There was a time when Warren Beatty was seen as nothing more than another handsome actor with an unusual flair for seducing outsize numbers of beautiful (and often famous) women. But following the groundbreaking success of “Bonnie and Clyde,” he has emerged as one of Hollywood’s canniest all-around filmmakers, as well as one of the industry’s sharpest and most outspoken liberals. In fact, he almost ran for President and governor of California.
Warren Beatty was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1937, the second of two children after his older sister, Shirley. With a mother who taught drama, it was only natural that at least one of the Beatty kids would catch the performance bug. While Warren pursued high school football, his older sister, as Shirley MacLaine, was already making it big as an actress and dancer on Broadway and, eventually, in Hollywood.
With this kind of example, it only made sense for Warren to try his luck. Although he was a star at football, Warren turned down several athletic scholarships to enroll at Northwestern’s prestigious drama school, only to leave the year later to move to New York and take up his acting studies with the legendary drama coach, Stella Adler. Roles on Broadway followed, and a gift for ridiculously speedy success seemed to be in the Beatty family’s genes when Warren was nominated for a Tony at age 23.
That turned out to be Warren’s only major stage role (so far) and he began appearing on the acclaimed live television anthology programs, “Studio One” and “Playhouse 90.” This was followed by a move from New York to Hollywood for the 1959-1960 season of the teen sitcom, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Warren was quickly noticed and tapped by Elia Kazan, arguably the most important director of the period, to star in the teen melodrama “Splendor in the Grass” opposite young superstar Natalie Wood. An affair with Wood, already married to actor Robert Wagner, cast Warren as a home-wrecker in the gossip columns. The film was a hit, but critics, forever suspicious of excessive good looks, felt the jury was out as to whether Warren was much more than another Troy Donahue-style pretty boy.
Attempting to prove otherwise, Warren tried to combine his business with his pleasure, hen he commissioned a script from a rising young writer and comedian named Woody Allen. The screenplay took its name from what was apparently one of Beatty’s favorite phrases, “What’s New, Pussycat?” – which has variously been described as a greeting for his girlfriends, a pick-up line, or how Warren answered the phone. (Could it have been all three?) Though neither the line nor the film has aged well, the movie was a success in 1965, launching the film career of Allen, and spawning a hit song for Tom Jones. However, it did nothing for Warren. He had left the project when his part in the film grew smaller and other parts, including Allen’s supporting role, grew larger.
Instead, Warren starred in another lightweight comedy, “Promise Her Anything” co-starring another soon-to-be-divorced Beatty girlfriend, Leslie Caron (“Gigi, “An American in Paris”). Still, Warren clearly wanted to be taken seriously and attached himself to serious projects with prestigious directors, but none of them made much of an impact. However, a Paris lunch with Ms. Caron and one of France’s top directors changed all that when François Truffaut mentioned a screenplay he’d been offered about two semi-legendary American gangsters, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Darrow. Over the next couple of years, Warren’s tenacity in shepherding the groundbreaking “Bonnie and Clyde” through Warner Brothers, persuading an initially reluctant Arthur Penn to direct, then fighting hostile critics and an initial box office drubbing to get the film a second chance, paid off in a monster hit. It became by far the most important film of 1967 and probably of the entire decade, netting 10 Oscar nominations and launching an almost literal Hollywood revolution.
Clearly no longer a beggar, Warren was definitely a chooser, and he began a lifelong habit of turning down roles that other actors would make legendary. While he toyed with various projects, he grew more active in politics – earlier he had become friends with John F. Kennedy after a film about him that Warren had rejected, “PT 109,” turned out to be something of a disaster.
It was the 1970s before Warren began showing up on screen again. First was the stagy, romantic gambling melodrama, “The Only Game in Town” with Elizabeth Taylor, quickly followed by “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” An offbeat western directed by Robert Altman, it was an immediate critical success and is considered by many critics to be one of the finest American movies of all time. It’s also notable because it was while working on “McCabe” that Warren first shared the screen with girlfriend Julie Christie, who won an Oscar for her work. Ms. Christie would remain his most serious relationship for the better part of the next decade.
It would be another few years before Warren’s next projects would come out, starting with paranoid political assassination thriller, “The Parallax View.” While that film would take decades to find an audience, the same was not true for Warren’s next film as a producer. Directed by Hal Ashby and co-written by Warren and “Bonnie and Clyde” script doctor Robert Towne, “Shampoo” had him cast as a high-end hair stylist conducting affairs with three of his well-heeled clients played by Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn, and Julie Christie. The film, a frank satire with political overtones, caught the mood of the times almost as well as “Bonnie and Clyde” and became another award-winning hit. Another film released the same year, the farcical, Mike Nichols-directed “The Fortune,” paired Warren and his friend, Jack Nicholson, with the young Stockard Channing. It failed rather dramatically.
Another three years later, however, Warren scored again. A 1978 remake of the 1941 life-after-death comedy, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “Heaven Can Wait” was not only co-written by Warren, he co-directed it as well. Once again, Julie Christie was the love of his onscreen life and the good-natured film became one of the most beloved romantic comedies of the seventies, earning a healthy number of Oscar nominations, including three for Warren.
Warren stayed off-screen for another three years, turning down more major roles in classics-to-be, but reemerged with a politically charged romantic epic, this time as the main screenwriter and solo director. Co-starring Warren and his new girlfriend, talented actress and Woody Allen ex, Diane Keaton, “Reds” was based on the life of pro-Soviet journalist John Reed. It painted a relatively positive view of the Bolshevik revolution, though it acknowledged in a muted way the harshness of Lenin and foreshadowed the evils of Stalinism. While it came out at the dawn of the Reagan administration, the film was less controversial than you might think. It also wasn’t a substantial hit, even if it was generally very well regarded and remains influential to this day. It did put Warren for the second time in the very small club of creators who have been nominated for Oscars in writing, directing, and starring in the same film. (The other members of that exclusive club are Orson Welles and, ironically enough, Woody Allen – but both those guys only did it once!)
During the next several years, Warren’s personal life was becoming the stuff of legend and threatened to overshadow his professional one. His relationship with Julie Christie having ended amicably (“Reds” is dedicated to her) and a new one with Diane Keaton taken off, he gave entertainingly evasive answers to interviewers like Barbara Walters about his past affairs, which may or may not have included Bianca Jagger, Jane Fonda, Cher, and Carly Simon. (Warren, along with Mick Jagger, is one of the main suspects for being the subject of “You’re So Vain.”)
Still, the release of his first movie in six years probably made Warren wish people would gossip about his sex life more and think about his films less. Written and directed by Elaine May, one of the most respected names in American comedy, and starring two of the biggest marquee names in filmdom at the time, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, “Ishtar” went seriously over-budget and cost a then-whopping $51 million (roughly double other large budget productions of the time). Even before the movie came out, it sparked criticism for its perceived fiscal irresponsibility. “Ishtar” pretty much had to be a hit, and it was anything but. No one seemed to like it, and though it is perhaps less bad than its reputation might indicate, “Ishtar,” like “Heaven’s Gate,” has became something of a synonym for Hollywood’s bloated budgets and bloated egos.
Beatty, the auteur and the actor, fared considerably better on his next film, a long delayed project many assumed would never be made: 1990’s “Dick Tracy.” The lavish adaptation of Chester Gould’s classic comic strip was dogged by technical and other problems. It also attracted a certain amount of gossipy controversy as Beatty, now in his fifties, cast himself in the role of the straight-arrow tough guy Tracy and cast his new, younger girlfriend, pop superstar Madonna, in a major acting and singing role with new songs written for her by Broadway’s most admired composer, Stephen Sondheim. While many quibbled, the finished film was a technically innovative, solidly professional enterprise, with Beatty and Madonna (whose role as sexy gun moll Breathless Mahoney was actually not the female lead) surrounded by a superb cast of stars and character actors, including Al Pacino in an Oscar nominated role as main heavy Big Boy Caprice. The film also succeeded in creating an immersive, live-action comic strip look that wouldn’t be seen again onscreen for another decade – and then only through the heavy use of CGI in hits like “Sin City” and “300.” It wasn’t a unanimous critical favorite, but it grabbed some Oscars, and audiences liked the expensive but goodhearted enterprise enough to make it the largest moneymaker of Beatty’s career.
Warren’s creative role continued the following year with a film produced by Warren and directed by Barry Levinson (“Diner.” “Rain Man”). “Bugsy” was the story of notorious gangster Ben Siegel and the opening of the Flamingo, Las Vegas’s first major hotel-casino. Perhaps still smarting from the gossip around him and Madonna, Beatty cast Annette Benning, a stunning but also highly talented, theater-trained actress he was not romantically linked to. Of course, that didn’t last for long, but this time, something was obviously different. The film, containing arguably Beatty’s best work as an actor, did reasonably well and received the usual awards nominations. Then again, that wasn’t unusual by this point, nor was the fact that the pair went on to do one more movie together – the 1994 remake of “Love Affair.” What was unusual was that Warren and Benning were married shortly after the release of “Bugsy.” What was downright stunning is that they remain together today, and even appear to be Hollywood’s most stable superstar couple, having had four children together.
In 1998, Beatty, whose political involvement included roles in the presidential campaigns of both George McGovern and Gary Hart, wrote and directed “Bullworth.” A tense, biting, and very funny political satire about a suicidal politico that starts speaking uncomfortable truths while trying to evade the hitman he has hired himself. It was not a financial hit, but it had a low budget by Warren’s usual standards (his best known costar was an up and comer named Halle Berry). More important, it was arguably his best film as a writer and director, earning him perhaps the most effusive praise of his career and striking an immediate political chord with disaffected liberals that continues to reverberate a decade later.
In fact, likeminded political observers, most notably super-blogger Ariana Huffington, did their best to encourage Warren to run for major office – first in the 2000 Democratic primaries and later against fellow actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in his successful bid for the governorship of California. Both times, Warren seems to have flirted with the idea and, perhaps deciding that his beyond-freewheeling past would ruin his chances, discarded the notion. Better to make movies…or maybe not.
In 2001, Warren rolled the dice cinematically one more time with “Town & Country.” The all-star sex comedy, co-starring good friends Diane Keaton and comedian Gary Shandling, turned out to be an even bigger disaster than “Ishtar,” though it was less widely publicized. It is, in fact, in the top five films with the lowest grosses relative to its (nearly $100 million) budget. The good news is that, this time, Warren wasn’t a producer.
Since that time, Hollywood has awaited a Warren Beatty comeback. One much discussed possibility was taking the title role in “Kill Bill.” That didn’t happen, of course, but we’re pretty sure, one way or another, we’ll be seeing Warren again in something before too long. He’s kept us waiting this long before.
Warren Beatty on the Web
An online database of Warren’s brilliant career.
A solid rundown of Warren’s life and work.
As usual, a very detailed look at Mr. Beatty’s career here.
Photos, news and, of course, info on where to catch Warren’s classics on the tube.
Who’s Dated Who?
Presidential spouse Jackie Kennedy? Former TV starlet Justine Bateman? Forties playwright Lillian Hellman? Maury Povich-mate Connie Chung? Vivien “Scarlet O’Hara” Lee? The answer to the somewhat euphemistic question “is there any woman, of any historical era, Warren hasn’t dated?” remains impossible to answer, but the astonishing length and breadth of the man’s social career is at least partially on view here and, thankfully, really does seem to end with Annette Benning, who should be enough for any man. Sure, these don’t seem to be quite Wilt Chamberlain numbers, but remember this…these are just the famous ones….The famous ones we know about.
Written just prior to Warren’s acceptance of the Irving Thalberg Award from the Academy (probably the most prestigious award a producer can receive), Stephanie Zacherek, perhaps more of a fan of Warren the actor than Warren the filmmaker, writes an in-depth appreciation.
Warren Beatty on the Screen
Warren is among the most internal of film actors. Taking the famous advice of Marlon Brando – “just because they say ‘action’ doesn’t mean you have to do anything” to heart, Warren’s dryly thoughtful performances are fascinating for how they hint at what’s going on without ever fully tipping his hand. As for his best work, we could make a case for his blustering, amiable killer in “Bonnie and Clyde” or his manic sincerity in “Bullworth.” However, “Bugsy” is notable because, more than any of his other films, it’s a case of Warren playing a character who is clearly no variation on himself. Complete with a New York accent that never lets one forget Ben Siegel’s Jewish heritage and with a clear capacity for brutality that would have frightened Warren’s Clyde Barrow, this is both a first-class movie star performance and top-flight piece of acting.
Warren Beatty on Video
Dick Tracy: Where’s Lips Manlis
This brief sequence from the 1990 hit gives you an idea of Warren’s achievement in creating a live-action, four-color comic strip – and in some ways doing it more effectively than today’s all-CGI affairs.
A funny, and very brief, scene from “Ishtar.”
Siskel & Ebert Review “Ishtar”
Well, they wanted to like it.
Promoting “Bullworth” in 1998, Warren chats with the PBS host for an entire hour.
Watch all of what author Norman Mailer called Warren’s “maximum” film – legally and for free, courtesy of Hulu.com. We wish we had time right now. Or, for a brief sample of the film, check out this scene where Senator Bullworth nearly starts another L.A. riot at an African-American church. (Mature audiences only. Registration required.)
Since the “Town & Country” disaster of 2001, Warren has concentrated on being a dad and mostly stayed out of view. As far as we can tell, he has no plans to do anything professional, other than being one of Hollywood’s healthiest looking septuagenarians. There was talk of him being cast totally against type as Richard Nixon in the upcoming film version of the play “Frost/Nixon,” but that turned out to be a bust. (It’s actually the second time Warren has turned down a chance to play his old political nemesis. He reportedly turned down the lead in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic, “Nixon.”) Still, Warren occasionally shows his face, appearing for an occasional show business tribute as well as the DVD extras for the recently reissued “Bonnie and Clyde” DVD. Also, he made his dryly humorous presence known via telephone on a pair of 2006 episodes of “The Colbert Report.”
“Monogamy requires genius.”
“My notion of a wife at 40 is that a man should be able to change her, like a bank note, for two 20s.”
“It's no secret that I am a liberal Democrat... I have some very strong feelings, the most important of which at the moment is campaign finance reform because its tentacles reach into every other issue. I fear we're getting closer to a plutocracy than we want to, and I believe that deep down the people want to do something about that.”
On politics and show biz:
“I was friends with President Ronald Reagan and he once said to me, 'I don't know how anybody can serve in public office without being an actor.'”
On “making it”:
“You've achieved success in your field when you don't know whether what you're doing is work or play.”
“I would say the biggest changes -- it has caused me to get into the present tense, try not to go too far into the future, not too long into the past, ... When (the kids) are jumping on your stomach, making a trampoline out of you at six in the morning, that's fun for me. That's present tense.”