When Warren Beatty steps up to the podium to receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the Shrine Auditorium on March 26, anticipation will be running high. Although the mood won’t be the same as last year’s contested honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan, politics could likely play into his acceptance speech. It’s not as if Beatty — a self-proclaimed “old-time, unrepentant, unreconstructed, tax-and-spend, bleeding heart, die-hard liberal Democrat” — will be announcing his bid for the presidency, but he’s been known to score a political point or two in public, and this moment should prove no exception.
Beatty — who as much as Sinatra could lay claim to “My Way” as the theme song for a maverick career — might be the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ most audacious choice since the award was first bestowed on Darryl F. Zanuck in 1937. He follows in the footsteps of such giants as David O. Selznick, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn, Sam Spiegel and Stanley Kramer. Other than Clint Eastwood, who received the honor in 1994, Beatty is the only actor-turned-filmmaker to be included in such company. Not even the late Orson Welles made the cut.
Like Welles, Beatty has fought tooth and nail to get many of his projects made, beginning with 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” which Jack Warner, in the twilight of his career as Warner Bros.’ head honcho, decried in a famous memo as a film “about a couple of rats.” Beatty’s historic uphill battles have not been lost on AMPAS’ voting body.
“Our governors stressed his passion for film, for getting it just right,” said Academy president Robert Rehme at the time of the announcement, “and his courage in producing pictures that many other producers might have considered too dangerous to try.”
Robert Towne, who co-wrote “Shampoo” with Beatty and is the uncredited script doctor on several other Beatty pictures, puts it succinctly: “One of the sine qua nons of great producers is their ability to get their movies made. That might sound elemental, but so is the alphabet. How easy do you think it is to assemble people to make a movie like ‘Reds,’ about an obscure socialist journalist around the turn of the century? Around the time ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was a script, nobody wanted to do it, nobody. I was there.
“Add to that his ability to persuade, cajole, charm — by force of personality and intellect — first-rate people into making the movie he feels should be made and then getting it sold on top of it. That’s what makes him exceptional. I don’t know anybody who’s better at all those things.”
What differentiates Beatty from other producers? “He takes the risk himself,” explains Richard Sylbert, the production designer on a half-dozen films that Beatty has starred in, produced, directed, co-written, or all of the above. “It’s his money, his idea, his script, whether he paid for it or wrote it himself. And many times, as on ‘Shampoo’ and ‘Reds,’ he was in it for a lot of money before the picture started.”
Beatty’s a bit of an anomaly in Hollywood. Throughout his career he has worked within a studio system that has frequently mishandled his films, or wasn’t sure what to do with them. The dichotomy might have to do with being both a movie star and an iconoclast. When asked if he might have been better off taking an independent route with a movie like “Bulworth” — a film about a disillusioned senator who spreads the gospel of egalitarianism through rap — Beatty is cagey.
“I think it’s fiction to separate the studios and the independents,” he says. “It’s people who put up the money to make movies and you do the best you can to help them make a profit.” “Bulworth,” however, grossed a mere $26.3 million during its summer run in 1998, while campaigns for “Reds” and “Bonnie and Clyde” also managed to sell those movies short.
“He always saw himself inside the limitations (of the studios) and not outside,” Sylbert says. “He is a man of the industry. He would rather try to manipulate the system than attack it from the other side. And he does it very well; we’re talking about radical movies for their time.”
But despite Beatty’s experience in the trenches of the business, one gets the impression that he still finds it hard to reconcile the art-meets-commerce dynamic of Hollywood.
“As soon as you start using words like ‘product’ and ‘content’ I’m out the door,” he says. “I’m interested in what can be done with the form of movies and I would think that the people who precede me on that list (of Thalberg winners) were also interested in what could be done to get something onto film that they wanted to see.”
If Beatty’s films have largely performed below expectations, the Academy has repeatedly acknowledged his accomplishments, even when the critics felt that Beatty had gone soft. Although his sole competitive Oscar win was for directing “Reds,” he has received picture nominations for four of the nine films he has either produced or co-produced. His 14 Oscar nominations to date are spread among four disciplines, including acting and writing.
What gives Beatty’s films added weight is the level of talent with whom he surrounds himself. In addition to Towne and Sylbert, frequent collaborators include cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, costume designer Milena Canonero and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Oscar winners all.
“I believe in the established vocabulary that exists between people who have collaborated in the past, and it takes time to establish that vocabulary,” Beatty says. “I can see in the flicker of an eyelash in Vittorio what his response is to the writing of a scene — and it’s very valuable.”
Beatty’s career can be traced back to drama lessons with Stella Adler before appearing on Broadway in William Inge’s “A Loss of Roses.” The role led to his playing the lead opposite Natalie Wood in Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), his film debut. “Knowing him from ‘Splendor in the Grass’ and ‘Lilith’ and all those early movies we did together, he’s a great student,” says Sylbert. “He learned enormously from everybody.”
Beatty might have been a neophyte working with the most respected director of the stage and screen on “Splendor,” but that didn’t prevent Beatty from asserting his will.
“Even with Kazan, who was brilliant at what we all care about, Warren was the guy who said, ‘Are you sure we want to do it this way,” recalls Sylbert. “He always said, ‘Why?’ He would drive people crazy asking, ‘Why?’ There is no Warren Beatty movie without a lot of Warren Beatty.”
If Beatty was always controlling, a tendency the notoriously guarded actor acknowledges, he is generous in crediting the elder statesmen who helped guide his approach to filmmaking, including William Wyler, from whom he sought advice on “Reds,” as well as Kazan and George Stevens, who directed Beatty in “The Only Game in Town” (1970) and whose meticulousness and attention to detail he inherited.
Unlike the film school stylists who emerged in the ’70s who placed great emphasis on camera movement, quick cutting and varying film stocks, these were directors more interested in the emotional dynamics that stem from character and story, a lesson that Beatty has carried with him throughout his career.
“I’ve worked with very helpful, mentoring people like Kazan, George Stevens and Arthur Penn,” Beatty says. “I can’t think of anyone I haven’t learned things from, up until the present. The actor has opportunities that are provided to few people because he can see how things are done.”
As for directing himself, Beatty responds: “You try to keep the hubris to a minimum, and your availability to your collaborators’ opinions to a maximum … (long pause) and try to get as much sleep as you can.”