It’s axiomatic that Warren Beatty always gets the girl. That hasn’t changed even as he has turned 80. In his new film, Rules Don’t Apply, he plays reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Beatty’s Hughes is a repulsive figure: cold, sleazy, egomaniacal – and addicted to banana nut ice cream Nonetheless, he’s the one that young fresh-faced Hollywood starlet Maria Mabrey (Lily Collins) wants to sleep with. Some things never change.
Rules Don’t Apply falls into the “fascinating misfire” category. It’s a sprawling, wildly self-indulgent inside take on Hollywood and Hughes. Beatty’s first film in well over a decade, it has been a monumental flop in the US. According to film trade website Deadline, it had “arguably the worst opening for a major studio Thanksgiving wide release ever”. Beatty is still Hollywood royalty. Nonetheless, for the first time in his illustrious career, he is beginning to look a little tarnished. His recent role in “envelopegate” at the Oscars didn’t help. It may not have been his fault he was given the incorrect information by PwC about the Best Picture award but he didn’t deal well with the situation. Clearly aware that something was wrong, he still allowed Faye Dunaway to read out La La Land when the Oscar should have gone to Moonlight.
Rules Don’t Apply starts in 1964. By then, Beatty was already established as a young star. He had appeared opposite Natalie Wood in Elia Kazan’s Splendour in the Grass in 1961, a torrid drama about young love, sex and repression in 1920s Middle America.
“I liked Warren right off, so I took a chance on him. Warren had never been in anything before. He had been a high school football player, uncertain but charming. He still is,” Kazan later told author, Jeff Young. It’s a perceptive remark. As the ancient and very creepy Howard Hughes, Beatty still has that diffident quality that made him so appealing as a young actor. Even in his sleaziest roles, for example as the motorbike riding Beverly Hills hairdresser in Shampoo who sleeps with as many women as possible because it makes him feel as if he is going to “live forever,” he never seems macho or boorish. His Howard Hughes is promiscuous but when he is with a lover, she is made to feel as if she’s the centre of his universe.
Beatty has been at the top of the Hollywood tree for more than half a century. According to Peter Biskind’s 2010 biography of him, he has also slept with 12,775 women – or had done so before he settled down with Annette Bening in the early 1990s. It’s an absurdly precise figure. “If there is reincarnation, I’d like to come back as Warren Beatty’s fingertips,” Woody Allen famously joked. Carly Simon’s song “You’re So Vain” is partly about him. (Simon later observed that it was a sign of his vanity that he thought the whole song was about him.) The womanising is part of Beatty’s problem when it comes to his reputation as a filmmaker. It makes him seem more like a joke figure, Hollywood’s answer to British DJ Tony Blackburn with his 500 lovers, than a serious “auteur”.
When Beatty made Reds in 1981, he looked to be shaping up as the successor to David Lean as a purveyor of big, intelligent widescreen epics. This was a three-hour-long movie co-scripted by Beatty with playwright Trevor Griffiths and dealing with subject matter that the studios wouldn’t normally go near. It was about the radical American journalist Jack Reed who was a first-hand witness of the 1917 Russian revolution. It was a vast, sprawling affair which not only had an all-star cast of actors but featured interviewed with real-life “witnesses”, among them Henry Miller and Rebecca West. This was a film of enormous scope and ambition… but it marked the high point of his career.
There is Beatty before Reds and there is Beatty after Reds. The first one has an extraordinary track record as an actor (and often as a producer too) on such films as Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait. The Beatty after Reds made Ishtar and Dick Tracy. True, Beatty was on his game as gangster Bugsy Siegel in Bugsy (1991) and his political satire Bulworth (1998) has its fans but over the last 20 years, Beatty’s career has ground almost to a halt.
The irony is that Beatty is not someone like Orson Welles at the end of his career who has been cast out of the golden playpen of Hollywood. He is still an insider. With his friends and contacts, he can get movies made. Rules Don’t Apply has among its small army of producers some of the most influential power brokers in the studio system, figures like the Israeli billionaire Arnon Milchan, former studio boss Terry Semel and wealthy philanthropist and tycoon Steve Bing.
“Why Warren Beatty? It’s distressing to have to make a case for his importance just because no one under 40 (maybe 50) knows who he is,” Biskind writes in the introduction to his biography of the movie star. Biskind describes Beatty as one of “the most versatile and skilled talents of his generation” and “one of the foremost filmmakers of his generation” but that doesn’t stop him from filling his book with hearsay and salacious details about his many flings. That’s not just an issue with the book but with its subject too. Wherever Beatty goes, the gossip columnists follow. Biskind quotes Bo Goldman, the co-writer on Rules Don’t Apply, calling Beatty an “underachiever… he could have done everything, but his ego gets in the way”.
Watching Beatty’s new film, you can’t help but think it is as much about him as it is about Howard Hughes. Just like Beatty, Hughes won’t speak to the press unless it is on his own terms. The American tycoon is completely self-centred. He is utterly obsessive about every detail of his life, from his travel plans to his diet. His underlings and business partners worry that he has lost the plot and may be in the early stages of dementia. What Hughes (at least as played by Beatty) still has in abundance is charm and intelligence. Whether it’s with kids, hard-bitten reporters, young actresses or his assistants, he can be utterly beguiling. At these moments, even his fiercest critics feel churlish about attacking him. Everyone wants to bask in his approval.
Beatty’s directorial career peaked with Reds. He has done very little recent acting of note and any chance he might once have had of a meaningful political career is long since gone. Rules Don’t Apply tanked at the US box office, as did the last big movie in which he starred, Town & Country, back in 2001. Of course, none of this seems to have diminished his mystique in the slightest. The myth around him is so compelling that it blinds us to his failures and the long, unexplained gaps in his filmography and working life. He’s Warren Beatty, after all, and that means the world and all its pleasures must still be at his fingertips.
‘Rules Don’t Apply’ is released on 21 April