be refurbished or abandoned--they’ve become the Beltway Party, the Republicratic Party. It’s the same with movies--you can’t let numbers tell you what kind of film to make.”

The problem, as Beatty sees it, is that politics has become so imprisoned by fund-raising and polling that it’s become all about compromise and posturing. He believes he’s accomplished more politically in movies than he could have in office. “In movies you can get people to listen to what you have to say, and I suspect the movies I’ve made about politics--'Reds’ and ‘Shampoo,’ and to some extent ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller'--will be preserved in a way that politics--the art of the possible--doesn’t always achieve.”

Whether America is ready for another political farce is a question that Beatty won’t face, since he has convinced himself that neither “Wag the Dog” nor “Primary Colors” is actually a political film. “ ‘Primary Colors’ is a movie about Bill Clinton and his [expletive],” Beatty says. “Just because a character holds public office doesn’t make it a political movie.”

Beatty friends who have seen “Bulworth” view the film as one of Beatty’s most daring exploits. “I can’t imagine many 60-year-old actors doing what Warren did, rapping and playing a demented fool,” says Hart. “And trust me, the humor has a lot of reality in it. When you’ve been out campaigning 16 hours a day, seven days a week, the pressure and the fatigue can drive you crazy.”

But what will young moviegoers make of Beatty’s political farce, which speaks with a hip-hop voice, but preaches a populist, ‘60s-style haves versus have-nots message? Ask if he can compete against sleeker summer-movie rivals, and Beatty dismisses you as a crass pollster. “How many tickets, how many sales?” he snaps. “Why is the Los Angeles Times so interested in money? I don’t think it’s good for our society to be so fixated on money.”

But isn’t that why he set his story in the world of hip-hop, so he could reach today’s young moviegoers and make a commercial film? “I wanted to use rap because it gave me a great comic contrast,” he says. “Here’s this white, middle-aged politician going nuts with a young black rapper’s voice coming out of his mouth.”

Beatty stares across the table, clearly exasperated by all this marketplace talk. “Do you really think I’m cautious?” he asks. He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Whatever you might think of my movies,” he says, “I don’t think my work has been distinguished by its caution, either politically, sexually or by its frequency, do you?”

The glass is boarded up, the stucco is cracked and the pool is empty. At 1 a.m. on a moonless night, Beatty is leading an impromptu tour of his old Mulholland Drive home, which has been uninhabitable since the 1994 Northridge earthquake. “This was more a sculpture than a house,” Beatty says as he scrambles up a steep hillside to show off one of his favorite views. “Almost everything was made out of curved glass.”

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine what a beautiful vision it must have been, hidden behind a ring of trees, all white with curved windows and hardwood floors, with a panoramic view from the mountains to the sea. Beatty bought the nine-acre lot 20 years ago. He began remodeling the original modest home until he had uprooted every wall. Now it is in ruins. Beatty lives with his family in a rented house nearby, sometimes driving over on weekends for a picnic. The property’s only occupant is an owl who hoots noisily as Beatty hikes down to the leaf-strewn tennis court.

It’s clear that the rebuilding process isn’t going any faster than any of Beatty’s film projects. “We’ve designed and redesigned,” he says. “But there are so many difficult decisions--it would be hard to understand unless you’d lived here.”

Perhaps that’s the way to look at Beatty. How can an outsider understand the mystery of a man so obviously uncomfortable revealing anything about himself. “Warren has a theory,” says James Toback, a friend of 20 years. “Never disclose to anyone what isn’t absolutely essential to disclose. Think about that as you’re doing your story. There’s very little accidental about Warren; if he says something, there’s a reason for it.”

Seeing him wander around his ruined home, imagining where he will build a new suite of bedrooms, you realize that he’s like the characters in most of his movies. They are all men with restless energy: men who lead a revolution, invent Las Vegas, win the Super Bowl, open a hair salon, rob bigger banks, or as in “Bulworth,” tell the truth.

“When I think of Warren,” says Toback, “I think of the Thomas Jefferson quote which goes, ‘Show me a man who’s satisfied and I’ll show you a failure.’ Even when things are going well, I’ve never seen him satisfied, not for more than a couple of seconds.”

In the end, perhaps there are two Warren Beattys: He’s been a movie star so long that he doesn’t know when he’s acting and when he’s being himself. Waiting for him in the den of his home, you notice that he has two nearly identical 1940s radios--an antique and a replica. The only way to tell the difference is to turn them on. The real one takes 30 seconds to warm up.

“I grew up with this one,” Beatty says, listening to it purr and crackle to life. “It was in my room when I was a kid.” And the other one? “It’s a fake. They gave it to me on ‘Dick Tracy.’ ”

The radios are like the two Beattys--the real and the ersatz, the private man and the public icon. Maybe that’s why he shrugs off the question of whether he’s still a star. “It’s a big mistake to think that your public life is more important than your private life,” he says. “My public life has been great, because it gave me influence and wealth and what I enjoy most--access to interesting people. If I wanted the self-hype, I wouldn’t have bothered making movies at all--I’d just go out and promote one of Jack Nicholson’s movies.

“It’s your private life that counts,” Beatty insists. “And I’ve had a good time. I know it’s fun for everyone to think about what happened here or there. But face it, you can’t ever know because I won’t ever tell you.”