Warren Beatty Shampoos the Sleazy 90′s

In the dark shadows of the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, where Madeline and her friends dance across a New York that hasn’t existed in a long time, a man sat in the corner all in black–pants, rap jacket and T-shirt–his pouchy boy’s face at the very corner between innocence and the long view. In the last 37 years, Warren Beatty has come to mean a lot of things for moviegoers and celebritymongers: He has been a tyro, a lover, an electoral apparatchik, a stammerer, an egoist, a hedonist, user of women and used by a woman, a shadow big shot and, finally, now that he is 61, part of the great pool of slightly grizzled stars that Americans are always willing to pat on the head and forget about.

Not so fast.

In the past 30 years, since he has taken control of his own career, Warren Beatty has made at least one big, significant movie in each decade. He officially opened the 60′s for a new generation of filmmakers when he produced Bonnie and Clyde . He put both the frenzied loneliness of that decade and the dissolution of the 70′s in focus with his, Robert Towne’s and Hal Ashby’s L.A. Restoration farce, Shampoo . He then attempted, as Reaganism raged, and with spurts of success, to tame and explain homegrown radicalism with Reds . There were other movies and hits, Heaven Can Wait and Dick Tracy and Bugsy , and a flop that caused nationwide coughing a few years ago, Love Affair .

Now he has directed and co-written a movie for 20th Century Fox called Bulworth . It is the best political comedy of its generation, and one of the best ever made by a Hollywood studio, the late, sweet-and-sour fruit of a manic group that was, just a moment ago, the mad rebel youth culture. It’s as good-willed, brave, idealistic, very funny, as complicated as the best movies of the 70′s. Most of all, it has a startling optimism about race and America, positing as no studio product has in years that Americans descended from Africans and Americans descended from other places still have a chance to be merged into one country.

It’s a truth-teller’s movie, and whereas President Bill Clinton knew that somehow Primary Colors would make him look sympathetic, he’s lately been heard grumbling on the golf course that Bulworth won’t. For Bulworth breaks from the system; it knows that American politics are mired in the gumbo of big money; it says that–as Gov. Fob James’ open mike showed the other day in Alabama–that politicians know they’re immobilized, that they’re selling sugar pills; that senators are trapped. Bulworth is ideological, it’s true, but it’s also subjective reporting, culled from Warren Beatty’s 30 years of political glamour-shlepping, from his time with Bobby Kennedy in 1968, to his campaigning for George McGovern in 1972, to his near-kingmaking and immolation with his doppelgänger Gary Hart in 1984 and 1988. He picked up a lot of information the past 30 years, and Bulworth –as opposed to Primary Colors , which placarded it–oozes it, like toxins from the pores.

It is about J. Billington Bulworth, a Democratic senator on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who hires a hitman to end his stagnated life over the course of a weekend, and–once the tethers are snapped–goes on a truth-telling jag, falls in love with a beautiful girl from South Central Los Angeles and begins, inconceivably, rapping rapping rapping the truth about American politics to anyone who will listen. It’s a through-the-looking-glass kind of comedy, only what he finds down there is the landscape of American politics. It’s also the leftiest movie that’s been made after almost 20 years of Reagan aftershock, and the glib gamblers are asking if Rupert Murdoch–the movies’ most forthrightly conservative mogul–will support, market and promote this strange member of his 20th Century Fox harem, an anomaly in a summer of movies about crashing asteroids and Godzilla, whose foot is as big as the Merritt Parkway.

Warren Beatty in New York is always a slightly incongruous sight. He worked here as a young man in the late 50′s, living on West 99th Street, then West 68th Street, studying with Stella Adler and appearing on stage. But he’s mostly identified with his Batcave of the 60′s, the penthouse of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. In 1969, he said, he had dinner with Lillian Hellman at the Carlyle, and she chastised him for staying at a “fleabag” hotel in New York and told him to check in. With a few exceptions, he’s been coming back since, to stay in a suite equipped with a grand piano, probably a little nicer than the ones he used to play when he was playing cocktail piano at bars in the late 50′s.

He made Bulworth , he said, for emotional reasons. “I’ve been through too many political campaigns and experiences,” said Warren Beatty, “and been close to too many people who were assassinated either by bullet or by scandal or by paparazzi. I’ve been through too many campaigns and too many assassinations. Or assassination by marginalization. By rumor, by confusion, by obfuscation. Or for that matter assassination through 30 second spots. Negative campaigning. To not have strong feelings about it. Because my friends who have largely been marginalized. Bobby Kennedy was shot to death. But the other people who were assassinated. Gary Hart was assassinated in other ways. Jerry Brown is assassinated in other ways. Jesse Jackson is marginalized in another way. Nader … So these voices are quieted.”

In itself, Bulworth is part of a descendency from other places: It is a grandchild of Frank Capra’s big social comedies, with an innocent truth-teller rising on the shoulders of the people; it is a nephew of the old screwball comedies, where a man who was sure of his identity loses it and emerges as quite something else together. It is a brother of the blaxploitation movies of 20 and 30 years ago, but with an amazing hip-hop score–sure to convert the middle-aged to gangsta rap–that combines with a symphonic Ennio Morricone backdrop.

It also takes on policy. Some of the ideas in Bulworth are 90′s-populist–Mr. Beatty’s fascination with the 30-second spot. Some are throwbacks to the 60′s: He talks about the inner cities with a passion that has been missing since Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign. Some are Clintonian, or perhaps Rodhamian: He assaults the health insurance financial structure with a vicious, tragic directness. And some are cockeyed, just this side of visionary: J. Billington Bulworth asserts that the salvation of the country is for everybody to screw themselves into one big interracial gene pool, an “open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction.”

“Well,” he said at the Carlyle, “I think that race will eventually disappear in America, because over the long haul it will disappear because people are attracted to one another, and they will become the same color, and that’s happened in other countries.”

Bulworth is direct about race in a way that movies have not been for some time. When Eldridge Cleaver died recently, the papers were filled with the sadness of his gnarled life, with his wild return to America and his crazy crawling to the Republican Party. But Bulworth has a memory about black America, that the 60′s were not a wasted time. When 26-year-old woman whom Bulworth falls for, played by Halle Berry, begins spouting her own doctrine in the movie, she explains that her mother knew Huey Newton, who was socially active in the ‘hood.

“Huey was tightly wound,” said Warren Beatty. “If you said ‘Hi, Huey!’ it would be like that table.” He knocked on the table. “He was like that all the time. He had a good sense of humor. I remember being at a party with him one night, and he says, ‘Nixon’s going to be gone.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so, Huey.’ And he said, ‘Nixon’s going to be gone.’” Mr. Beatty laughed. “And I said–oh, I tell this story in the movie–oh, no, I cut it out of the movie. I told this story, and I cut it out of the movie. ‘So you want to make a bet?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘How much?’ And I said, ‘I’ll bet you …’ I think we bet $100. And we put it in a lamp that was hanging from the ceiling, and finally Nixon was gone. I went back there five years later, and I got a stepladder and I went up to the lamp. It was still there.” He laughed, then stopped. “Huey was dead,” he said.

When Bulworth begins his clunky, endearing rapping, there is a sense of restored idealism, and the movie will be assaulted for innocence, nuttiness, gasbagging. But it has ideas. “C’mon, c’mon,” Senator Bulworth says to three network newsmen moderating his debate with an identical, younger version of himself, “we got three pretty rich guys here, getting paid by some really rich guys, to ask a couple of other rich guys questions about their campaigns? But our campaigns are financed by the same guys that pay you guys your money.”

And, rapping, with his ski cap on, Bulworth says:

“They know the rich is gettin’ richer, an richer, an richer

While the middle class is gettin’ more more.

Jus’ makin’ billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions of bucks?

Well, my friend, if you weren’t already rich at the start,

That situation sucks!

‘Cause the richest mutha****er in five of us

Is gettin’ ninety-****in’ eight percent of it.”

You may think it’s just the return of the radical chic, but it’s such an ambitious movie that it’s a kind of dredging up of a part of history that was lost. And finally, it is, for Mr. Beatty, as he said as George Roundy the not-so-bright, randy hairdresser in Shampoo , the “epitome of my life!” Warren Beatty has had a distinguished weird career, with relatively few movies and a high ratio of hits. For the man about whom Carly Simon is said to have written “You’re So Vain,” Bulworth is an astonishingly unvain movie. It opens with a catatonic, unshaven Mr. Beatty, who is soon collapsed into convulsive sobbing.

It is also the result of, weirdly, what Mr. Beatty does best: producing. For Warren Beatty, producing has been a salvation. When he made Reds , he brought his romance of socialism to the White House and showed it to Ronald Reagan, who was fascinated by it. Ronald Reagan, after all, had been a contract player in Hollywood 20 years before the onslaught of the hybrid producer-director-writer-star, and–as Mr. Beatty had been briefly–a slave to Jack Warner. “I think Reagan always had kind of a personal reaction to me,” said Mr. Beatty. “I think he kind of liked me. And for that matter, I liked him. I think, you know, he didn’t produce and write and act and direct at the same time. So when I showed him the movie, he was interested in how I could be doing all those jobs. And I don’t think he took the socialistic nature of the characters seriously.”

But it’s 1998 and Warren Beatty is 61. So, the other night, the paparazzi captured a strange sight at Moomba, the Seventh Avenue South bar where there was a party for film director James Toback: It was Warren Beatty and Leonardo DiCaprio crammed together. And Mr. Beatty gave Mr. DiCaprio this advice: Be more than just an actor. And make hay. “I don’t know Leonardo very well,” said Mr. Beatty. “But when I did have a conversation with him, I liked him very much. I suggested to him that it would probably be better for him if he went ahead and accepted the fact that he should make his own movie now. Which would be maybe contrary to the advice he might receive from a lot of other people. Because I think movie acting is difficult for a young, good-looking guy. Because he’s put into a position of a certain unnatural passivity in relation to the overall. And it stirs up a lot of sort of fruitless patricide.”

Fruitless patricide! Warren Beatty, who began his life in the movies as a male beauty, has finally become, if not a father-figure in American life, at least a father. He is, as you know if you read the magazines, the husband of attractive film star Annette Bening and the father of Kathryn, Ben and Isabel Beatty. But he is still the man of whom Brigitte Bardot wrote, “Warren had a ferocious charm that was impossible to resist. Why or for whom would I have resisted him?”

After all, he’s Warren Beatty. And he’s still cagey. I asked him if he thinks “less about sex than he used to.” First he laughed. “Do I think less about sex?”

Observer : Yeah. Do you think about it less than you used to? You know? I’m not going to ask anything ruder than that. But do you think about it less?

WB: I don’t even find that rude.

Observer : O.K.

WB (grabbing the cocktail nuts) : Could I have some of those? Because I really want to think about this. (Laughs) Do I think less about it?

He looks away.

WB: In my great Aunt Birdie and Aunt Maggie’s family in Virginia, there was a lady who had a nervous breakdown. And when she had this breakdown, she could only speak with the words of Oscar Hammerstein, Dorothy Fields, Larry Hart, Cole Porter. So when you talk to her–and I was 5 years old–I would say, Mrs. Liebowitz, what do you think about such and such? Because everyone assumed that she should be treated very delicately. And Liebowitz was not a common name in Richmond, Virginia. And she would say to me “You are the promised kiss of springtime …” And it went on like that for a long time, and she didn’t sleep. Finally, they put her to sleep. And she woke up and she was fine.”

This is a lovely story and appears exactly as he says it in Bulworth . What it had to do with the question, no one had any idea.

WB: Do I think less about sex? (Pauses.) Well, the question is, did I ever think a lot about it?

Observer : Well, did you?

WB: I think I probably should have done more thinking about it. I don’t think I think less about it. Excuse me. I don’t think less often about it.

Observer : Wow, you don’t?

WB: No … I probably do more thinking now … And since you’re faced with it every time you turn around … I mean, the question you probably are asking is, what’s it like to go from that to that?

Observer : Yeah. Well, O.K. I’ll take that. Anyway, what is it like to go from that to that?

WB: To go from that to that?

Observer : Yeah.

WB: I don’t want to sound to Jungian here.

Observer : That’s all right.

WB: And I don’t want to sound less testosteronic than I would want you to think of me … (laughs) … but children do replace that type of behavior. In a much more rewarding way. You know, children and … it’s a lot of the same stuff. You know what I mean? It’s a lot of the same stuff …”

Warren had a ferocious charm that was impossible to resist. Why or for oom would I have reseested eem?

In fact, Bulworth is, in part, a frenzied recollection of Mr. Beatty’s career, of Shampoo and The Parallax View and Mickey One and Bonnie and Clyde . “If he just hadn’t chased so many women,” his aide Murphy, played by Oliver Platt, suggests, he might have been President. The same doesn’t quite go for Mr. Beatty–he never got to be President. Harrison Ford (same initials as President Henry Fonda!) has gotten to be President. Although there was a time when he thought about it. “I never came close to it,” he said. “There were a few days a long time ago when a person just capriciously threw my name into the, and this is a long time ago, into the California pool with big California politicians … the lieutenant governor, the mayor of San Francisco, the mayor of Los Angeles, and various other people. And this was when I was pretty young. And my figure on me came up higher than other people. And it was a political pollster. So there were two or three days in which I felt … inflated. And important. And I thought yeah, sure. And I never thought about it again.”

He did, however, get in close with Gary Hart, and his irritation with the preoccupation with President Clinton’s sex crisis leaves him irritated, probably with flashes of the good ship Monkey Business before him. He calls the Lewinsky business “not important.” “It’s very easy to see if a person’s different from you, black or white,” he said, “or if someone cheats on this wife, that’s easier to draw an assessment of a person’s character, and stay off what should be the real issues.”

But he blames the decline of quality in American politics on “money” and on the 30-second ad. “There’s no way for someone to compete against somebody who has millions and millions and millions of dollars’ worth of negative 30-second spots going against them,” he said. “I’ll tell you why I think it’s worse now. With the proliferation of channels, you know, all these cable stations, it costs more money to cover it all. With three networks that was a different matter. But the sophisticated means of finding out what the people think in their rearview mirror are now so efficient that one can check it out, spend some money and check out and then pump the advertising in.”

So far, pretty standard, but then he said: “It’s money. Money and technology. It should increase democratization. But the technology is not controlled democratically. Technology’s owned by wealthy interests, and so advertising serves the advertiser. And this goes across the board in all areas, in fast food, or politics, or movies, or newspapers.” The last part of which brought up the following question: Would Rupert Murdoch support his movie, the most directly liberal movie in years, a movie that curries applause from an audience when some baby street-gang members packing heat get to tell the L.A.P.D. to go screw themselves? “Well, I think there’s really only one question,” Mr. Beatty said. “Will they spend the money you have to spend on movies? And the answer to that is … I don’t know. I hope so.”

But Fox seems confused by the movie: It bought no advertisement in The New York Times the week before it was to open in New York, and practically all the heavy lifting has been done by Mr. Beatty and Peggy Siegal, a New York publicist. “I can only say I don’t know,” said Mr. Beatty about Fox’s marketing support for Bulworth . “They say to me that they will support the picture. They’ve been honest with me up until now.” He didn’t know if Rupert Murdoch had seen the picture, and when he was asked if he thought Bulworth would stick in Mr. Murdoch’s craw, he said, “Maybe it sticks in his craw. I don’t know. I really don’t know.” The movie opens with exclusive screenings in New York and Los Angeles on May 15, and on 2,000 screens nationwide on May 20, two days after Godzilla , and it’s got its work cut out for it.

When Bulworth breaks sobbing down in the beginning, it’s a meditation on late middle age and the hollowness of the hollow life. And a little incongruously, Mr. Beatty seems to understand the despair. Somehow, Bulworth constitutes a summing-up not only of Mr. Beatty’s long career as an American movie star, but of 30 years of wandering in and out of the shadow of the 60′s. He has seen something in his 61 years, and he has ideas: Some are inspired, some are naïve and some are sensible. But whatever else is true, there’s a Capra-like drive to both the movie and the director’s purpose. “It’s a volcano,” said one person close to the movie who recently was watching somewhat worriedly, trying to see if the studio would get behind the picture.

In itself, Bulworth represents a kind of closure for the tragic generation that collapsed under its own faux-revolutionary weight, a kind of comedy elegy to Huey Newton, to Democrats elected in the 1974 post-Watergate midterm elections, to the rise of television, to the collapse of racial optimism in America.

“What we didn’t know in the 70′s,” said Mr. Beatty, “was you do this, you kill him at the end, flop. But what you’re really talking about is, after all is said and done, the advertising campaigns and the grosses go up in smoke, and you’re only left with the movie. And they call it the Golden Age, which went from sort of Bonnie and Clyde , over there, to that other thing that happened–for me, it’s Reds . The old studios kind of got tuckered out about then. And then all these rebellious movies started being made.

“That content was then chosen pretty much by these lunatics in the asylum that went from non-money people up until a new boss took over. That new boss was television advertising. And so went from the old money people, to the new money people. It went from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to the ad guys, and advertising has been fooling people ever since. It’s gone from 600 theaters to 1,000 and from 1,000 to 2,000. Dick Tracy opened in 3,000 theaters. Godzilla is opening in 6,000 theaters. And it’s a nuclear attack.

“And the same way as in politics. Get a picture of the people who were in the Senate in 1968. Get a picture of them. Take their names off the picture, and then tell me if you would consider Ernest Gruening or Paul Douglas or Stuart Symington, Mike Mansfield, Jack Javits … Tell me if you would be inclined to run a lot of 30-second spots with them … and these were great men. I could go on and on and on about them.” The phone rang. It was Peggy Siegal, the New York publicist. There was an overflow at the Ziegfeld, and she had to schedule a second screening at the Coronet.

Warren Beatty looked up in the Bemelmans Bar and popped a nut. It was 1998 and he was grinning, big and creased. The 70′s weren’t back. But they weren’t necessarily over, either.