Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America

Does Warren Beatty deserve a spot in the pantheon of Hollywood greats?

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If Hollywood’s a gingerbread house, Hansel and Gretel would do well to watch out for Warren Beatty. As depicted by Peter Biskind in his new biography Star, the 72-year-old actor/director/producer/writer/lothario might not devour small children, but will assuredly hijack directors’ chairs, steal screenwriting credits, bankrupt studios, and canoodle every woman in sight – Gretel included.

Though its subject is as well known for his prowess with ladies – Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Madonna, and, by Biskind’s math, 12,772 others (click here for some skeptical commentary on this number), “Star” focuses as much on Beatty the Hollywood professional as on Beatty the lover.

“[H]ow many defining motion pictures does a filmmaker have to make to be considered great?” Suskind asks. “Beatty can claim five as a producer – ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ ‘Shampoo,’ ‘Heaven Can Wait,’ ‘Reds,’ and ‘Bugsy’.... You can quibble with any one of these, but all together, it’s a full house.” But buyer beware: The author of 1999’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” – which was a love letter to America’s artsy, European-influenced, director-fueled 1970s cinema – Biskind is as enamored of Beatty’s oeuvre as some women seem to have been of the dramatic swoosh of hair and skintight jeans of George Roundy, the clueless, ladykilling hairdresser of “Shampoo.”

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“Beginning as a metaphorical apologia for Beatty’s own conduct,” Biskind writes, “‘Shampoo’ evolves into an auto-critique, as George devolves from a thoughtless hedonist to a plaything of others, to his own victim.” Don’t be vexed by the florid prose – Beatty is at his peak in this film, and Biskind’s dead-on discussion of it is his book’s highlight. A marginal actor with leading-man looks, Beatty had followed sister Shirley MacLaine from Arlington, Va., to Hollywood and outgrew his reputation as a second-rate James Dean to produce and star in the 1967 blockbuster “Bonnie and Clyde.” This genre-busting, ultraviolent tragicomedy was an unlikely hit, but “Shampoo” – a film whose ridiculous, “Saturday Night Live”-worthy premise (that gay hairdresser is actually straight!) is a knowing indictment of both its own star’s promiscuity and the vacuous ’70s – was an unlikely cultural touchstone. If Biskind retreads material he already covered in “Easy Riders,” so what? Generation Y’s dim memories of Beatty as that guy from “Dick Tracy” are fading, and there’s nothing wrong with another history lesson.

But the history is not always flattering. Beatty was, in both his professional and personal lives, often considerably less than a stand-up guy. But Biskind rarely indicts him. On the actor’s pressuring of girlfriend Joan Collins to have an abortion in 1960: “They both knew they weren’t ready for the responsibility.” On his refusal to cast French actress Leslie Caron, whose marriage he’d help break up, as Bonnie in 1965: “[T]he actor disabused Caron of her belief that the part was hers.” On the murky deal he negotiated for a disproportionate share of the profits made by “Shampoo” compared with those of director Hal Ashby and screenwriter Robert Towne: “ ‘Shampoo’ helped everyone connected with it, some more than others.” Every betrayal Beatty seems to stumble into – every ex-girlfriend shunned, every codirecting credit finagled, every budget overage poorly spent – is met with a shrug. “I realized that trying to ‘explain’ Beatty would be futile,” Biskind writes in an introduction.

Still, if not a psychoanalyst, the writer is a revisionist. “Why Warren Beatty?” he asks. “It’s distressing to have to make a case for his importance just because no one under forty (maybe fifty?) knows who he is.” Biskind’s all too right. After “Shampoo,” a depressed Beatty “kept returning to the idea of a romantic fantasy ... a comedy of resurrection.” The result, 1979’s “Heaven Can Wait” – Beatty plays a dead football player who is reincarnated to, uh, lead his team to Super Bowl victory – did sell tickets, and did win an Oscar (for, ahem, Best Art Direction). But when Biskind insists that this light comedy “is about acting in a larger sense – trying on identities, looking for the right fit between inner and outer,” his narrative creaks. Unlike his peers – Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, even George Lucas – Beatty never inspired a cult following. His films’ promotional posters don’t adorn dormitory walls.

But does this mean his legacy is meager? Mas o menos: Beatty took home a Best Directing Oscar for “Reds,” an overlong biopic of Communist John Reed, but the film was lost in the midst of the conservative Reagan revolution. “Ishtar” was an expensive flop. “Dick Tracy” made money, but succeeded more as a McDonald’s tie-in than a film. “Bugsy” lost money, but won Oscars (although for Best Art Direction and Costume Design). “Bulworth” was racist garbage disguised as liberal social commentary. 2001’s “Town & Country,” Beatty’s most recent film, was a expensive flop. Meanwhile, Gary Hart, Beatty’s favorite presidential candidate, was sidelined two decades ago, Beatty’s own on-again, off-again political ambitions seem permanently off-again, and he never made his dream picture, a Howard Hughes biopic (Scorsese beat him to the punch with 2004’s “The Aviator”). Could it be that this lady’s man’s greatest post-”Shampoo” success is his stable May-December marriage to Annette Bening and the four children it has produced?

Biskind can’t escape it: Aesthetically, Warren Beatty is like cabbage. He matured early and, after a glorious spring, wilted.

Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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