Imagine spending years on writing a book, frustrated by the in-and-out, push-pull participation of your subject, and when it’s done and published and in the world: nobody cares. Peter Biskind went through the same tortures of the damned suffered by everyone who ever works with Warren Beatty on a project. It lasts for years, you’re never sure where you stand, and most of the time, it wasn’t worth it.
Why did Biskind’s exhaustive bio Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, come and go with so little fanfare? (It didn’t help that during the years Biskind labored on the book, two more Beatty bios beat Star to publication.) After an initial flurry of publicity about how many women Beatty slept with–a silly miscalculation on Biskind’s part which only served to trivialize a serious book–the bio sank from view. “No one was standing there with a clicker counting out who came to the door,” admits Biskind. “It was a ballpark guesstimate. I don’t regret doing it. It created an expectation for the book.”
The main reason the 630-page book failed–despite massive rations of dish about Beatty’s constant womanizing and high-profile affairs with the likes of Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Leslie Caron, Isabelle Adjani, Natalie Wood, Joan Collins, Michelle Phillips and Madonna–is that outside the aging membership of the Academy, no one knows who he is. Ex-Paramount chief Robert Evans lays it out to Biskind: “The only places Warren is known are Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and New York.”
“I never wanted to write it without him,” says Biskind, who first met Beatty on the set of Dick Tracy. “He’s so funny, so smart and, when he’s relaxed, such a good storyteller. I wanted to get his voice into the book. He was happy to talk about Reds. I could have done the book years ago if I wanted to do it around him. He was always ambivalent and cagey. He’s careful and calculating in his relationships with everyone. He’s not going to talk about a lot of things even to close friends.” They’d talk on the phone, or meet at a mini-mall on Beverly Glen or at his favorite Starbucks. At points Biskind was ready to return the book advance. But he had talked to too many people and gone too far to turn back. He plowed on.
As for his focus on sex in both Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Star, Biskind says “when people started telling me these stories, you use them.” The reason his indie business book Down and Dirty Pictures didn’t do as well, he thinks, is because “the filmmakers weren’t as well known and the films were not as good.” As for Star, “you can’t do Beatty without doing his personal life and his sex life is part of the whole politic of Beatty’s partly self-creating reputation as a lady killer and Don Juan, which overshadowed his film career to some degree. It’s like Picasso, you’ve got to go there. You can’t do a bio and not do it. I led with it, I didn’t shy away from it.” One thing that surprised Biskind was the raw, crude side of Beatty revealed in his friendship with James Toback.
While Biskind hoped that the sexual focus would help his book commercially, it did not.
One problem with Star is that Beatty’s compulsive controlling indulgent destructive behavior on movie after movie, torturing his collaborators, driving his lead actors crazy with endless retakes–Keaton and Adjani wouldn’t talk to him by the end of their shoots–gets tiring and repetitive to read about in gory detail, over and over again. It becomes painful. As one of many estranged screenwriters Beatty drove away, Bo Goldman says, “Warren is an underachiever. He could have been Orson Welles. He could have made five more wonderful movies, he could have been governor, he could have done everything, but his ego gets in the way. It’s a form of narcissism. It’s always about him.”
For a reminder of what can go right–the films that Beatty the perfectionist artist will surely be remembered for in the history books–see the extraordinary trio of movies that he leaves as his true legacy: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Beatty’s own romantic epic Reds, a movie he willed into existence, that no one else could ever have gotten made.
Also well-worth seeing are his Heaven Can Wait and Dick Tracy, as well as Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, ALan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, Barry Levinson’s Bugsy, and Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass. Musts-to-avoid are Love Affair, $, Town & Country, The Fortune and Ishtar, which is currently on view at Hulu.
The first time I met Beatty, at a screening for an Oliver Stone movie, the veteran actor gave me an up-and-down body scan, smiled seductively, and said, “Anne Thompson: ooh, you are feared.” He was flattering me, of course. And it worked. He has always been charming. When I saw him this year at the Art Director’s Guild Awards, where he was accepting one of the many career prizes that accompany a man of his stature at age 73, he arrived alone, as wife Annette Bening was then starring in the play Female of the Species. Clearly, he now lives vicariously through Bening and his four kids. Although the always-indecisive Beatty still toys with filming his long-back-burnered Howard Hughes biopic or some other last project, chances are he will never make another movie. “He sees himself as a player on the world historical stage,” says Biskind, “someone who might have been president or Secretary of State if Gary Hart had gotten elected, or Governor of California. For him to go out on Town and Country is humiliating for him.”