”The Parallax View” and other great Beatty roles
”Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” That’s always been one of my favorite sayings. So, it will probably come as no surprise that my favorite movie genre has always been the ’70s conspiracy thriller.
In a decade haunted by a loss of faith in once-trusted institutions thanks to Vietnam and Watergate, and the lingering dread carried over from the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK, the golden age of the conspiracy thriller is bookended by 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate and 1991’s JFK. But the best of the bunch all hail from the Me Decade: The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, and perhaps the most underrated (and least seen) of the bunch, 1974’s The Parallax View.
Directed by Alan J. Pakula — Hollywood’s onetime patron saint of paranoia — Parallax stars Warren Beatty as a twitchy, small-fish reporter. Watching him knock on doors and chasing leads like a third-rate Carl Bernstein in his skintight jeans, rumpled corduroy blazer, and shaggy haircut, you get the sense that if he weren’t busy trying to speak truth to power, he’d be trolling Est seminars for free love or helping hippie girls burn their bras.
The movie kicks off with Beatty attending a maverick senator’s Fourth of July campaign stop at Seattle’s Space Needle. And when the politician is shot and killed in a scene eerily reminiscent of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, Beatty is one of the few witnesses to the crime.
Cut to a few years later, where a Warren Commission-esque panel dismisses the murder as the act of a lone madman, signing off its whitewash with the forboding postscript: ”There will be no questions.” Soon after, Beatty’s ex, a fellow reporter played by Paula Prentiss, shows up at his doorstep, frantically claiming that someone’s trying to kill her. After all, she witnessed the senator’s murder, and six other witnesses of the crime have died mysteriously since the incident. Beatty gives her the brush-off. Then, in the next scene, he’s identifying her body at the morgue.
Beatty starts sniffing around some of the other unexplained deaths and stumbles onto the existence of a shadowy, top-secret organization called The Parallax Corporation, which recruits anti-social personalities to be assassins via a psychological testing process that includes sitting through a harrowing, acid-trip slide show. The slide show is a montage of wholesome, American images and snippets of carnage, sex, and violence. And Pakula’s message seems to be that assassination and violence have become as American as apple pie and baseball. (P.S.: Anyone who recalls David Fincher’s The Game might walk away from the Parallax recruitment video suspecting that he owes the Pakula estate some royalties.)
I’m not going to give away what happens next. But I will say this: The Parallax View is a mother of a thriller. There are some kick-ass suspense set pieces, including one with a bomb on a plane that would make Hitchcock plotz. And Beatty, always an underrated actor thanks (or no thanks) to his off-screen rep as a Hollywood lothario, gives a hell of a performance in a career that’s been full of them.
Speaking of which, my five favorite Warren Beatty performances:
1. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) As the Depression-era gangster Clyde Barrow, who uses a gun because he can’t get it up in bed with Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker, Beatty ushered in Hollywood’s late ’60s filmmaking revolution. The bullet-riddled finale is responsible for everything from Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch to the career of Quentin Tarantino.
2. Reds (1981) Beatty wins a slew of Oscars (including Best Director) by tackling a beautifully nostalgic epic about American Communism in the 1910s and having the balls to release it while Reagan is in office.
3. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) Robert Altman’s muddy-hued frontier Western about a dim businessman (Beatty) and the saucy madam who’s the brains behind the operation (Julie Christie) is a bittersweet love story that bristles with the real-life chemistry of its two leads.
4. Shampoo (1975) Beatty tackles his rep as a Laurel Canyon Casanova head-on, playing a hunky hairdresser who knows exactly what the women in his life (Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, and Christie again) want: someone who’ll listen to them.
5. Bulworth (1998) Equal parts ridiculous and brilliant, Beatty’s rapping politician is one of those political satires that tap-dance on the fine line of disaster with far more grace than anyone would ever expect.
Honorable Mention: Ishtar (1987) Remember, I said Top 5 Beatty ”Performances,” not Top 5 Beatty movies. This is a trainwreck. But the first 30 minutes are as pants-wettingly funny as any studio comedy in the ’80s. Dustin Hoffman and Beatty as two horrible songwriters, coming up with lyrics like ”She said there’s a wardrobe of love in my eyes/ Look around, see if there’s something your size” is beyond priceless. It’s like a Saturday Night Live skit with a bloated, $55 million budget.
In 1991, Beatty shared with EW his own thoughts on a dozen of his most memorable performances. What are your favorite Beatty movies?