With Primary Colors simply a film a clef about a President we already knew was a poll-driven weasel and Wag the Dog‘s satire aimed more at Hollywood than Washington, the field for major political pictures was really wide open when along came Bulworth, a lefty comedy too often ham-fisted but funny in its clobbering fashion. The ham at work is actor-director Warren Beatty, a pro at creating a particular type of character in politically loaded movies: charmers naive enough to stand up for what they believe; loners whose dissent from the reigning order dooms their quest for the American dream.
First was Bonnie and Clyde. Beatty played Clyde Barrow, the Depression-era bank robber; Faye Dunaway was Bonnie Parker, his gun moll. The story’s simple; what’s complex, and was scandalous in 1967, is its tragicomic tone: Director Arthur Penn (working with Beatty, who also produced) channels the social unease of the ’60s through these folk heroes of the ’30s, allowing the counterculture to indulge a violent fantasy of social rebellion. Bonnie and Clyde are not natural born killers but sweet, dumb fools who hope to gain some kind of freedom by taking potshots at foreclosure signs and snapshots of their aspiring gangster selves. Barrow is martyred for the cause of outlaw romanticism.
In a sense, Beatty reprised the performance four years later in Robert Altman’s rich, dreamy McCabe & Mrs. Miller. As John Q. McCabe, another blustery hustler out of his depth, he projects — with comically furrowed brow and tragically boyish eyes — first a terribly magnetic charm and then a terror at the knowledge that charm alone will never suffice. The film is a reversal of the frontier myth of opportunity: In the early 1900s, McCabe heads west to run a saloon and gets into literal and figurative bed with Julie Christie’s Constance Miller, a madam sharp enough to know that an encroaching mining company will do McCabe in if it can’t buy him out. A year before Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, the film equated big crime with big business. McCabe cockily refuses an offer that he can’t.
Another four years later, in 1975, Beatty produced, cowrote (with Robert Towne), and starred in Hal Ashby’s hilarious, heartfelt Shampoo. His George Roundy, a dim-witted Beverly Hills hairdresser, would open his own shop and lead a ”normal life” if he could only control his libido. Election Day 1968 finds him variously bedding his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn, an ambitious ditz), his client Felicia (Lee Grant, the jaded wife of Lester, a potential investor), and his ex-girlfriend Jackie (Christie again, as Lester’s mistress). That night, all their paths cross, and by morning, George is alone, seemingly crushed by the incipient treachery of the Nixon era.
A sex farce elevated to romantic tragedy, Shampoo, like Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe, made political concerns indistinguishable from personal ones — made them immediate and moving. Beatty has elsewhere struck mythic poses and spouted earnest rhetoric, but Reds, for instance, for all its Commie content, treats the Bolshevik Revolution mainly as backdrop for a love story. It’s more about domestic life than foreign politics, and the two never really meet.
Bulworth marks Beatty’s happiest stab at political farce since Shampoo. As his reelection campaign grinds to a close, the self-loathing Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth — once a committed liberal, now a poll-driven weasel — contracts a hit on himself. Liberated by this lame-duck status, he starts spouting ugly truths to his constituents. After a night at a hip-hop club, he starts gangsta-rapping antiestablishment axioms, falls in love with Halle Berry’s plot device of a fly girl, and gains a new vigor for life. All is leavened by Beatty’s charismatic comic genius: the stiff-backed getaway trot as he dodges his assassins, the double takes in recognition of his own clownishness. Bulworth deploys Beatty’s infatuation with lost dreams, conveying the sad sense that whether or not his heroes end up dead, their hopes already are.