Having just read Peter Biskind's excellent biography of actor/producer/director/Playboy of the Western World Warren Beatty (click here to read my review), I decided it was high-time I reacquainted myself with some of Mr. Beatty's movies. My total sum of knowledge of his oeuvre is based almost solely on Bonnie and Clyde, a movie he produced and starred in, but didn't write or direct.
My weekend Beatty viewing party started with Shampoo, his 1975 movie about a free-swinging hairdresser in Los Angeles during the fall of our discontent, i.e. 1968, the year Nixon was elected president of these here United States. Beatty plays George Roundy, a "full-service" hairdresser who, while not correcting anyone when they think he's stereotypically gay, is meanwhile scoring with just about all his lady clients (a condition Beatty was known for offscreen as well). Shampoo was considered incredibly shocking for its time, and other than Beatty banging (offscreen) the teenage Carrie Fisher (the daughter of one his "clients," played by Lee Grant), and "that" line from a drunk Julie Christie ("I want to suck his cock!"), it's really kind of tame by today's standards. Still, people walked out of preview screenings when Christie offered that bon mot back then. I suppose Beatty and director Hal Ashby captured a specific time in a bottle with this film, but it's not a pleasant time. And it's one of those films that looks incredibly dated now. It always amazes me that I can watch The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca and accept their eras and looks so readily. Those films are timeless to me, but something that was filmed in an era in which I grew up or older, looks almost laughable. For as cutting edge and nervy as Shampoo was back then, it's not now. Shampoo contains probably the best single performance by Goldie Hawn I've ever seen in a movie, right at the point where she was becoming a star, and before she became "Goldie Hawn" as we know her today.
I had recorded and saved The Parallax View, in anticipation of my Beatty book reading, way back around Christmas time when it aired on TCM. I had never seen it before. It's a 1974 political thriller directed by Alan Pakula, who would go on to make the ultimate political/journalism thriller in 1976 with All the President's Men. There are a lot of similarities between the two films, including the journalism background, the feeling of creeping paranoia, and most of all, the music (David Shire did the music for both films). Beatty is much more of an actor in this than he is in Shampoo, but that probably has more to do with his character than any kind of acting "style." He plays a down-on-his-luck Seattle based reporter who is present when a Senator is assassinated on the Space Needle. Three years later, everyone who was a witness has pretty much died. He's drawn in to investigating this when a TV reporter (Paula Prentiss, wasted in a three-minute role), comes to him to alert him that all these people are dead, and she fears she's next. The movie itself is convoluted and nonsensical at times, and you never really get the answer as to why everything is happening, other than some shadowy organization exists to train assassins. And it's another 1970s movie that wears its era like an albatross around its neck.
Next up for me was Bugsy, which I had never seen before. I love these kind of historical epic films, especially when gangsters are involved, and Beatty and director Barry Levinson do a fine job with the story of the legendary Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the gangster who "invented" Las Vegas. This is also the film in which Beatty cast and wooed Annette Bening, the woman who he actually settled down with (the couple has four children). This is probably Beatty's best performance, and it shows how good he can be as an actor with a strong director. The film itself is episodic and a bit disjointed because of it, but hey...so is history. And there is real chemistry between Bening and Beatty.
Last but not least there's Beatty's epic, his Citizen Kane, Reds. It is a sweeping David Lean-esque filmabout John Reed, the American writer who became a part of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and beyond and is the only American buried in the Kremlin. Beatty, who co-wrote, produced, directed, and cattle-prodded his way onto the screen with this 3 hour and 15 minute piece—during a time (1981) when America was turning more and more conservative under Ronald Reagan—was coming off an unprecedented success with Heaven Can Wait, his directorial debut. Co-starring his current girlfriend at the time, Diane Keaton (herself coming off Annie Hall and Looking for Mr. Goodbar) as Louise Bryant and Jack Nicholson as playwright Eugene O'Neill, plus a cast of thousands, this movie only really heats up in the second half, after the intermission (yes...it's so long it has an intermission), when Reed is stranded in Russia and Bryant goes looking for him, crossing the frozen tundra of red-hating Finland and risking life and limb to find him. At its heart, Reds is a love story, and if Beatty isn't on the screen, Keaton is, and they are incredibly compelling together (even if she ended up despising him by the end of the shoot). Keaton is best known for her comedies, first with Woody Allen, and more recently as the incredibly intelligent yet ditzy woman who almost always plays the writer or editor or whatever in a series of forgettable films that make you want to cry out, "Say NO once in a while!" (to movie offers, that is). She has never been better as an actress than in this film, and she has Beatty to thank for that. The film was nominated for 12 Oscars and won 3, including Best Director for Beatty. Reds is long, boring at times, even more so preachy, but wonderful when it focuses on the relationship between Reed and Bryant, which is--fortunately--most of the time.