As the Bonnie and Clyde star turns 83 today, Manuela Lazic looks back at some lesser known Beatty gems and where to watch them
Few actors have had such fruitful and exciting careers as Warren Beatty. From working with Elia Kazan for his very first film credit, to becoming a fascinating and commercially viable writer-director in his own right, Beatty has seized every opportunity Hollywood has presented to him.
Yet his star-making turn in Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde has made it easy to overlook the many other – and equally brilliant – performances this legendary actor has given across his 60-year-long career. As Beatty celebrates his 83rd birthday, we look back at five underrated films he starred in, sometimes (co)wrote, and occasionally even directed…
Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Beatty originally trained under legendary teacher Stella Adler, but following methodological differences with the father of Method acting, Lee Strasberg, he left the Group Theatre, where Elia Kazan was also a member. It isn't completely surprising, then, that for his debut at age 23, Beatty was directed by Kazan in his melancholy film Splendor in the Grass. More remarkable is the fact that the role of Bud would come to predict a recurring motif in Beatty’s career.
In 1920s Kansas, Bud’s romance with his girlfriend Deanie (a glowing Natalie Wood) is already troubled by their different social statuses, but what drives them apart is, ironically, the fact that they are forbidden from getting physically closer. In many of his later roles, Beatty would come to play with his sex appeal and his appeal towards sex for dramatic effect. Sexual taboo and oppressive social norms frustrate Bud to the point of betrayal, and push Deanie to madness. If the tone is often absurdly melodramatic, the spiral of shame that both characters fall into and which changes their lives forever hits you more and more violently as the years go by.
The Hollywood milieu in which Beatty evolved soon became a source of inspiration for him, and he began to turn to stories about the many different characters that cross paths in Beverly Hills. He also continued to work with what he, himself, had – namely, an insatiable appetite for sexual conquests. In Hal Ashby's Shampoo, he plays George, a talented hairdresser to the female elite, who eventually admits having chosen this profession for the direct contact with women it provides.
What George didn’t account for is the emotional toll that a life of relentless deceit and purely physical connections would take. Despite his relative success in all aspects of life, he decides to try and open his own salon and in this process of maturation he's faced with existential questions. In a sea of desperate, beautiful, rich women, he starts looking for a lifeboat, but some women, too, are searching for their own sense of purpose. The frivolity of Beverly Hills, together with the emptiness in George’s heart, make Shampoo both wildly entertaining and profoundly touching.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
What better way to address existentialism than by having your character exist in the space between life and death? Based on a play by Harry Segall, but written for the screen by Beatty and Elaine May, Heaven Can Wait sees Beatty as yet another jock, but one who loses his Superbowl-ready body when an anxious angel (Buck Henry) takes it away before his time has come. Joe now has to occupy the body of a millionaire who was just murdered by his wife and her lover (the wonderful frequent Beatty collaborator Charles Grodin).
Starting with this far-fetched premise, the film plays on the amusing hypocrisy of the upper class and contrasts it with the authenticity that Joe finds in Betty Logan (Julie Christie). In a reversal of Shampoo, in which Christie also appeared, their connection isn’t bodily, but spiritual. Like many of Beatty’s films, a more profound concern with the meaning of human life and of its inevitable end runs through this seemingly harmless comedy. Using the unique suggestive powers of cinema, Beatty and Henry make visible what can’t even be put into words – the soul of Joe, which he and loving trainer Max (the fantastic Jack Warden, another Beatty regular) are always able to recognise, in whatever body it resides.
The much-maligned Ishtar was meant to be a gift from Beatty to Elaine May, who had proven herself a great screenwriter but hadn’t gotten a proper chance to direct her own big Hollywood movie. What actually happened is well known: the complicated production of the film, shot partly in North Africa (a dangerous place at the time), coupled with May’s tedious editing, delayed its release and killed its reputation before it even came out.
Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play Rogers and Clarke, two middle-aged men who meet in New York and decide to become the new Simon & Garfunkel, despite their evident lack of talent. Again, the amusing exaggeration of their mediocrity, self-delusion and adventures gives the film a contemplative quality. Out of money and lacking wives, they end up in Morocco playing in a hotel until both the CIA and a Leftist revolutionary movement involve them in their dangerous business.
May’s absurdist comedy genius fits Beatty and Hoffman perfectly: always ready to play with his image, Beatty plays the shy idiot to Hoffman’s womanizer, but their invincible friendship and dream of success makes clear that humour and passion are what makes life worth living – and a film worth making.
In the very first scene of Bulworth, which Beatty co-wrote and directed, the star alone in his office, weeping openly, whilst watching a loop of his own campaign videos. The reasons for his despair are not properly spelled out, because they don’t need to be. As we follow Democrat Jay Billington Bulworth on the last stretch of his campaign to return to the Senate, his life of bloated speeches and calculated travels to economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods is exposed in all its vulgarity. What makes this rampant hypocrisy no longer taboo but explicit is Bulworth’s new perspective on life. Having hired a contract killer to murder him, he suddenly finds himself appreciating the world all the more.
Even more so than in Heaven Can Wait, Beatty confronts the subject of mortality dead on, which here brings out a more political self-awareness. Seduced by the younger, black, Compton-based Nina (Halle Berry), Bulworth begins using rhymes to spread his hard truths about social inequality and American hypocrisy. Rather than walking the fine line between sympathy and appropriation, Beatty steps all over it – all the better to expose the complexities of human relations in a divided world, and to show that only resolute honesty and an openness to change can bring people together.