Screen Trade: Battered Beatty faces career test

Thesp's work includes hits, misses

I first saw Warren Beatty 42 years ago, commanding the stage in a short-lived (as they say) effort by William Inge, “A Loss of Roses.” Two years later, Elia Kazan — our greatest director of actors — starred him in the hit “Splendor in the Grass.” Beatty was making his film debut, and clearly someone special had entered the scene.

“Town and Country,” which will have disappeared from Planet Earth before these words reach print, deserves a few passing reminders before the interment.

The pic is much worse than the critics said — literally without logic or sense — and has produced some of the all-time great press releases, saying essentially “Hey, don’t blame Warren, folks. He was just an actor for hire.”

That one of the great control freaks would let director Peter Chelsom, who has never had a Hollywood success, take over his career is, well, kind of hard to believe. No, every awful moment is Beatty’s.

“Town and Country” is a flop that ranks with the worst. Think about it. The studio admits (kind of) to a negative cost north of $90 million. Throw in prints and ads. Throw in interest. (It seems as if shooting began during the Coolidge administration.) Let’s assume it does less in Europe than here. Maybe a total of $10 million at the box office. Could “Battlefield Earth” compete?

But don’t cue the sad songs yet, because Beatty’s career is like no other in film history. (Sorry for the hyperbole, but there it is.)

Let me throw a few titles at you: “Lilith.” “Kaleidoscope.” “Promise Her Anything.” What are they? Just three of the duds Beatty starred in the years following “Splendor.” Of course, Beatty was dead in the water.

Then guess what? Along came “Bonnie and Clyde,” which he also produced.

And that’s what makes Beatty unique. Never a standard box office star in the sense of Burt Reynolds or Sylvester Stallone, he has managed to stay on top, through charm and taste, talent and guile, always at the last moment avoiding drowning, floating wonderfully back to the surface.

Several of his films — he has done relatively few in a 40-year career — have been the “Town and Country” of their year: “The Fortune,” “Ishtar,” “Love Affair.”

But there was always a “Shampoo,” a “Heaven Can Wait,” a “Reds” to redeem him.

Does Beatty have another miracle left in him? He’s 64 now — nothing wrong with that — but he refuses to reinvent himself. “Town and Country,” like “Shampoo” a quarter century before, is still about his sexual power.

I saw a gifted and beautiful young man on the stage of the O’Neill in 1959. Beatty has always seduced successive generations of studio heads. But one of them said to me recently: “I cannot imagine any mainstream studio ever employing him again.”

Any other star would be dead in the water. But Beatty is different — he only has success when he does it all, writes and/or directs and/or produces. Has he the energy now?

The question to be asked today is this: Can he pull it together for one more triumphant “Fuck you, world, I’m still here?”