”This is a war for democracy,” journalist and activist John Reed, the subject of Warren Beatty’s impassioned epic about the development of the American Left during World War I, is quoted as saying. ”Where is the goddamn democracy?” However contemporary audiences respond to a line like that — if it infuriates them, emboldens them, or breezes right on past — it shouldn’t deter them from adding the 25th-anniversary edition of Reds to their film library.
A rabble-rousing tour de force, Reds racked up 12 Academy Award nominations and won Beatty an Oscar for Best Director. The movie is political, educational, provocative, difficult, and long (clocking in at well over three hours). It is also intellectually stirring and emotionally soap-operatic in the best sense of both those terms, and stars three actors at the very top of their game. Beatty, perhaps in a grasp at wish fulfillment, plays Reed, the author of Ten Days That Shook the World, whose political activism eventually trumped his art. As his embattled lover Louise Bryant, Diane Keaton is stripped of all her nervous, silly tics, and proves a sexy revelation; Jack Nicholson is passionate and gloomy as the playwright Eugene O’Neill, a man in love with Bryant and the bottle. And if you’re still not convinced, trust that there’s a lovers’ reunion scene toward the end, grand and romantic and profoundly satisfying, that blows the climaxes of modern-day love stories out of the water.
There’s another gratifying reunion on the dignified extras, as cast and crew warmly reminisce about their hefty undertaking. Beatty admits he disapproves of extraneous commentary, but he’s succinct and funny and charming, and asks pointed questions about what would happen if he tried to make Reds today. ”How much of it would be CGI?” he wonders. ”Would we be expected to have John Reed live at the end?” (I’ll add a few more: Would the movie be forcibly cut down by a studio to under two hours? Instead of Keaton’s wonderful, tired, expressive eyes, would we be forced to stare at the smooth, dumb face of some current Hollywood baby It Girl? Would the moving, dimly lit sex scenes be traded out for boob shots and shower scenes?) The biggest treat of this special edition, though, is Nicholson, who relives his initial wariness when approached for the part. ”’Warren, you know I can act anything,”’ he remembers telling Beatty, ”’but I can’t act thin.”’ In his inimitable looping, laconic style, Nicholson also explains Keaton’s absence from the extras. ”She would find probably a lot to find fault with in this particular approach to making a documentary and getting poopsy about the period,” he says admiringly. ”Too much of this ‘Ooh! You made a movie!’ blah.” Viva Diane.