Beatty As Bulworth
The once-reclusive movie star has become as verbose as his latest character.
Thursday, May 21, 1998
Warren Beatty, the reclusive screen idol--riveting as the bumbling bank robber in Bonnie and Clyde, the re-incarnated jock in Heaven Can Wait, the crusading journalist in Reds, the visionary gangster in Bugsy--has always been extremely guarded with the press. But, with his most daring movie in nearly 20 years, those days seem to be gone for good.
Gone, too, is his determination to only participate in movies he shepherds through the system. Although Beatty turned down the Burt Reynolds role in Boogie Nights, next week he begins work on Peter Chelsom''s Town and Country, a romantic comedy that''ll reunite him with former co-stars (and girlfriends) Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. Also upcoming, a rare TV appearance on pal Garry Shandling''s last "Larry Sanders Show," airing May 31.
Credit the loosening of Beatty''s tongue to Bulworth, a comedy that uses rap to skewer the political system. At 61, Beatty has suddenly gotten jiggy with it.
At the moment, Beatty''s attention is turned to Friday''s launch of Bulworth, which co-stars Halle Berry, Jack Warden, Oliver Platt, Paul Sorvino, Christine Baranski and Don Cheadle. In the movie, which Beatty produced, directed and co-wrote, he plays a Democratic senator from California who becomes so disillusioned with the re-election process he decides to take a hit out on himself. While waiting for the assassin to show up, he begins speaking his mind, taking on insurance companies, blasting Hollywood for peddling schlock and urging blacks to "put down the malt liquor" and get behind somebody besides "a running-back who stabbed his wife."
On a campaign stop in South Central, he runs into a young flygirl (Berry) who re-awakens his zest for life. Inspired by the rap music he hears in an after-hours club, Bulworth begins busting rhymes so revolutionary they''d cause Ice Cube to chill.
"I wanted to do an interracial romance because I''m sick of what has been pushed on us by big money since the Civil War, which was and is to pit black people against white people," says Beatty.
"That was always the way to keep poor whites and blacks from uniting and voting together. I don''t want to be too heavy here, but we''re going to have to come to terms with class in America. We can''t continue this race thing forever because people are too attracted to each other. Someday, we will all be the same color."
He smiles. "See, it all comes down to the sex thing again." As Beatty sees it, Bulworth is an equal opportunity offender. Every group from African-Americans to politicians to Jews in Hollywood are lampooned. "I had to abandon the political correctness police to get this around to something funny," says Beatty. "All that mattered to me was having the support of the people I was doing the movie with.
"The truth is that there''s nobody in this picture who isn''t some sort of heightened caricature. There''s nobody who''s not nuts except the homeless man played by Amiri Baraka who ostensibly seems the most nuts of all. But in the end, he says the sanest thing, which is, don''t go through life being a ghost."
Beatty is no stranger to controversy. Bonnie and Clyde was so abhorrent to the values of Old Hollywood that it was buried by Warner Bros. until the actor pushed for a re-release. Shampoo skewered the sexual hypocrisy of the middle-class. And Reds ruffled a number of feathers by romanticizing Communist journalist John Reed.
Now with Bulworth, Beatty takes on racism. His interest in the subject began in the ''60s when Alex Haley asked him to direct The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Beatty passed on the project but tried again to tackle race relations by incorporating a Richard Pryor subplot into Shampoo. That didn''t work out either. By the time Beatty began writing Bulworth, he discovered rap music, which he believes was key to maintaining the movie''s vitality.
"The real energy that''s coming out of the inner city is rap," says Beatty, who hired Karyn Rachtman to oversee the movie''s much-praised hip-hop soundtrack. "Today''s rappers remind me of the Russian protest poets from the ''60s who expressed themselves through poetry. And think of Jesse Jackson and Muhammad Ali. They did a lot of rhyming, too. Social messages take the form of poetry when they have to be heard."
Certainly, Beatty must be hoping that rap makes Bulworth more relevant to younger audiences. His last screen outing--1994''s Love Affair--did a slow fade at the box-office. In fact, the actor hasn''t had an bona fide hit since 1981''s Reds, which won him an Oscar as Best Director.
Unlike most matinee idols, Beatty has never been afraid to play the fool. Offscreen, he''s romanced the likes of Vivien Leigh, Natalie Wood, Julie Christie, Leslie Caron, Joan Collins, Isabelle Adjani, Diane Keaton and Madonna. But onscreen, he''s often cast himself as a bumbler. Think Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe in McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
Bulworth boastsBeatty''s most outrageous--and de-glamorized--performance to date. "I''ve done a lot of very stylized, carefully lit movies," he says. "When I first talked to [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro about Bulworth, I told him, ''This time, I want to look ugly.'' I knew he''d be very interested in that.
"I wanted the whole movie to have an almost ad hoc look. Now, with me and Vittorio, it''s never really ad hoc but it has that look. It appears frazzled which is what I was aiming for. I think it had to be that way to keep the energy level up."
At a time when most icons are resting on their laurels, Beatty is still pushing the envelope. "All that talk of being an icon is very ephemeral, goofy," he maintains. "Icon to whom? If you get caught up in that, you''re headed down a slippery slope of unrewarding narcissism. It''s rear-view mirror thinking. I don''t want to repeat myself, do what I did in the past. I don''t even want to do what I''m doing in the future. The only thing that interests me is what I''m doing right now."
A longtime supporter of the Democratic party, which he now believes "has lost its mission," Beatty became involved in politics in the ''60s at the behest of his good buddy Robert Kennedy. Through the years, he''s considered running for office himself but, he says, "I''ve seen too many assassinations, whether by bullets or paparazzi or marginalization."
Instead of entering the political arena, Beatty has been content to use his movies to send messages. "I''m such a lucky person to be able to say what I want to say as a movie star. And anyway, ratifying majority opinion, which is what a politician basically does, just bores me. I''d rather attract attention in some other way. Plus you can be a bigger show-off in what I do as a film star that in public office."
Beatty doesn''t worry about remaining relevant as he gets older. He can still rail against the establishment with the force of an angry young man. "I just try not to be sedate," he laughs. cw