Whatever happened to Warren Beatty?

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Approximately a decade ago I went to the cinema to see the Peter Chelsom film ‘Town and Country’. It was one of the more memorable cinema experiences for me – not because of the quality of the film (it was dismal)  –  but because it’s the only time I’ve been to a cinema screening where I’ve been the only patron in attendance! Not only that, but they actually screened the wrong film (‘Ghost of Mars’ by John Carpenter) initially

The film itself was a forgettable bore and apart from being one of the more notorious financial flops of the 2000s has been totally forgotten today. But there’s one reason it is noteworthy – it is the final film to date that Warren Beatty has appeared in.

And that is noteworthy because even speaking as someone who is hardly a total admirer of his work, he is one of the more significant figures in Hollywood over the past 50 years. For the 1967 film ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ alone (of which Beatty was the main driving force) his impact on American mainstream film would be substantial. But of course he has produced/acted/directed in many more films of acclaim and success over the decades, culminating in him being given the Irving Thalberg Oscar for his lifetime in cinema in 2000.

But while there is much to admire, I’ve felt Beatty has been a generally overrated film figure based on my limited exposure to his work. Take for example his 1978 film ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (which he co-wrote and co-directed as well as starred in). It was an enormous financial and critical success that was showered with Oscar nominations, including three separate ones for Beatty himself. And yet looking at the film today it’s hard to fathom how it got to be so acclaimed and successful.  While undeniably likable, amusing  and affecting in parts, it’s not a particularly substantial work with some incredibly shoddy plot developments in the closing stages of the film. How it got a Best Picture nomination is a bit of a mystery to me.

Another film that I found bafflingly overrated is his 1975 effort ‘Shampoo’ (which he co-wrote as well as starred in). Much acclaimed upon its release, now it seemed much ado about nothing and left me cold.

While Beatty is perceived by many as an iconic representation of modern American film, he’s never appeared to me to be completely at ease and comfortable in his work. There’s always an element of awkwardness as both director and actor (even in good films like ‘Bulworth’) where it seems he’s really working hard just to achieve what many others would achieve naturally.

Funnily enough, this element has worked to his advantage in certain roles. Particularly in the 1974 political thriller ‘The Parallax View’ (one of my favourite all-time films); his rather awkward acting style perfectly suits his character of a journalist who is only moderately smart and in way over his head. Had it starred an actor with a more smooth style (e.g. Robert Redford) or more talented (e.g. Jack Nicholson), the film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.

I think the greatest compliment one could give Beatty is that from the time when he had a great control over his career post-Bonnie and Clyde, one could almost always count him at least attempting to create a quality film, and not just cruising on auto-pilot. Even in a film like ‘Dick Tracy’, one could feel that a bit more effort than could’ve been expected into this type of film.

Perhaps that’s why he’s stopped making films (although he was never particularly prolific) after ‘Town and Country’ as what was dispiriting about that film wasn’t just its lack of quality or entertainment but that for the first time in decades Beatty seemed to be just phoning it in.

It seems increasingly unlikely now that Beatty will act (let alone direct) in another film. And that would be a shame as despite his limitations, he’s been one of the more noteworthy figures in American film over the past 50 years.

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6 responses »

  1. Interesting article, Marco. I’ve always though Reds was over-rated, but I did like Shampoo (which is now dated because of the political content) and Heaven Can Wait. But I think Beatty has basically retired because he’s got plenty of money and he also started having kids. If I had the money and the reputation, I might want to be around my kids as much as possible, too. And, don’t forget, he’s old. Directors who work well into their seventies are rare in Hollywood. Clint Eastwood is an exception.

  2. I’ve never seen a Warren Beatty movie, and only seen Bonnie and Clyde in bits and pieces. Never thought of that until this article.

  3. Managed to watch one of Beatty’s most obscure films – the 1965 comedy ‘Promise Her Anything’ which was made in the period between ‘Splendor in the Grass’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ where his career drifted aimlessly.

    The film is aimable but ordinary and insignificant. But it did confirm my belief of how non-naturalistic an actor Beatty comes across as. He doesn’t have great material to work with and madcap comedy is difficult to do at the best of times but while Beatty is likable enough here, he is all at sea in trying to be funny.

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