Sunday, August 7, 2011


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2006)

Warren Beatty has acted in only 22 films, and in only 8 in the last 30 years. Arguably half the list consists of mostly forgotten oddities; he’s had an abidingly odd affinity for fluffy comedies. He’s done nothing since the flop Town & Country in 2001, and apart from a dalliance with the David Carradine role in Kill Bill, there’s barely been any suggestion that he might do anything, except for the implausible but persistent rumours of political ambition. His box office power is certainly gone now, but despite all the evidence to the contrary, it’s hard to give up on the prospect that even at 70, he might pull off something remarkable almost out of nowhere, just as he unleashed the feisty Bulworth in 1998. It’s because the handful of films that endure – Bonnie And Clyde, Shampoo, The Parallax View and a few others – are so abidingly resonant, and although Beatty’s official role in those differs, he’s clearly always more than an actor for hire, always densely woven into the fabric.

Rundown On Reds

Today though I thought I'd write about Reds, which seems to be getting some attention lately. This is Beatty’s 1981 epic about journalist John Reed, who witnessed the Russian revolution first-hand and wrote Ten Days That Shook The World. Reds chronicles these events, as well as Reed’s romance with fellow journalist Louise Bryant, played by Diane Keaton. Jack Nicholson plays Eugene O’Neill, who had an affair with Bryant, and Maureen Stapleton won an Oscar for playing Emma Goldman. Beatty won four nominations – acting, directing, writing, producing – for it; this was the second film in a row on which he’d done that (the first was Heaven Can Wait), an achievement no one has ever replicated. Reds won him an Oscar for directing, although I think it was generally regarded as one of those Oscars based in a sense of obligation rather than passion.

Reds is primarily remembered as an achievement in audacity and business savvy rather than artistic virtue – it’s the movie where Beatty convinced Paramount to put up $40 million to make a movie about Communists. It didn’t do particularly well financially, and its epic length (200 minutes) may continue to limit the likelihood of people sitting through it on cable. I did watch it again recently though. And then a recent issue of Vanity Fair had a long article about the film, extracted from a forthcoming book on Beatty by Peter Biskind. Beatty is the subject of a disproportionate number of books by reputable critics – David Thomson wrote one too.

Biskind says that Reds today “still seems as fresh as the moment it was released – this despite the fact that the lure of the idealism it dramatizes seems even more alien today than it did in 1981, given the current cynicism about politics.” The lure of the actors is central to this magnetism: “The intensity between Beatty and Keaton is tangible on-screen and gives the film its heart.” Roger Ebert called the film a Dr Zhivago for the thinking man, and that’s apt, although the man in question needn’t be that deep a thinker. Beatty and Keaton are dripping with old style glamour, and many of their scenes are shaded with Beatty’s penchant for light comedy. In one scene for example, Keaton stands outside the kitchen door passing on important information, and he’s on the other side messing up the kitchen with his inept attempts to make a meal. Beatty is regularly accused of narcissism, and Reds would have to be a prime exhibit for that allegation.

Willingness To Gamble

The film’s most interesting formal device is the use of the so-called witnesses – real-life interviews with elderly contemporaries of Reed and Bryant interspersed with the action – they include Adela Rogers St. John, Henry Miller, George Jessel and many more. Beatty doesn’t really use the witnesses to support his depiction of events, but rather to illustrate its limitations – their recollections falter, they contradict each other, they go off on tangents, forming a tumble of human frailty. Without seeing the interview footage that wasn’t used, it’s difficult to know how exploitative Beatty’s use of the veterans might be. What’s interesting to me is how the witnesses’ apparent purpose doesn’t seem to have influenced Beatty’s approach to the narrative itself, which he tells in a linear old-Hollywood fashion, devoid of any chaos or intimations of authorial uncertainty.

In the Vanity Fair article, Beatty says: “Reds marked the end of something, in the subject matter and the willingness to gamble…Reds is a political movie. It begins with politics and it ends with politics.” But actually, literally, it begins with Diane Keaton and ends with her, after Reed’s death. It constantly mixes personal and political travails to an extent that leaves it quite unclear what Beatty regards as the greatest tragedy. In the latter stretches, Reed is trapped inside Russia and Bryant embarks on a long and hazardous journey to find him. The troubles of these two little people shouldn’t amount to a hill of beans against the bigger picture, but as in so many movies, the final confirmation of their bond almost seems to mitigate the crumbling of the greater vision. The film is fairly good at dramatizing the squabbling that consumes the emergent American left, and the crushing bureaucracy that instantly takes hold in Russia, but again presents these primarily as matters of frustrated ambition and wounded pride and petty self-preservation and so forth.

Work Of A Marxist

Thomson says, “Reds is still a fascinating picture with passages of greatness – but it never seems the work of a Marxist.” That might be considered a facetious criticism under the circumstances. Except that we've just had Syriana and Good Night, And Good Luck and other movies that if not actually seeming Marxist, are certainly more consistently ideological than Reds ever contemplates. It seems to me actually that Beatty’s comment about Reds marking the end of something makes most sense in purely personal terms, in that he never marshaled his talents on such a scale again. And it’s not so inconceivable that he might confuse a self-diagnosis as a national prescription – he’s been a celebrity longer than many of us have been alive, and even now, his name regularly comes up as a semi-plausible Presidential candidate, despite a total absence of credentials other than, of course, the vague appeal of a counterbalance to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

None of this diminishes the film’s uniqueness, or the remarkableness of its existence. But I recently wrote about how I came out of V For Vendetta – a much less interesting film – seething with anger against our current state of things. Reds surely ought to provoke something similar, but settles for poignancy and regret. Presumably this is a true gauge of Beatty’s view of things, which probably only confirms the limits of his potential as a politician.

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