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January 19, 2010


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Sam Adams

A post worth waiting for. Thanks for reading, so I don't have to.


Who's Warren Beatty?


I gave up on the book around the McCabe discussion, which seemed uninformed. Compare it to the passages on McCabe in the Altman oral biography and it's clear Biskind didn't dig below the surface. Also, I was offended (and I'm not easily offended) by the passage in the Warrenology section where he says he promised to not discuss anything he heard about Beatty personally after he married Annette Bening, leaving the impression that he did discover something. It's a cheap shot, and I didn't trust anything he had to say afterward. For a much better book on Beatty, one that brings his childhood to vivid life, I'd recommend Suzanne Finstad's highly underrated biography.

James Russell

I'm not interested in Warren Beatty (for the record I'm 35 and I've known who he is pretty much since I was a teenager) so I wasn't planning on reading the book anyway. Unfortunately I now find myself wondering if I want to read ER,RB now either...

The Siren

According to Erich von Stroheim, the French have it right: it only takes one movie. I guess my general view of Beatty is higher than yours. I think it's an impressive career, all told, just very abbreviated, for whatever reason.

Easy Riders was a pleasure, but this one sounds like I should pass. I don't think I would have made it past the part where he talks about Orson Welles's claim to greatness and doesn't mention The Magnificent Ambersons.

Your yeoman's work is appreciated, sir.


I've read exactly one book by Biskind - Down and Dirty Pictures - and I didn't like it one bit. My experience wasn't quite as horrid as it sounds like yours was, Glenn, but it was still a bitter slog to the last page (for the record, it was required reading for a film class). Biskind is a creep, a gossip, and a crappy writer, but the self-loathing is what really makes his schtick so miserable.

While I'm as fascinated as the next guy by the seamy underbelly of showbiz glam and glory, and the way it fucks with people's heads, bodies, spirits - I'd rather experience it a la Lynch, thank you very much. Give me another helping of INLAND EMPIRE any day, and Biskind can go sell his junk to the tabloids.

The Siren

No, maybe I would have tossed it aside when he was mean to Julie Christie. Excuuuuse her for doing something to make herself more marketable in that cold cruel town.

Funny how Biskind's piece on Woody Allen in Vanity Fair bent over backwards to excuse Allen's every foible, and of course Allen's personal foibles are feeble indeed. Glenn, did you ultimately feel that Biskind was too hard on Beatty, too soft, or just had no real handle on Beatty's true place in film?


Glenn, it's hard to feel sympathy for Kael when she rode Beatty's coattails to some bullshit industry "consulting" position, which was a pretty pathetic move for someone in her position, not to mention a conflict of interest that makes her ridiculous biases even more laughable.

I wonder if you feel as bad about her pissing all over Orson Welles with "Raising Kane" when he was still alive and desperately Raising Financing as you do about Biskind, Beatty and Sylbert "pissing on her grave". You know, if we're talking potential damage to reputation.

Glenn Kenny

@ Lazarus: Indeed, I did, and do, feel as bad worse than bad, actually, about "Raising Kane." Always have. As I've mentioned any number of times, I"m not the world's number one Kael fan. I'm also a firm believer in the adage that two wrongs don't make a right. Whatever the Kael/Beatty relationship (and it's certainly true that it crossed any number of lines of which were then known as journalistic ethics), the notion that she somehow owed it to him to give "Reds" a favorable review is not tenable. Also, I watched half of "Reds" the other night, and boy does it not hold up...

@ The Siren: Ultimately I think it comes down to door number three.

Jason Bellamy

Glenn: I haven't read the book, but many of your criticisms here seem right on the money. I do take issue with this one, though:

"It's distressing to have to make a case for his importance because no one under forty (maybe fifty?) knows who he is."

This is complete bullshit, at least in my experience.

Again, I haven't read the book, so I don't know how Biskind's statement falls within that context. But within the context of the passages you've cited here, I'd say that your "complete bullshit" objection takes Biskind too literally.

It seems to me his point is that the legend of Welles, whose successes came earlier, lives on, while Beatty is out of the conversation (as you said, he wasn't even being discussed on blogs until the book came out). Does Biskind draw the line properly at under 40? No way. I'm not quite 33, which means that I know that even casual movie fans my age know who Beatty is because of Dick Tracy and his relationship with Madonna, if nothing else. Of course, that's not the same thing as knowing about Reds, Shampoo, etc., which is kind of Biskind's point, but it's at least recognition. That said, I have a brother who is not quite 20, and I'm sure he has no clue whatsoever who Beatty is. And, as a movie fan, do I feel he needs to know Beatty? No. Not yet, with so much else to learn. And that seems to be Biskind's point, too.

Of course, Biskind's stance is all dependent upon the premise that Beatty and Welles should be considered in the same regard. I disagree with that, but from Biskind's point of view I think the "no one knows who he is" line has quite a bit of validity in spirit, if not technically accurate. (And I don't think he really means "no one" when he says "no one.")

Just saying.

Michael Adams

Suzanne Finstad's Beatty bio is excellent for showing how complicated and exasperating he is. She strikes a good balance between his personal life and his work and explains how he is the result of having strong women in his life, especially Shirley and their mother and maternal grandmother. He emerges as likable because he takes films seriously and has always tried to do good work.

A highlight of the Altman oral bio is Mrs. Altman's claim that Beatty shouted at and cursed her at the McCabe premiere and his response that he's a good boy who would never do that to a lady. In context, it's hilarious.

Chris O.

"jaw-dropping revelations"

Very funny.

Oh, Jane...

Chris O.

Curious what you've found not holding up, specifically, in "Reds." Nicholson's quiet performance is wonderful. And I was actually thinking the other day about the documentary device: what inspired Beatty to do it (what notable examples of it preceded "Reds"); how, among others, Clooney used the idea in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind;" and how most biopics today could stand an invigorating idea like that.


The fascination with Beatty has always slightly puzzled me. I have nothing particular against the guy -- I've liked him in some things, found him bland in others, but he is, or was, clearly ambitious, and so on. But if he hadn't removed himself from the business, would anybody care quite this much? Beatty seems to have developed this mystique, based largely on the fact that he's taken himself out of the game. If Robert Redford had done the same, would he have the same aura? Redford has, to some degree, stuck with it, with diminishing returns, but people don't hate his old movies because of that (unless they already hated them). Beatty's entire reputation as an artist seems to center on four films: REDS, SHAMPOO, MCCABE & MRS. MILLER and BONNIE AND CLYDE. That's not a hell of a lot, is it (and frankly I prefer DICK TRACY to at least two of those, but that's beside the point)? And if he'd stuck with it in the same way Redford has, would he still be Warren-Frickin'-Beatty*, or would he just be Robert Redford?

*If he'd done KILL BILL, the odds would be better.

Glenn Kenny

@ Chris O: On reflection, my tossed-off remark about "Reds" not holding up was part pique. There are a number of really quite spectacular things about it, and as a whole it's probably a very good (but not great) movie. You're right, the use of the so-called "witnesses" IS invigorating, and all Beatty's idea, and Nicholson is fabulous in it, his quiet performance all the more impressive for coming right after his more, shall we say, expansive work in "The Shining." But I find Keaton's performance irritating, ticcy, and Beatty never convinces me of Reed's fervor. So I'm mixed. But it's hardly a movie to be dismissed. "Heaven Can Wait" is another story....

The Siren

Glenn, we seem very simpatico on Reds, which I re-watched after a space of more than 20 years for the Shadows series. I think it's a beautiful and very well-constructed movie but Keaton's performance in the first half is, and boy do I hate to use this word, but I must--shrill. But then she seems to gain her footing later, as Bryant gains in confidence and empathy. Beatty and Keaton are both transformed after the Revolution; their performances start to click. I do think Stapleton as Emma Goldman is the conscience of the movie and she's great too, as good or better than Nicholson.


BULWORTH, anyone? I thought it was a good, ballsy work, although I haven't seen it since '98/'99ish.

I guess HEAVEN CAN WAIT is irrefutably minor, but has some terrific art direction. SHAMPOO has aged better.


@Jaime -

"BULWORTH, anyone? I thought it was a good, ballsy work, although I haven't seen it since '98/'99ish."

At the time of its release, I would have agreed with you, but more and more the ballsiness seems particularly forced, and the ending is absurd, a by-the-numbers black comedy write-off.

Though I should admit I haven't seen it in a long time.


I understand why some wouldn't like Keaton in that first half, Siren. But when she does "gain her footing", as you say, man does she knock it out of the park. The look in her eyes may be partially due to the exhaustion of dealing with Beatty's perfectionism, but they speak volumes. And when she does speak, as in that confrontation with Nicholson, she's no longer shrill but wounded and lacerating.

I also think Beatty should get credit for underplaying (and I mean this from a directing sense) the climactic train station scene. It could have been completely over the top, but he just lets it happen; just a couple lines of dialogue, a few notes on the piano, and it's one for the ages. It's also something Minghella appeared to be paying homage to near the end of Cold Mountain (though no one else seems to have noticed).

Bulworth and Dick Tracy are both great in their own way, even if the latter wasn't really what people wanted from a comic book movie. Bottom line is that with just a handful of films he proved to be a pretty versatile director.


Biskind is slime. Sorry, but it's true. What I mainly recaLl from EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS is the relish with which Biskind tosses in personal gossip, such as De Niro getting angry in some restaurant. Now that is revealing. I'd feel icky and sick too if I woke up to be Peter Biskind.

Richard Sylbert was a real mensch though, and whenever I chatted with him, he was full of vigor and enthusiasm without a judgemental bone in his body. He loved telling stories about his time in the trenches.


@Bill - What I remember as effective about BULWORTH was, in fact, its strain. I found it a deeply uncomfortable movie, in a way that was constructive as a movie experience. (Constructive, politically, to what extent, that's another debate.) The discomfort level seemed to go beyond the normal goalposts of movie satire, beyond what Beatty may have planned for. Gave the movie an "everyone's in over his head" atmosphere that I found exciting, all the more because you didn't see that stuff every day. You still don't.

In deciding what to say about this thread, I kept thinking, "Beatty was good in..." and then I would realize I was talking about another actor. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (a fantastic film that nearly singlehandedly validates the myth of the American cinema's '70s peak) occurred to me even after I realized it was Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Am I weird?

Anyway, someone brought up Clooney. I like him a lot as a star, and some colleagues think he's the best thing we've got at the moment. He's better than Beatty as a director - I feel confident putting my name on that. LEATHERHEADS is a really good, controlled work, a nostalgia piece that doesn't rest on its concept. (And he gave Peter Gerety an absolutely plum walk-on/steal-movie/walk-off role.)


Jaime, I can see your points about BULWORTH, and they're good ones. I really should see it again, but it doesn't seem to really linger with me.

Not to take this too far off topic, but because you brought up LEATHERHEADS: Is it just me, or does that last play, in the last game, make no sense at all?

James Keepnews

Zach remarks: "Biskind is a creep, a gossip, and a crappy writer, but the self-loathing is what really makes his schtick so miserable." Much of that, if not the not-as-apparent self-loathing, is what made Easy Riders such a great read, even if its revelations are mostly of the on-the-QT-&-very-huish-hush variety. Even there, I have a...different appreciation for people like Margot Kidder and other underappreciated figures of the period Who Were There.

I also generally second Siren's appreciation of the writer/actor/director, if mostly on the basis of Reds and the woefully underrated Bulworth. Reds' occasional set-ups/payoffs -- the hat for the guy on train, bumping his head on the chandelier, "nobody re-writes what I write," etc. -- are as clumsy as Borscht Belt comedy, but the performances are largely grand, inclusive of Nicholson, Stapleton, great unfussy performances by Gene Hackman, Paul Sorvino, &c., as well as those documentary interviews. And maybe I'm too seduced by him, too, but I do consider Beatty to be an interesting Method actor, albeit not a towering one.

As for Mr. Henry, not for nothin' but what has he done for us lately? I generally bailed on him after The Big Show -- husker du? And that was after the not-even remotely erudite, refined, or witty First Family. I don't believe I'll be seeing many defenses of that here, will I? Gilda, from beyond the grave, pleads "Say 'No!'"....

The thing that really caught my eye here is this: "Upon putting down Star I felt a serious compulsion not only to never look at a Warren Beatty picture again, but to never lay eyes on the guys face for as long as I live." You detail your issues with Biskind's work ably enough, but don't seem to address what it was that makes you off your feed where le Warren is concerned -- apart from pretty peeps, ugly deeds, which may well be enough. But I feel like you have some other issues with Beatty and his work not completely addressed in your dressing down of Star. Discuss.

Mark Asch

Mr. Kenny, did you just slip in a reference to Stanley P. Gershbein of the [your Brooklyn neighborhood here] Courier?

All this time thought I was alone in my secret shameful masochistic obsession with his 'It's Only My Opinion' column.

Chris O.

What's probably more telling, I think, is what Beatty hasn't done: what he's turned down and what he hasn't yet made. His Howard Hughes script is like Kubrick's "Napoleon," the elusive passion project that'll be talked about years after Beatty's gone, presuming it never happens. (And anyone remember the rumor he participated in a script reading of Francis Ford Coppola's "Megalopolis" nearly a decade ago?)

@Glenn & Siren: Ticcy and shrill describes most of Keaton's performances, but I concur re: Reds somewhat.

@christian: Wanna hear uplifting De Niro gossip? Apparently, he secretly paid for John Cazale's bond to get him on "The Deer Hunter" after the latter had been diagnosed with lung cancer.


A lot of people went to the mat for Cazale. That's a very touching bit of film history.


The Parallax View. Let's not forget that one.

Splendor In The Grass. Let's not forget that one.

All Fall Down. Let's not forget that one.

Bugsy. Let's not forget that one.

Mickey One. Let's...you get the idea.

Beatty's resume isn't as thin as is imagined by Biskind.

And I'll second Glenn's point on Heaven Can Wait, but I'll argue that Beatty's finest performance on film is in Ishtar. Really.


One can only assume the allusion to the writer/"hell-raising" musician is Nick Tosches/Jerry Lee Lewis. "Hellfire"-"Hell-raising"...this is like gossip blind items for the nerd set.


I really liked ISHTAR! In my rock & roll fantasy, Jerry Lewis and Elaine May are still making pictures, while Rob Cohen and ... a lot of other directors have retired.

BUGSY was one of my all-time favorite films when I was fourteen years old. Recently gave it another shot, it's okay - handsome to say the least - but Levinson is all over the place visually and tonally, and that final scene between Bugsy and Virginia Hill seems like the perfect illustration of "apocryphal bullshit." Sure, most of the film qualifies, but that scene was just...raw b.s. And it doesn't seem earned, either, emotionally or in story terms. (She peaced him! Gave him the air! No tearful g'byes! Come on!! Oh, studio mandates...)

@Bill - shamefully, I don't remember the play that closed LEATHERHEADS. A little help? Mind you, I may never fully understand football. The closest I've gotten: Peter Berg's excellent pilot for FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

The Siren

@James -- Excellent comment, and I agree on Easy Riders. And you articulated the request for more on Beatty from Glenn much more precisely than I did. I hope to hear more from our host.

@TLRHB -- thanks for bringing up those films. I don't think Beatty's resume is thin, either. I wish it had more films on it, but that is not the same thing, and hell, I could say that about most of the people I write about. Except maybe Crawford and Davis who went the other way and made a few films too many at the end. I will also add Lilith.

And since I just wrote up Reds on my own site and am feeling the fervor, let me ask (she said, sticking her chin way out) just what is so wrong with a good comedy like Heaven Can Wait? In my book it's that rare remake that improves on the original. Grodin and Cannon are funnier than Johnson and Emery, for one thing, and though I love Claude Rains, James Mason is the one actor in the world who can match him for angelic vocal beauty. And I think Beatty is hilarious; I like him in the boardroom when he's using football metaphors to talk to the directors.

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