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Warren Beatty: Hollywood's Lover, In The Spotlight

Warren Beatty and his <em>Splendor in the Grass</em> co-star Natalie Wood at the 1962 Academy Awards.
Warren Beatty and his <em>Splendor in the Grass</em> co-star Natalie Wood at the 1962 Academy Awards.

Celebrity culture churns so fast these days that in his introduction to Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, writer Peter Biskind worries that no one under the age of 40 knows who Warren Beatty is. That sounds like the nail-biting anxiety of a journalist who spent the past decade sweating over a biography of the man. Still, it has been awhile since the spotlight shined on Beatty, who for much of the second half of the 20th century, was Hollywood's most rakish leading man and movie brat.

Greatness in motion pictures, Biskind argues, requires the making of only a few defining works, and Beatty, he asserts, can claim more than a half-dozen essential or, in the case of 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, revolutionary films to his credit. Splendor in the Grass (1961), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Reds (1981), Bugsy (1991) — these are just the indisputable tours de force among Beatty's work as, variously, actor, writer, producer and director.

'Star' book cover
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What dims Beatty's aura of greatness, of course, are the things that make Biskind's book such a compulsive and sometimes stunningly salacious read: Beatty's unrivaled escapades as a lady killer, and his central role in some of the most ignominious and expensive flops in Hollywood history. "Tortured" politely describes many of his high-profile flings, and just as aptly captures the creative tussles on such legendary calamities as Ishtar (1987), Love Affair (1994) and Town & Country (2001). Intriguingly, each of those films was, to one degree or another, thrust into chaos and studio-destroying profligacy by the same Beatty neuroses and working methods that sparked his masterpieces: perfectionism, vanity, a theoretically constructive collaborative warfare he liked to call "hostile intelligences," and the need to manipulate and control everything and everyone around him.

Beatty made only 22 films in his four-decade career. Biskind — an impeccable reporter and the author of two indispensable modern-film histories, Down and Dirty Pictures and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — puts the number of Beatty sexual conquests at 12,000, an alternately affectionate and lurid roundelay of partners that included Natalie Wood, Leslie Caron, Cher, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Carly Simon, Diane Keaton, Mary Tyler Moore and Jackie O. "The Pro," as Beatty was commonly known, didn't limit his appetites to co-stars and glossy curiosity seekers. Producer Hal Lieberman, Beatty's young assistant in 1977, used to wrangle the women who caught his boss' eye as they passed his office window on a Beverly Glen cul-de-sac. Often, Lieberman recalls, "they were less than plain, overweight and mustachioed."

"You're Warren Beatty," Lieberman would say in exasperation. "Why don't you get some standards?"

As Biskind's subtitle suggests, Beatty was the ultimate pick-up artist, a gift that extended well beyond the skirts and movie audiences he chased. Joan Collins called him the "most incredible person I've ever known for networking," and the extraordinary acquaintances and artistic collaborators he attracted — drawn in by Beatty's power and good looks, but also his inarguably fierce intellect, talent and charm — populate the book. Some choice sediment among the mountains of Star's inside dirt: Beatty wore mascara onscreen; the great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael could be shockingly corruptible; Diane Keaton was, despite her la-di-da persona, a "rage rat" and "nasty flounce," according to one writer on Reds.

Beatty's determination to shape his image and legacy caused him, in the opinion of some, to script his own rapid fade from the role of leading and ladies man. In 1992, at age 54, the resolute bachelor with the graying movie-star looks married his Bugsy co-star Annette Bening and saw the birth of the first of their four children. The commitment came shortly after his very public and probably humbling affair with a 20-years-younger Madonna, who razzed Beatty as the "old man" and equated his lovemaking to the "Minute Waltz." It's likely she was the first, and last, lover to turn the tables and make Beatty the pitiable plaything.

Similarly, the ennobling family-man duties nicely obscured the reality that Beatty — once powerful enough to turn down starring roles in Butch Cassidy, The Sting, The Godfather, The Way We Were and Last Tango In Paris — had become no longer bankable by the turn of the century and, worse, a pariah in Hollywood.

It's fair to say that even Biskind's authorized biography — which Beatty green-lit only when the tarnish had begun to set in, and which Biskind says was, in the writing, akin to a "lingering illness" because of Beatty's nauseating shifts between cooperative mensch and passive-aggressive monster — is a part of the master manipulator's reclamation effort. It's to the author's credit that Star isn't a wet kiss to Warren Beatty. When, in the afterglow of their early warm embraces, his simultaneously brilliant and narcissistic subject was preening in the mirror, Biskind was furiously taking notes.

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