Pictures at a Revolution (4 page)

Allen was preparing for a trip to France in a couple of weeks to discuss the Bradbury project with Truffaut. Before he left, Jones asked him to bring the director the
Bonnie and Clyde
treatment and asked Scott if she would set the table for its arrival. Scott agreed and wrote to Truffaut, “You know my embarrassment about these things, but I read it last evening and to my surprise—and for the first time—I was extremely excited. It has every evidence of being excellent. The scenario is created for you…. It's about Bonnie and Clyde—an authentic pair of young bandits who lived during the 1930s in Texas—the same period and locale as John Steinbeck's
Grapes of Wrath….
May seem banal but for this ironic treatment…. At first I thought it was too American for you—but there are a thousand nuances that make it something special.” Scott urged Truffaut to have his wife, Madeleine Morgenstern, read Benton and Newman's treatment and find someone to translate it into French for him.
33

Allen, who was preoccupied with
Fahrenheit 451
, either forgot to bring the treatment with him or never showed it to Truffaut, but Scott's letter piqued Truffaut's interest, even though his only knowledge of Parker and Barrow came from a comic strip called
Un Ménage de Gangsters
34
that he had seen in a newspaper a year earlier. “Allen didn't say a word about the script you described to me,
Clyde Barrow,”
Truffaut wrote to Scott just before Christmas, “but I managed to get some
France Soir
comic strips on the subject, very interesting. Now there would be an interesting part for Jane Fonda…. Maybe….”
35

Elinor Jones mailed him the treatment without delay. Truffaut showed it to friends and colleagues and then asked Claudine Bouché, his editor on
Jules and Jim
, to prepare a translation. In early January 1964, the director wrote back to Scott, “I've had
Clyde and Bonnie
read by two or three friends here; everyone is enthusiastic and assures me I should make the film.”
36
Truffaut himself hadn't read a word Benton and Newman had written—and if he had, he would have seen that the story whose title he still couldn't get quite right looked nothing like a filmable screenplay. But Benton and Newman believed that the movies coming out of France were so fresh in part because they were made without stultifying overpreparation. Maybe, they thought, making
Bonnie and Clyde
really was going to be as simple as getting their dream director to say yes.

TWO

A
t about the moment when Benton and Newman's treatment of
Bonnie and Clyde
was being sent to Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty was sitting in the living room of Stanley Kubrick's apartment on Central Park West, trying to convince Kubrick to direct his next movie. It was a meeting that Beatty would later recall only as a footnote, an answer to the question “Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy was shot?”
1
But on the morning of November 22, 1963, hours before the news broke, Kennedy wouldn't have been on Beatty's mind at all, except perhaps as a role that he'd recently turned down, in
PT 109.

Beatty was used to turning things down. He was a movie star, a position at which he had arrived a couple of years earlier with almost no intermediate steps. There were no stories of protracted struggle, no doors slamming in his face, no dark nights of the soul. He had done a little work in television, gotten a recurring role on the situation comedy
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
, appeared in one Broadway play, and then signed for his first movie, starring opposite Natalie Wood in Elia Kazan's
Splendor in the Grass.
When Warner Brothers opened
Splendor
in 1961, Hollywood had not successfully launched a new young leading man in several years; the most recent of them to arrive on screen, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Montgomery Clift, were all a dozen or more years older than Beatty, and although a new group of actors almost exactly Beatty's age—Robert Redford, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Burt Reynolds—would become central to the movie business a decade later, none of them were remotely on the map yet. Beatty, just twenty-two when he was cast in
Splendor
, had a head start on the rest of his generation. Thanks to both his own magnetism on screen and a publicity and representation team that had worked shrewdly on his behalf, after the film's success the field was his for the taking.

In
Splendor in the Grass
, Beatty played a small-town high school star athlete so virile, tender, and handsome that Wood's character is literally driven mad by her desire for him. The movie had gone further than any film of the 1950s in presenting a male lead explicitly as an object of lust—Kazan hadn't even eroticized Brando as completely in
A Streetcar Named Desire
ten years earlier. Beatty was smart and observant enough to know that the adulation that followed was an opportunity that could easily turn into a booby trap. After
Splendor
opened, “I remember walking out of the Delmonico Hotel, and some teenage girls were leaning on my car looking at me, and one of them said, ‘Oh my God, you're Warren Beatty! God, you're…nothing!' I thought, now I'm
her
size. When you were fifty times bigger than the person who was looking at you, you had an advantage.”
2

Beatty did what he could to stay larger than life. He conducted his romances with casual exuberance and serial enthusiasm but planned each professional move with hesitation, deliberation, and strategy. He was attracted to young, beautiful women for what he understatedly called “social fun”
3
and to older men—to writers, directors, and producers whose careers he admired—for work. Beatty had “a vision for himself,” said Jane Fonda, who, just beginning to act and still uncertain of her own path and abilities, had lost the female lead in
Splendor
to Natalie Wood. “Very early on he made a list of the directors he would work with…it was just the existence of the list that fascinated me more than the names on it.”
4

“If I had any lists, they were lists of people that MCA [Music Corporation of America], who was my agent, were not aware of,” says Beatty. “The movies that were really attracting the attention of people who were kind of smart were those of the Nouvelle Vague and the neorealists and all those guys in Woodfall
*
in London: Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson. Looking back, I realize how little I knew about movies then. But I did get interested. And it didn't take a Nobel Prize mentality to know that George Stevens or Kazan or Zinnemann or Wyler or Wilder or Lean or Fellini or Visconti or Bergman or Antonioni or Truffaut or Godard or Resnais were people to learn from.”
5

Beatty's aptitude for putting himself next to talent had paid off well initially. After he won a Tony nomination for his first and only appearance on Broadway, in William Inge's 1959 play,
A Loss of Roses
, Inge created the role of
Splendor
's Bud Stamper for him, and Beatty put himself in Kazan's hands as willingly as any young actor in Hollywood who wanted to be taken seriously would have done. “I'm a bit scared and worried,” he told
The New York Times
while filming
Splendor
, “but I'd try anything involving Bill and Gadge.”
6
By the time he arrived in Hollywood, Beatty had already done everything right. His press agent, John Springer, worked for Arthur P. Jacobs's company, one of the most important publicity firms of its time. His career was being guided by Hollywood's biggest talent agency. He met the right people at the right parties; one evening, when Rita Hayworth spotted him from the dance floor, she introduced him to her dancing partner, Clifford Odets, who in turn introduced him to Jean Renoir. And Beatty knew what he still needed to learn; he worked to steep himself in film history at a time when doing so meant using whatever connections he had to obtain undamaged 16-millimeter prints of Renoir's
Grand Illusion
and
Rules of the Game
so he could watch and rewatch them. “I thought they were the best movies I'd ever seen,” he says.
7

All of which made it even more puzzling that since
Splendor in the Grass
, almost nothing had gone as Beatty had hoped it would. By the time
Splendor
opened, he may already have had an inkling that he was about to stumble. His next two movies,
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
(like
Splendor
, for Warner Brothers) and
All Fall Down
(for MGM), were already in the can, and neither one was particularly promising. The movies fulfilled contractual obligations—Beatty had signed a deal with MGM and turned down many movies the studio suggested before
All Fall Down
8
—but they also represented the potential peril of gravitating toward theater-based talent rather than good material or strong roles. Beatty had courted Tennessee Williams for the chance to star opposite Vivien Leigh in
Roman Spring
, but the part, a callow, immoral gigolo, was poorly written and a less than ideal match for an actor who wanted the world to take him seriously despite an off-screen public image as a pretty boy and a hypereligible bachelor.
All Fall Down
gave him the chance to work with Inge again, as well as with New York–trained director John Frankenheimer, producer John Houseman, and Kazan-approved actors like Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint. But the film itself turned out to be a sour variation on Inge's family dysfunction stage dramas of the 1950s, and Beatty's role, a sullen, womanizing rebel, was underwritten and unappealing. Neither movie did anything for Beatty's career or his standing in Hollywood.

For the rising star Frankenheimer,
All Fall Down
turned out to be a minor speed bump in 1962, a year that also brought the releases of his acclaimed
Birdman of Alcatraz
and
The Manchurian Candidate.
But Beatty seemed to take the experience as a warning: He didn't make another movie for sixteen months.
9
Part of the delay, he says, was due to the tireless pursuits that made him a gossip magazine mainstay: “There was an awful lot of fun to be had, and you kind of hate to think you're missing out on real life to put something on celluloid.”
10
But Beatty was also learning to proceed with caution.

When he finally did decide to take a new role, it was, once again, in a project on which the roster of talent was far more impressive than the script. The film was
Lilith
, a Columbia Pictures drama about a sensitive young man who takes a job in a home for the mentally ill and falls under the spell of a disturbed young woman (Jean Seberg). In the movie's favor was a subject that, at the time, excited great curiosity in moviegoers (
David and Lisa
, with a similar theme, had been an out-of-left-field success in 1962) and a writer-director, Robert Rossen, who had made one of the best American movies of the last couple of years, 1961's poolroom drama
The Hustler.
But Beatty proved to be a bad match with Rossen, a troubled man who had been shattered by both sides of the Hollywood blacklist, first refusing to name any names and then, after two years of unemployment, naming dozens.
11
By the time he made
Lilith
, Rossen was ill, and ill-tempered, and Beatty bridled at his unwillingness or inability to talk through nuances of the script and the role.
12

Beatty's work on
Lilith
was an unhappy experience, and in the mess of a film that resulted, which mixes some early-1960s experimentation (double-image cinematography, expressionistic sound) with old-fashioned and tedious Freudianism, the misery showed in his performance. For the first time, Beatty appeared to be almost deliberately withholding and retentive. By the time of
Lilith
's production, the actor was starting to acquire a clouded reputation in Hollywood. He was known to be obstinate, overly painstaking, and sometimes argumentative on sets. His indecision had angered at least one powerful studio chief, Jack Warner, when he had waffled on an agreement to star in an adaptation of Herman Wouk's
Youngblood Hawke
well into preproduction early in 1963
13
and resisted Warner's strong-arming attempt to put him in
PT 109.
14
And he was, to the distress of his own management team, a profoundly unenthusiastic interview subject.
15
Lilith
would turn out to mark the moment when critics collectively soured on him and used his performance to announce their general exhaustion with Brandoesque Method mumbling. The reviewer for
Variety
, the movie industry trade paper whose telegraphically written notices generally expressed enthusiasm for any film that had good box office potential and reserved distaste only for the obscure, wrote, “Warren Beatty undertakes lead role with a hesitation jarring to the watcher…often the audience waits uncomfortably for words which never come while Beatty merely hangs his head or stares into space.” The review ominously predicted that theaters would be reluctant to book the film at all.
16
And Bosley Crowther, the aging but still influential lead movie critic for
The New York Times
, who had not liked Beatty even in
Splendor in the Grass
, called his work “muddy” and “monotonous.”
17

Lilith
's poor reception was still almost a year away when Beatty paid Stanley Kubrick a visit, but the shoot was already over, and Beatty wasn't harboring any hopes that the poky, obscure film would turn his fortunes around. After government antitrust laws forced MCA to drop its agency business in 1962, Beatty decided to try a new approach: He would develop his own material and try to handpick collaborators along the way. Decades before every actor in Hollywood had his own production company, Beatty's determination to take a hand in the architecture of his own career at a very young age was met by more than a few smirks, but he had little to lose by trying. Kubrick's new film,
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
, wasn't due to open for two more months—some in Hollywood still couldn't believe that Columbia's black comedy, which went leagues further than any prior studio movie in its near nihilistic savaging of cold war politics, would open at all. But Beatty had been awed by an early screening, and the film's thirty-five-year-old director was now on his list.
18

The movie Beatty wanted Kubrick to direct was
What's New, Pussycat?
, a comic take on sexual liberation and psychotherapy that Beatty's friend and mentor, the talent agent Charles K. Feldman, had been trying to produce for ten years. After four dark-spirited movies in a row, Beatty was aching for a change of pace, a broadening of his range, and an image tweak. “I wanted to play somebody who was
not
a neurotic, sensitive type,” he says. “I thought the whole idea of sex and psychoanalysis was funny”—all the more after
Lilith
's humorless take on the same subject—“and I wanted to play a compulsive Don Juan.” The project had its earliest origins in
Lot's Wife
, an old script by a Hungarian playwright that Feldman had initially hired Billy Wilder's writing partner, I. A. L. Diamond, to overhaul. Beatty had since worked on the idea and made it his own, starting with the title, which was said to be one of the actor's signature off-camera come-ons, and he had handpicked a new writer, Woody Allen, after seeing him do a stand-up comedy routine. “I thought he was funny as hell, and I said, ‘Charlie, let's get this guy.' Charlie was willing to spend $30,000. Woody wanted $40,000. I said to Charlie, ‘Well, I'll pay him the extra ten, cheapskate,' and Charlie said, ‘No, no, no, I'll pay him,' and then Woody said, ‘I'll do it if I can be in the movie, in a little part.”' After that, with rewrites progressing nicely, Beatty started shopping for a director. At first, he talked to another comic performer, Mike Nichols, who was considering making his first foray into directing. “I wanted a guy who'd never done a movie,” says Beatty. But Nichols, at that moment, had his eye on theater, not film, so they both moved on.
19

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