Warren Beatty helped kick off an American cinema renaissance in the late 60s with Bonnie and Clyde, now he's back after two decades with Rules Don't Apply, a film celebrating the Hollywood he knew at the dawn of his career
“Never check an interesting fact” are the words that are emblazoned across the screen at the beginning of Rules Don’t Apply, the fifth film directed by Warren Beatty. The film, adamantly described by Beatty in a recent interview as “a film about Hollywood in 1958”, and not, as everyone else is describing it, a Howard Hughes biopic, marks the 79-year-old's return as writer, director and actor after a nearly 20-year hiatus following Bulworth.
This opening quote is an appropriate fit, not only as it applies to Hughes (one of the few people in show business Beatty never met), but also Beatty, a man who has navigated Hollywood for five decades, carefully building his legend, selecting what was, and wasn’t, revealed. Read enough interviews with him, and you soon realise his catchphrase should be “Can we go off the record?” In his 50-year career, he has carefully disseminated information and allowed numerous legends to snowball, many of which concern his luck with the ladies prior to his marriage, now in its 24th year, to Annette Bening. If his list of sexual encounters were to be believed, they would make Hugh Hefner turn green with envy, and many of them are notoriously discussed in Peter Biskind’s biography Star, where the author wildly claimed that Beatty slept with over 13,000 women. While the old-Hollywood swagger of his bedroom antics entertains in a crude, glossy mag way, the tabloid legends detract from the importance of his work.
Putting his status as a Hollywood Lothario aside, Beatty doesn’t endure, he prospers, still possessing a level of charm that left many of his contemporaries’ decades ago. He has seen the death of old Hollywood and the birth, and rebirth, of the industry several times over. For the most part he has weathered the storm, and appeared in films with far reaching consequences that helped shape a defining era of Hollywood.
He is careful about what he reveals in interviews; often the same stories are recycled. He will name-drop his long and wide-ranging list of friends. His black book included nearly everyone of significance in the history of the industry that he entered back in 1961 when he appeared in Elia Kazan’s Splendour in the Grass. He knew everyone from Chaplin to Orson Welles, not to mention Hollywood heavyweights like Samuel Goldwyn. Of his own generation, there were the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. His work has stood the test of time, and he holds the record to be the first and only person to have been twice nominated for acting in, directing, writing, and producing the same film, firstly for Heaven Can Wait in 1978 and then Reds three years later. Then, in 1999, he took home the Irving G. Thalberg Award, the Academy Awards’ highest accolade.
His breakthrough moment came in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Arthur Penn, it was a film inspired by the Nouvelle Vague and would herald the American New Wave, giving way to the likes of Altman, Coppola, De Palma, and Scorsese. It would be the bad girl of criticism, Pauline Kael, who would be Bonnie and Clyde's biggest champion. Her review, published in The New Yorker, caused a stir that helped give birth to a new, more artistic, form of criticism, pushing viewers to hunt for art amid the trash of Hollyood, and at the same time cemented Warren Beatty as a star. It was a time of seismic change for the industry in every sense.
The decade that followed belonged to Beatty. From 1971-78, his credits would include some of the most important films of the New Hollywood era, including Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller, Alan J Pakula's The Parallax View, Mike Nichols’ The Fortune, Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (which Beatty co-wrote), and his first writer, director, actor and producer credit, Heaven Can Wait.
On 30 March, Beatty will turn 80. It feels appropriate that his new film looks back to the Hollywood of yesteryear, a period when he was a fledgling actor. It reminds us the world has kept on turning, but the old Hollywood swagger of Beatty still appeals. You just wonder, what would Kael make of his latest film?
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