A couple of years ago I wrote about Warren Beatty’s career and I assessed that while I thought he was a generally overpraised and overrated figure in American cinema, one couldn’t deny his significance and that he always attempted to do serious work. One of his later projects, the 1994 romantic film ‘Love Affair’ is a good example of this, as well as his strengths and weaknesses.
Beatty not only stars, but produced and co-wrote this remake of an acclaimed 1939 film. In it, he plays ex-gridiron player turned broadcaster Mike Gambril who becomes engaged to highly successful TV journalist Lynn Weaver (Kate Capshaw). While on a flight to Australia that has to make an emergency landing, he meets singer Terry McKay (Annette Bening) and falls instantly in love. At first, her lukewarm reaction to him is even a bigger stumbling block than the fact that they’re both engaged. But even when she begins to fall for him much bigger obstacles to their romance appear.
‘Love Affair’ has several flaws, but the biggest one is Beatty himself. Put simply he just isn’t convincing as the romantic lead. Not only is he a shade too old for the role but he just doesn’t have the panache and charisma to pull off this role. As I observed a couple of years back, he’s never been the most natural of actors and that comes through all too obviously here. Bening – a far more skilled thespian than Beatty – is much better in her role and any potency the romance has is down to her work.
Besides Beatty, there are numerous problems with ‘Love Affair’. A lengthy early segment on a ship has an almost Altmanesque feel with cross-cutting and overlapping with an array of people and mini subplots, but it adds up to very little. There are too many unnecessary characters – such as a tabloid photographer following Gambril on the ship – that just clog up the narrative. And the respective people Gambril & Terry are engaged to are setup as prominent characters but are so inconsequential that they might not as well be in the film.
And yet… despite all the film’s problems it leaves a more substantial imprint than one would expect. One reason for this is the final film appearance of Katherine Hepburn as Gambril’s aunt. Even at this late stage of her life, she’s a delight as she uses her wealth of experience to give what other actors would treat as humdrum lines make interesting and perceptive.
Hepburn’s appearance in the middle section is a turning point in the film. Before then, the film had felt inconsequential and stiff. But as soon as Hepburn appears it’s as if the film decides to get its act together and become something more substantial.
This is helped by Ennio Morricone’s beautiful score which hits the right emotional spots. Also Conrad Hall’s lush cinematography helps gives the film a classic, romantic feel that suits it perfectly. As well, Garry Shandling has a nice supporting role as Beatty’s manager – I liked his reactions to all the news stories about Gambril’s impending marriage at the film’s opening – it at least undercut the cliché of using a series of news broadcasts as lazy exposition.
The second half of ‘Love Affair’ is much tighter, tactful and even quite moving. For example, there’s a lovely little scene where Terry (who has had recent major trauma in her life) is greatly moved by a children’s music class singing The Beatles’ “I Will”.
But best of all is the film’s finale which consists of a lengthy confrontation between Gambril & Terry. It’s an obviously vital scene as if this misfires the gains made in the second half of the film will be lost. But it hits the bullseye – not in a conventional sort of way – but where all the subtle notes are hit correctly so not only is the scene satisfying, but given extra resonance by feeling truthful.
When released in 1994 ‘Love Affair was a financial and critical failure and is largely forgotten today. But despite itself it’s a pretty good film and is an apt summation of Beatty’s career. While it displays his acting weaknesses it shows that films that were driven by him were usually worth watching out for.