Feb/Mar 2010

Beatty and the Beasts

Two biographies revisit the studio system's 1970s swan song

Ben Schwartz


In March 1974, Warren Beatty and director Hal Ashby filmed Shampoo. Set on Election Day 1968, it's a sex farce about a Beverly Hills hairdresser, George (Beatty), bedding his client list while trying to get investment money to open his own salon from a husband he's cuckolding, Lester (Jack Warden). While Shampoo was in postproduction, Watergate undid Richard Nixon, and Ashby made sure to feature him prominently on televisions and radios—though no character even thinks of voting—to comment on the newly chastened era in which the film's audience was living. Sending up not only Nixon, the easy target, but how he came to power, Shampoo shrugs off partisanship with Lester's reaction to the Nixon win, as he's considering having George beaten to a pulp for sleeping with his fiancée (and his ex-wife, and his daughter). "Maybe Nixon'll be better," Lester sighs. "What's the difference? They're all a bunch of jerks."

As political, sexual, and class satire, Shampoo was a zeitgeist bull's-eye. Of course, it also offered less subtle associations—chiefly that of Beatty's character exploiting the actor's real-life playboy image; his exes Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie star opposite him. "Half the audience thought I was showing off how sexy I am," says Beatty, who had spent 1972 as a top adviser to the George McGovern campaign. "Nobody understood that it was about politics. Shampoo's audience was the audience that didn't want to go to war, that used every means to end the war. Then Watergate destroyed authority in the country, ended trust in politicians. What Shampoo had to say was what our generation at that time had to say about America, which was, We're not being honest about the way we're governed, our leaders are not being honest, we're not honest about what we stand for." That self-assessment remains relevant for a country currently in the midst of wars most Americans, like the characters in Shampoo, can tune out as they like.

Beatty and Ashby are the subjects of two new biographies, Peter Biskind's Star and Nick Dawson's debut, Being Hal Ashby. In 1998, Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls deftly wove a welter of careers—those of Altman, Coppola, Lucas, Nicholson, Polanski, Scorsese, Spielberg, and more—into a cohesive look at what some call the '70s golden age of Hollywood. It remains untouched as that period's primary history. Down and Dirty Pictures, Biskind's 2004 follow-up on the indie film world of the '90s, cemented his reputation as postwar Hollywood's leading historian.

Biskind's epic survey made clear Beatty and Ashby needed their own books. For all the attention lavished on Beatty the star, little has been written about Beatty the producer, master manipulator of writers, directors, and studios, who leveraged these connections into box-office hits and a string of Oscar nominations. Hollywood has meanwhile largely forgotten Ashby. He directed The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There in the 1970s before falling off in the '80s. He died in 1988 at a career low point, flailing in baby-boomer Hollywood, years before revival houses and fans like director Wes Anderson reclaimed him. The Beatty and Ashby books point up dueling philosophies of biography. Biskind offers only what he thinks we need to know; Dawson—well, too much. One wishes that the authors had switched subjects.

Star is built around movies and celebrity sex, which helps explain why Biskind's publishers have accommodated its 640-page heft. Beatty was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1937, baby brother to actress Shirley MacLaine. Beatty cooperated with Biskind, but MacLaine's silence leaves a major question unasked: How did two self-made, outsize personalities like these come from the same conservative Virginia home? However, Biskind tells us up front he's going to skip Beatty's childhood and not psychoanalyze his subject's Don Juanism (he estimates Beatty has had sex with more than twelve thousand women). Nor will he write anything that might embarrass the post-1992 Beatty, who married Annette Bening and fathered four children—not that there isn't plenty to embarrass them before then.

Indeed, the book launches with a mood-setting vignette, in 1959 Los Angeles: Beatty is out on a date with Jane Fonda and eyeing Joan Collins at another table. Over the years, Beatty's lovers ranged from Scarlett O'Hara herself, Vivien Leigh, to topless Vanity Fair model Stephanie Seymour. Her furiously jealous boyfriend, Axl Rose, dedicated a song to Beatty at a 1992 Paris concert, earmarking it for "an old man who likes to live vicariously through young people, suck up all their life because he has none of his own." From Gone with the Wind to Guns N' Roses: That's the run of the proverbial gamut.

On sex, Biskind delivers the names, dates, and sticky details but doesn't know or care what drove Beatty to his Lothario lifestyle. Considering the years of Beatty's life spent chasing women, the topic is at least worth the space Biskind spends on just one of his solid analyses of Beatty's films. As is, the names become a running joke: Really, Jackie O? Leslie Caron? Maya Plisetskaya, prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet? Juliet Prowse—while chasing Christie? Juggling Diane Keaton, Mary Tyler Moore, Bitten Knudsen, and Janice Dickinson at the same time? Madonna, Michelle Phillips, a sixteen-year- old Cher, Isabelle Adjani? Beatty apparently had no type: famous, not famous, fat, thin, blond, brunet, any race, angry, happy, whatever.

Fortunately, Biskind does not shortchange Beatty's other career—film. In the '50s, a dropout from Northwestern, Beatty found work in the theater and on a sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (on which he's actually quite funny). He sought out prestige directors like Elia Kazan, José Quintero, and Robert Rossen for his early (mostly failed) films. He used actress girlfriends as tabloid and fan-magazine fodder, à la today's Brad-Jen-Angelina dramas, to move his career when movies like 1961's Splendor in the Grass did not. He sat at the feet of Hollywood pros like producer Charles Feldman, who mentored him on the business.

As Beatty gained renown, he grew determined to control his career. Biskind's account of Beatty's producing skills, from finding backing at Warner Bros. for 1967's Bonnie and Clyde to cajoling Arthur Penn into his greatest work as director and reluctantly casting an unknown Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, makes it clear that Beatty had the game down. Filming was easy compared with getting the movie shown. In an era when film critics could make or break a movie, the New York Times's Bosley Crowther destroyed Bonnie and Clyde. The Pulp Fiction of its day, it featured murders set to comic bluegrass banjos, an ironic flourish that infuriated the critic. It closed on what Beatty calls "the Jack Kennedy scene," a multicamera finale of the cops ambushing and assassinating the bank robbers from a leafy spot, with imagery modeled on the Zapruder film. Beatty threw an ultraviolent pair of antiheroes into the Summer of Love.

The initial reviews caused Warner Bros. to dump the film in Denton, Texas, for its opening. Beatty fought back, enlisting Pauline Kael (she loved it and ridiculed its detractors) and dragging prints to festivals. He bluffed about buying the movie back from the studio. When Time declared it the year's best film, he pledged to sue the studio— another empty threat. Time and Kael, more than the bluffing, got Warners rethinking. Biskind pegs Bonnie and Clyde as the start of his Easy Riders, Raging Bulls golden age, whose end, he argues, arrived with Beatty's 1981 Reds.

Bonnie and Clyde netted ten Oscar nominations (two for Beatty, Best Actor and Best Picture), but Beatty went home empty-handed. Ashby won for editing In the Heat of the Night, a civil rights–era crime film set down South. Like Beatty, Ashby was a creature of the studio system, as an assistant editor for prestige filmmakers George Stevens and William Wyler, then as a full editor for Norman Jewison, even if Ashby worked more in the countercultural stretch of the industry than in Beatty's politically minded orbit.

Ashby came to Hollywood around Christmas 1948, after a lonely, painful childhood, with few friends until junior high. His family were nonpracticing Mormons often chastised by their more religious neighbors. Seven years after divorcing Ashby's mother, when Ashby was twelve, his father (facing a second failed marriage) killed himself. By nineteen, Ashby had been shipped off to military school, married, a father, and divorced, and he'd abandoned his wife and daughter.

The adult Ashby was an emotionally isolated stoner and beatnik, marrying five times. If Beatty splashed around in a sexually carefree fashion, Ashby dove headlong into commitment. When directing, he might ask an extra or a girl he'd gotten high with, who lived in a truck in the neighboring driveway of Mamas & the Papas singer Denny Doherty, to move in with him. A workaholic, he got by on four hours' sleep a night, making him an ideal candidate for the meticulous, time-consuming labor of editing movies.

After Ashby's '67 editing Oscar, he made his directorial debut in 1970 with The Landlord, about a wealthy white kid (Beau Bridges) who leaves his controlling mother (Lee Grant), buys a Brooklyn building, and, instead of gentrifying the neighborhood and tossing the minority residents out, joins their community. Bad reviews and worse marketing killed its release. Still, Paramount liked it and hired Ashby to direct Harold and Maude (1971). New York critics loathed that film's love story between a young man (Bud Cort) and a 79-year-old woman (Ruth Gordon). It had no Warren Beatty to save it and died within a week.

Nevertheless, Jack Nicholson sought Ashby to direct 1973's The Last Detail, about a teenage sailor (Randy Quaid), convicted of almost stealing forty dollars, and his military escort, "Bad Ass" Buddusky (Nicholson), determined to show this virgin a good time before his eight-year prison sentence. The Ashby hero is already apparent in this early trio of films: a lost innocent in a cold world, buffeted by absurd adults. One imagines some of them as the worldly guides Ashby lacked in his youth. Gordon's Maude, Nicholson's Buddusky, Grant's Mrs. Enders in The Landlord—at Oscar time, these parts earned nominations.

Dawson's portrait of Ashby could use less detail and more storytelling. Does one really need to know about the teen Ashby masturbating with a friend? Where Biskind dismisses backtracking to his subject's childhood or family forebears, Dawson hunts them down, not that it adds anything. Yet he glosses over vital working relationships, such as Ashby's confidant and producer on six films, Charles Mulvehill. He's introduced as a young man who adopted Ashby as "my hero" after working with him on The Landlord. A decade later, Mulvehill declined to run Ashby's production company because of all the "convoluted psychological webs." That's quite a leap.

Dawson calls Ashby a "Hollywood rebel," but he made all his great films for studios. Harold and Maude was not a tiny indie made on credit cards. Paramount executives bought the script, then hired Ashby, a loyal studio hand. His greatest act of rebellion may have been breaking one of the industry's most sacred rules—he almost never returned a phone call.

For Ashby, box-office success had proved elusive, and the rebel signed on to helm Shampoo, a likely megahit, to change that. Beatty and Robert Towne had written separate drafts of the script and were at each other's throats. Auteurists might see what happened next as a tragedy. Beatty had just come off a starring role in Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller and then the inept Parallax View. After bickering with his directors as an actor for hire, he returned to Shampoo determined to assert control. Towne, who wrote The Last Detail, stood nearly alone as an Ashby detractor, considering him "lax" for missing crucial dramatic information in Towne's scripts. But Ashby kept the two writers together, guiding them until the story had a structure.

As Ashby had reckoned, Shampoo was an enormous hit on its release in 1975. Its success allowed him to make his Woody Guthrie biopic, Bound for Glory, then Coming Home and Being There. The '70s were an amazing decade for Ashby, and his unrealized projects could furnish ample material for a book on their own: directing a Ken Kesey screenplay of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and a western for Nicholson written by Richard Brautigan; being Dustin Hoffman's first choice for Tootsie (before Sydney Pollack took it); adapting Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King.

By 1980, Biskind's golden age was drawing to a close. Beatty flew around the world filming Reds, a historical romance about the radical political journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant at the Russian Revolution. Beatty spent seventeen years conceiving of Reds, a period that took in the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the '68 DNC, the McGovern loss, the Jimmy Carter years (Beatty never cared for him), and the Reagan revolution. It makes sense, then, that Reds is a film about belief and staying idealistic, even while watching it all come crashing down. No wonder Reagan liked Reds (except that sad girl-loses-boy ending): It's about the left dying.

Ashby's film Being There arrived in 1979, in the post-Nixon era of Ford, Carter, and Reagan (then running for the nomination). It elegantly caps a period of Saturday Night Live–fueled political slapstick that savaged presidents not for their politics, but simply as de facto buffoons for even wanting to be president. It, too, is a film about believing—believing for all the wrong reasons.

The projects served as fitting farewells to the '70s golden era, which hit a brick wall of profit maximization called baby-boomer Hollywood. Both Biskind and Dawson find themselves stuck with their subjects' uninspiring third acts, but both acquit themselves well. Ashby died in 1988 of cancer, having struggled with opportunistic flops
like The Slugger's Wife and Eight Million Ways to Die. He had worked to repair his reputation as a drug casualty as he connected with a new generation of passionate actors and filmmakers, like Sean Penn.

Beatty went on to act in (and sometimes also direct or produce) Ishtar, Dick Tracy, Bugsy, Love Affair, Bulworth, and Town & Country. That sextet is not a total washout, but it's nowhere near his best. His reputation for budget excesses, endless retakes and rewrites, and painful procrastination has not helped him. He appears to have no lion-in- winter finale in mind as Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, and Meryl Streep have. Nor does he play magnanimous landlord to young filmmakers as do Robert Redford at the Sundance Festival and Robert De Niro at the Tribeca Film Festival. Biskind's depiction of the lion in self-induced paralysis (Beatty only directs if he's starring, but his star has faded) is some of the best writing in the book—particularly his chronicle of the disaster that was 2001's Town & Country. "He just can't give up the movie star," says David Geffen.

Both Biskind and Dawson excel when reporting on film, and both Beatty and Ashby remain object lessons of filmmakers taking chances at the top, not simply as first-timers with nothing to lose. For most in Hollywood, getting to the A-list is the goal. For Beatty and Ashby, it was an opportunity to be great—not proof of greatness achieved.

Ben Schwartz is a screenwriter and journalist based in Los Angeles.

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March 25, 2013
5:36 am

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