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The life of Warren Beatty

The life of Warren Beatty — The actor speaks out about ”Bugsy,” aging, and fatherhood

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The driver of the aeronautical-looking Mercedes cruising up Wilshire Boulevard punches a number on the car phone. An accented voice on the speaker announces the name of a trendy new Italian restaurant. ”Hi, this is Warren Beatty,” the driver says. ”I’m gonna be there in — ” he squints at the street signs ” — about a minute and a half. Do you have a table?”

The question is strictly rhetorical. A moment later we’re walking into a white-walled, bleached-floored place packed with L.A.’s swellest. Following Warren Beatty into a Los Angeles restaurant — especially a new Los Angeles restaurant eager to make a splash — is a bit like walking in the train of Phoebus Apollo. Beatty, in eyeglasses, black shirt, black-and-white wool pants, and black leather jacket, takes in the bowing, smiling heads in his blinking, slightly distracted style. He’s not only too smart and too tasteful to be self-important, he’s too powerful. Yet while the 54-year-old Beatty’s reputation (and thus his power) may be vast in Hollywood, a company town run by men not immune to the standards of the schoolyard, out there in America, things are different. And Warren Beatty is smart enough to know that, too.

In a remarkable scene near the center of director Barry Levinson’s Bugsy — the 19th movie in Beatty’s 30-year career — the star, playing the legendary ’40s gangster Benjamin ”Bugsy” Siegel, terrorizes a fellow hood by the sheer force of his psychopathic personality, finally compelling him to crawl on the floor, barking like a dog and oinking like a pig. When, miracle of miracles, the man is allowed to leave the room alive, he is grateful to the point of tears. ”Thank you, Ben,” he tells Siegel. ”You can count on me for anything.”

”Yeah?” Bugsy says. ”We’ll see. Everybody needs a fresh start once in a while.”

That seems especially true for Warren Beatty just now. Ask the man or woman in the street about him, and — if you don’t get a crack about his sexual history — you’ll most likely hear about Beatty’s recent liaison with Madonna, his costar in Dick Tracy, the most profitable movie ($103 million in domestic grosses) ever to leave a sour aftertaste. Beatty, who also directed, produced, and cowrote Dick Tracy, had made the main character passive and two-dimensional, and while this may have worked artistically, it detracted from the star’s already dimming reputation. However rich and powerful he was, Beatty wound up looking, in life and art, like a middle-aged second banana to his female lead. How did he come to such a pass?

”Warren only did two movies in the 1980s,” Barry Levinson says. ”I think it’s very difficult to work that infrequently. It’s like being a stand-up comic — it’s hard to get back to it. When you’re out of it that long, you have to sneak back.”

Reds (1981), a moving, three-hour-plus historical drama, stands as Beatty’s towering achievement: He starred in, directed, cowrote, and produced the film, receiving three Oscar nominations — he won Best Director — and one for Best Picture, the only person besides Orson Welles (and himself, on Heaven Can Wait) ever to be so honored. But 10 years ago is ancient history. And next came a sweet little comedy called Ishtar (1987), which somehow turned into a $40 million money pit.

The success of Bugsy, then, is of more than casual interest to its star, who is also the movie’s coproducer. And its artistic success is considerable. Beatty plays Siegel full-out, with a mad self-possession (which periodically clicks over into chilling madness) and a deliciously goofy narcissism (which unavoidably comments on Beatty’s own storied vanity). It’s a turn that makes his previous work look tame.

Being romantically involved with his female lead — in this case, Annette Bening, his current living partner and mother-to-be of their daughter (due late this month) — is business as usual. And Bening’s performance as the wily, corrosive-tongued starlet Virginia Hill, the woman for whom Siegel left his wife and children, is nearly as unsettling as Beatty’s.

But the movie’s humor is all his. What other major male star would allow himself to be depicted wearing a facial mask, a hair net, and cucumber slices over his eyes? ”I was amused by your willingness to toy with your own dignity in Bugsy,” I tell Beatty, over tiramisu. ”One has always thought of you as somebody with a healthy dose of narcissism. Were you tweaking that a little bit in the movie?”

He leans back and arches an eyebrow.

”Well,” he says, ”first of all you’d have to define healthy dose of narcissism.”

Heads turn, oh so discreetly. Whatever his public standing, there is no doubt — especially in a crowded Los Angeles restaurant — that Warren Beatty is a movie star of the sort they don’t make anymore. Attention constantly circulates toward him; he absorbs it, plays to it, gesturing expansively with his hands, his shoulders. In person he looks more like his older sister than he ever has on film. His skin and hair have a touch of Shirley MacLaine’s freckled-redhead tonality, and his face, for all its rock-jawed, deeply grooved masculinity, contains — especially around his long-lashed blue eyes and wide, satisfied mouth-a hint of the feline, a quality that has been at the core of his appeal since the beginning.

”Because,” he continues, ”some would say narcissism would be a basically unhealthy thing. But if you say with a healthy dose of, um — peacockery.”

”Vanity?”

”Vanity. Although I think vanity is probably also — yes, okay, let’s say vanity.”

”Nobody wants to make a fool of himself,” Levinson says of the process by which he and Beatty re-created Bugsy Siegel, fop. ”But with all the extremes of Bugsy’s character, caution had to be abandoned. Warren had to take the plunge.”

Among all the things riding on the result, not least is Beatty’s self-esteem, and no one is more aware of this than the star himself. ”We — you and I and the theatergoer — are all victims of a huge national referendum that happens every week or two,” he says. ”Pictures are opened up and then attacked and destroyed, or misunderstood. It’s all a disservice to what could be a great art form.”

And no one knows better than Beatty that things haven’t always been that way.

“The studio system was just coming to a close, I think, when I showed up. And they didn’t quite know it,” Beatty says. It’s the next day, and we’re in a restaurant near the offices of his production company, eating some pizza before our garlic chicken shows up. It’s four in the afternoon. Warren Beatty, it is well known, does not operate according to standard concepts of time. This applies both to meetings, which can slip two or three hours just like that, and to meals. He eats when he wants, and what he wants. He is the only man I have ever seen order a second dessert. A moment ago he asked for, and ate, the pepperoni slices I left on my plate. ”The studios less and less wanted to have the obligation of contracts to people,” he says, chewing. ”And we were moving into an era of free expression, or less inhibition.”

Beatty helped speed things along. He hit Hollywood full-force with his first starring role in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), a story of small-town sexual hypocrisy that ruffled many feathers. ”I was particularly lucky, because my first movie seemed to do it for me,” he says. But luck was only part of it. Beatty may not have had Brando’s fire, or Dean’s ethereality, or Gable’s gruff machismo, but he had humor, athletic grace, and something, in quantity, that all the great ones have had: mystery. Looks and talent will take you a long way in Hollywood, but if you seem to withhold some crucial part of yourself — whether it exists or not — you may enter the pantheon at will. Add salient sexuality and the mixture becomes combustible. When he romanced the aging Vivien Leigh in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), it was as though Gable’s torch had been passed.

The legend began early. The columns began toting up the women Beatty kept company with — Natalie Wood, Joan Collins, Elizabeth Taylor, just to name some early brunets — and the public took notice. The men of Hollywood, who respect such things, had already noticed. (His catch phone-phrase to women — ”What’s new, pussycat?” — became a movie title and song.) Even Sinatra, the town’s ruling swinger, acknowledged him. Beatty was a whole Rat Pack rolled into one, with a difference: He didn’t like publicity. When his sense of privacy prevented him from spilling to the press, the press called him difficult. They still do. It’s only helped.

”What did becoming a star so early do for you?” I ask. ”Do to you?”

”Well,” Beatty says, ”I would say that the main thing was early access.”

Now it’s my turn to raise my eyebrows. ”To?” I say.

”To things and people and places and opportunities that are unusual for someone in their early 20s.” He smiles, at last. ”It was sort of like being a kid in a candy store.”

The kid grew up. As a result of Bonnie and Clyde, his first stab at producing, he was a multimillionaire by the time he was 30. Warner Bros. had so little confidence in the movie’s prospects that it gave him a share of the profits instead of a producing fee. ”They gave me 40 percent of the gross,” Beatty laughs with delight.

If there was any definitive death of the studio system, that was it: Beatty was the cutting edge, the newest and sharpest of the new breed of actor-producers. Bonnie and Clyde earned $53 million, and he was free to design the rest of his life. But with freedom came a certain emptiness. His solution was to turn to politics — lending his promotional and personal skills to the campaigns of Robert Kennedy, George McGovern, and later, Gary Hart. His sphere of influence broadened enormously, as did his sense of the world.

”In a way,” he says, ”politics saved my life from the confections of Hollywood and movies. It gave me energy. I felt connected. And that was quite a relief for me. Because, you might say, to be more excited by reality than by fantasy is a good thing.”

”I guess my political arousal was to some extent selfish. It made me feel good. In some way, it relieved a certain stress I must have felt in life.”

But then, around the time of Shampoo (1975), the next film he produced after Bonnie and Clyde, another change came over the business. ”American movies went into another phase, which was primarily commercial,” Beatty says. ”That came out of the discovery that if you were to mass-release movies and pump a tremendous amount of advertising money into television marketing, you could just make a hell of a lot of money.”

”We all have attempted to cash in on the commercial possibilities of movies,” he says. ”(And so) we moved into an era of what we call ‘high concept.’ Can you say it in a sentence? Can you tell what this movie is in a 30-second spot? If so, we can make a lot of money our first weekend, which will then go down only 30 percent the next weekend, and then so on and so forth. And then soon thereafter, people who wrote about film began to write about the business of film rather than the content of film, and began to evaluate a film on its business.”

We are on to Beatty’s pet peeve, which may be boiled down thus: Outsiders have too much influence on the business. The press is peskier (and meaner) than ever, and numbers-obsessed to boot. ”What do magazines and television do?” he asks, warming to his subject. ”They tell you what is popular; they tell you the demographics. Because they have to adhere to demographics to sell their magazines and television shows. So they become obsessed with, What are the top 10 sellers of this? What are the top 10 sellers of that? It’s always selling.”

”And what it causes is a climate in which the creative peers begin to listen more to those tabulations than to their own opinions of one another. And it’s not even necessarily the money that they’re interested in. It’s the ratings of the money. It’s the position. Because we give such a stupid amount of credit to monetary success. In business, and now in art.”

The Dick Tracy dolls — Beatty in effigy — still hang on toy-store walls, discounted remnants of the huge, ill-conceived promotional campaign that led to Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg’s famous 28-page memo decrying the blockbuster mentality. The media salivated over such juicy bits as ”The number of hours (Dick Tracy) required, the amount of anxiety it generated and the amount of dollars that needed to be expended were disproportionate to the amount of success achieved.”

The monetary success of Dick Tracy was actually considerable, but for Disney, the angst of trying to measure up to Batman seems to have been only slightly greater than that generated by Katzenberg’s memo. The Katzenberg-Beatty relationship, formerly tight, wilted.

”Warren delivered a fabulous movie,” Katzenberg says now. ”There was never an issue. I think Dick Tracy was one of the most original and unique and creative movies produced in the seven years that we’ve been at Disney. But to go into a business in which success would only be measured against one of the three or four most successful movies in the history of the business — that was the mistake of Dick Tracy. We tried to recapture by design and by intention something that can only happen by accident. That’s the foolishness of what we did.”

”And that’s what I said (in the memo): Do not do this again. It was not about Warren Beatty. What people took out of that memo to get a 30-second bite — they took what was a very complex set of circumstances, and in distilling it down to its simplest phrases — frankly, I understand the hurt and disappointment to Warren.”

”It’s been reported that you and he aren’t speaking,” I say.

”We were in great shape with one another” — he laughs — ”until El Memo. There have been many people over the past year that questioned whether I wanted that memo to get out or not. And in my defense, the single thing that I have offered up — Warren Beatty was one of the most valuable, fun, interesting, intelligent, brilliant, challenging people in my life. And if my intention was for that memo to get out — the one thing I would have corrected in it — the one thing! — is to have protected him. It was such a slap in his face. Although we haven’t actually talked, we have corresponded with one another, and —” he hesitates ”— I’m sure that comes better from his side.”

So I ask Beatty. ”You and Katzenberg are still friends?”

”Oh, sure,” he says. ”That’s a lot of business-gossip nonsense. No, I felt absolutely — the experience of Dick Tracy was positive from the beginning to the end. I don’t think you should keep beating the poor guy.”

”I’m just curious about your relationship.”

”I liked him.”

”Might you work with Disney again?”

”I’d be happy to work with him, but you know, when I work with him, I have complete final cut, and things that it could be they’re a little uncomfortable with. But I don’t —” ”What’s this bit in the memo about Dick Tracy being about ‘losing control of our own destiny’?”

”That’s a puzzle to me. It sounds, um, maybe that — I don’t understand it. You probably should ask Jeffrey,” Beatty says.

Who can imagine what it is like — what it has been like — to be him? To know what he knows, to do what he has done? His vast secrecy implies a reality we can only begin to guess at. At one point, when I asked if he’d ever met Marilyn Monroe, he said he had — but wouldn’t elaborate. ”Why do you ask?” he said. Now, as he shows me around the stark white Mulholland Drive house he had built shortly after Shampoo (he pointedly omits bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchen), all I can think is, the pool is small. There’s rust under some of the windows. The living room is a little dark. It’s just a house. He isn’t a sun god. He’s mortal.

The place is big and impressive, of course, but somehow anonymous. There are no pictures on the walls. Here and there, through doorways, are glimpses of a new, perhaps less careful, order: moving cartons; a pile of books, including a cookbook, on a study floor; a crib. A crib! At Warren Beatty’s!

Just then Annette Bening appears, looking tall, beautiful, and very pregnant. I tell her I thought she was wonderful in Bugsy. She grins more warmly than Virginia Hill ever could. ”Thanks,” she says. ”That’s nice to hear.”

At the same time, a dual interview doesn’t appear to be what either of them has in mind. She looks at Beatty. He looks at her. ”Well, I’m gonna take off,” she says. ”Bye, honey.” She kisses his cheek and leaves.

Beatty and I sit in the smoggy sunlight by the pool. The phone inside burbles every two minutes or so; occasionally an assistant appears with a message on a notepad. Once, I catch a glimpse of the pad: It just says ”Ovitz.” ”Gotta take this,” Beatty says, and leaves.

Warren Beatty has never worried about absence. His legend has always taken care of itself. ”Dropping in and dropping out of movies is kind of a luxury that I afforded myself,” he says, when he returns. ”I sometimes feel every movie I’ve made has been a comeback. I was never willing to churn them out to keep my visibility high. I think the audience’s interest in me is about the same as it was when I was in my early 20s.”

”Listen,” I say. ”In 5 1/2 years, you’re going to be 60. Does it concern you at all that today’s younger audiences might care less about you as you age?”

He glares at me over his sunglasses: Demographics. ”Well, you think young people don’t care about older people?” he says, sharply. ”They don’t want stories in which older people participate? I think people are interested in people; they’re interested in stories. And if the stories are well done, they’ll be more interesting than ones that are not well done. You just can’t leap to the conclusion that people only want to go see a movie because they want to have sex with someone in that movie. I mean, do people want to go have sex with Macaulay Culkin? (Home Alone is) the biggest hit that’s been around for years. So my point is, I don’t think there are any formulas.”

”How do you feel about becoming a dad?” I ask him later.

”That’s a kind of open-ended question,” he says, hesitantly. ”I’m a little afraid to open it up. I don’t have any negative feelings about it — so far, for me, it’s produced only elation. It’s something I’ve always looked forward to.”

”You looked forward to it for quite a while,” I laugh.

”Well, I felt that it had to be the right time,” he says.

”Won’t it be strange having a child there?”

”When I built my house, I built it to accommodate a baby,” he says. ”There’s a small bedroom off the master bedroom that has an access door.”

”Fifteen years ago you built that?”

He’s silent for a moment. ”I waited,” he says. ”I don’t know if it’s a good example.”

”Have you ever lived up there with anyone else, Warren?”

”None of your business.”

The secrets are safe. Including the biggest one of all. After we shook hands at his house, as I drove to the airport, on a weird impulse, I sniffed my hand. I’ve always wondered: Besides fame, wealth, looks, and intelligence, what does he have? Is it an after-shave? My hand gave off a strong, musty, big-animal scent. Warren Beatty doesn’t go away easily.