Warren Beatty Has Perfected the Art of Evasion

Maverick filmmaker, the latest AFI honoree, works at his own pace

Warren Beatty
Steve Granitz/WireImage

Tonight, Warren Beatty will step up to the podium at the Kodak Theater to receive the 36th AFI Life Achievement Award, another in a long line of career honors he’s been showered with dating back to his honorary Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1998, the year of “Bulworth.” No doubt many of his posse will be there: Jack, Dustin, Mike Nichols, Elaine May and others with whom he keeps in constant touch.

There will be jokes about his womanizing (told in the past tense, of course), his terminal indecisiveness and his maddening perfectionism. But the stories will be respectful and affectionate. The 71-year-old icon knows a lot of accomplished people from the worlds of entertainment and politics. And after several conversations with him, one wonders who he doesn’t know.

The AFI accolade appears long overdue. After all, past Life Achievement honorees like Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford were feted in midcareer, and without Beatty’s multidisciplinary cachet, or his 14 Oscar nominations. Beatty’s friend and neighbor Jack Nicholson received the honor in 1994 despite the fact that his stardom blossomed years after Beatty’s, and without the tectonic-shifting impact of a “Bonnie and Clyde.” (Beatty’s other erstwhile neighbor, the late Marlon Brando, never got a dinner.)

And yet the delay might be apropos for a man who seemingly has never been in a rush nor felt the need to continually bathe in the spotlight. Time is clearly on Beatty’s side. Or, as Beatty himself has offered: “I always think of what Orson (Welles) said: ‘No wine before its time.’ “

Beatty has rejected more films than he’s taken on, partly because he lingers interminably on his own projects, and partly because, to quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

“That’s been the way from the beginning,” explains Beatty, whose four children with wife Annette Bening can amount to a full-time gig. “And I think it was partly delight with the access to so many things in life that premature success graced me with. I don’t think I would have enjoyed things quite as much if I spent a lot of time tripping over cables on a soundstage.”

Deflective diplomacy

Beatty has cultivated evasion into a fine art, whether dodging questions from the media or ultimately passing on a film after careful consideration. It’s testament to his charm, not to mention his mystique, that he can keep an interviewer engaged for hours while revealing so little. In the study of his hilltop home, where Mulholland Drive crests at Coldwater Canyon, he admits with a laugh that “it’s my job to make it a miserable experience for you.”

For example, on the long-rumored Howard Hughes biopic on which he reportedly toiled for years, Beatty retreats into the third person: “I cannot comment on Mr. Beatty’s personal life.”

On what he learned from famed Stanislavskian acting guru Stella Adler, he demurs: “I feel that it’s almost off limits to talk about acting — that it’s such a vulnerable, delicate matter that to talk about it, if you’re an actor, could be costly.”

On whether he regrets turning down certain roles, Beatty is deflectively diplomatic: “That’s a question that if you answered truthfully you’re going to be in poor taste and poor judgment because other people played them — no doubt better than you would have.”

He appears to take a certain pride in maintaining his position as, in his words, Barbara Walters’ “least cooperative interviewee,” when his famous pregnant pauses during a live “Today Show” segment in the mid-’60s resulted in a fatal amount of dead air.

Auspicious debut

Beatty achieved fame, if not fortune, with his first feature, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), directed by Elia Kazan, considered a god by most actors at the time. Beatty was paid $15,000 for his effort, which didn’t even cover his expenses. But, he assures, “I would have paid them $15,000 to be in the picture.”

In his autobiography, “A Life,” Kazan, who died in 2003, seemed almost as smitten with Beatty as his co-star, Natalie Wood: “It was clear to Natalie, as it was to me, that Warren was bound for the top; this perception was an aphrodisiac.” Kenneth Tynan, critiquing the one play in which Beatty appeared on Broadway, “A Loss of Roses,” made note of Beatty being “sensual around the lips and pensive around the brow.” And it’s this combination of physical magnetism and mental acuity that draws both men and women into his orbit.

As his career progressed, the gaps between films became more lengthy, from three-year stretches in the ’70s to the seven years between “Reds” (1980) and “Ishtar” (1987).

When Beatty is wearing more than one hat on a picture, chances are it’s been germinating for longer than a dog’s life. According to Mark Harris’ recent book, “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood,” Beatty, while still in the midst of making “Bonnie and Clyde,” was already collaborating with screenwriter Robert Towne on a comedy about the misadventures of a modern-day Don Juan (1975’s “Shampoo”) while also entertaining the thought of dramatizing the life of John Reed (1980’s “Reds”).

Peter Biskind, whose “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” cited “Bonnie and Clyde” as a leaping-off point in his examination of the New Hollywood, says Beatty’s plans for a Howard Hughes biopic also date back to the mid-’60s.

Since Beatty doesn’t like to repeat himself, it’s safe to say that certain holes in his resume were later filled with more personal visions. For example, had he not walked away from “What’s New, Pussycat?” (1965), for which he convinced a young Woody Allen to write his first feature, there likely never would have been a “Shampoo.” His rumored rejection of “Superman” (1978) cleared the path for “Dick Tracy” 12 years later.

“He weighs the pros and cons (of projects) very thoroughly,” says Biskind, who’s in the midst of writing a Beatty biography. “Often he has good reason. The truth is there are many more bad projects than good projects. When he ducked out of ‘Kill Bill,’ at the time, being a Quentin Tarantino fan, I thought he was making a big mistake. But after seeing the movie, he clearly didn’t.

“He’s a very thoughtful, careful guy. The way he always puts it is that he wanted to live his life. He didn’t want to be that guy that works constantly or felt the necessity to work constantly. He wasn’t worried about being away from the camera, and for a lot of actors that’s death.”

Purge process

Beatty says making movies “has never been my idea of recreation.” It’s excruciatingly hard work and something he rarely plunges into with anything less than obsessive commitment. “I’ve never produced a movie until I could no longer avoid it,” he explains. “I have said a number of times that for me, the process of finally going through what you have to go through to produce and write and direct and act in a movie is a little like vomiting, because it’s something that you don’t enjoy doing. But you recognize at a certain point it’s something you want to get out of your system. And you know if you do it decently you’re going to feel better after you do it.”

When he does take the plunge, gambles are taken on both sides. Run-and-gun is not in his vocabulary. It’s more stop-and-discuss. He’s never been shy about asserting his opinion, whether arguing daily with director Arthur Penn on “Bonnie and Clyde” or questioning Robert Altman’s improvisational aesthetic on “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”

“I had this mechanism that caused me to feel as unintimidated as possible by anybody,” Beatty explains, “and, of course, other words for that might be callow and arrogant.”

Many directors ended up getting more than they bargained for. “There’s nothing more en-joyable than just doing what I’m told,” he asserts, with the proviso, “if I’m doing as I’m told by somebody whose opinion I respect.”

David Thomson, whose fanciful “Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes” was published without his subject’s cooperation, wrote that Beatty, as early on as “A Loss of Roses,” was not above driving his director, stage and screen veteran Daniel Mann, to distraction with “persistent attempts to stop and discuss every detail.”

This kind of meticulousness would reach its apex with “Reds,” in which, according to Biskind’s 2006 article in Vanity Fair, Beatty would subject his actors to performing up to 50 takes, an assertion that Beatty doesn’t dispute.

“I felt that under certain circumstances film is the cheapest thing that you have,” he says now. “I feel that I want people to be able to try things, so sometimes I do a lot of takes. … Sometimes you get something that you didn’t expect, and I think if all you’re getting is what you expect, that sort of takes the fun out of it and it takes the surprise out of it.”

“Reds,” for which Beatty won a directing Oscar, is just the kind of studio film that many were complaining was absent from this past year’s awards season — an intelligent epic that captures a pivotal moment in history without sacrificing the romance at its core. David Lean, who established the standard with films like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” taught Beatty to stick to his guns. “He was very instructive to me on how not to be ashamed of one’s level of concentration,” recalls Beatty of his time with Lean. “I would say he had a ruthless concentration.”

The downside to all this intense immersion is the fallow periods that follow. Beatty has lingered so long in the shadows that many now consider him all but retired. His last starring role was in “Town and Country” (2001), a film that traded on his lothario persona in a way that seemed tired and repetitive. But Biskind, for one, is not ready to close the chapter on Beatty’s film career.

“It’s hard to predict what he will and will not do,” Biskind says. “He never drank or did drugs, so he is a very young 71… His kids are now older and don’t require as much time, and I know he has a few projects he’s been noodling around with over the years and maybe he’ll do one.”

Beatty himself is characteristically cagey: “I’m on the verge of vomiting.” When pressed later about whether he’d star in the film he’s planning, he adds: “I would imagine if I were to do another film, I would be in it, yes.”

The wages of fame

Part of Beatty’s lasting appeal, and longevity as a filmmaker, is that he cannot be affixed to one era. “It was Dustin (Hoffman) who said to me, ‘God, you’ve been famous for so much longer than you’ve been a person,'” Beatty recalls. “Anonymity is not something you regain, particularly if you lost it as long ago as I lost it.”

But in this age of Defamer, YouTube, celebutainment and 24-hour cable news, fame is both costly and cheap, and information is processed at a dizzying clip. Beatty appears bewildered that “people can become famous in a day,” or immortalized for “getting out of a cab in the wrong way.”

The fallout from all this, in Beatty’s opinion, is shortened attention spans and the trivialization of information. “I think it’s very dangerous when you can’t get past a headline,” says Beatty about the general level of political discourse. “And I think we’re getting there with these shouting matches where you have a talking head on the left side of the screen and a talking head on the right basically trying to get you to not change the channel.”

Which brings us back to that dead air on “The Today Show” all those years ago. “Yeah,” Beatty laughs at the memory. “If somebody’s actually sitting there thinking for a moment, then it’s ‘Oh my God, what do we do? Cut to a commercial!'”


What: 36th AFI Life Achievement Award

When: Thursday night – cocktails at 6, dinner at 7.

Where: Kodak Theater

Wattage: Halle Berry, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, others