Sixty one and still full of surprises, that'sWarren Beatty. This weekend, Beatty goes head to head at the boxoffice with "The Horse Whisperer," starring that other senior iconRobert Redford. Redford, like his contemporary Beatty, not only starsbut also directs and produces his movie. May the best man win.
However, Beatty, never one to leave things tochance when he can micromanage every inch of his collected opus, isout there, looking for an edge -- and selling his savage politicalfarce with the kind of intensity that would be exhausting if itweren't so charming. In an era when movies poke bitter fun atpoliticos (most recently "Primary Colors" and "Wag the Dog," bothcritically praised but not exactly box office dynamite), Beatty hasput his head on the line in the genre.
He playsincumbent U.S. Sen. Jay Bulworth of California, just days away froman election and in the throes of a nervous breakdown. With the racerazor's-edge close, he's become a blubbering mess, a disenchanted,burnt-out case, with a philandering wife (Christine Baranski) andlittle to hang on to. So he comes up with a unique solution to hisproblems: He hires a hit man to kill him for a fat life insurancepolicy that benefits his daughter.
But along the way to being 6 feet under, Bulworthmeets the gorgeous Nina (Halle Berry), a bright woman, 30-plus yearshis junior, raised by 1960s activists living in South Central LosAngeles. Bulworth, understandably, decides to cancel the hit. It'stoo late.
What follows is a "Warren in the Hood" politicaltragicomedy-cum-farce, which gives the savvy Beatty a chance tosavage not only the hometown Hollywood industry, but to fire deadlyarrows at assorted sacred cows, from politics to racism. Beatty asthe demented candidate turns into a hip-hopping, rap-spoutingpolitico who decides the only way to salvation is to tell it like itis: about Jews, blacks, Hispanics and the entire U.S. politicalhierarchy.
Why should politicians follow through on theircampaign promises to blacks, he asks his audience at a South Centralchurch, when blacks don't make financial contributions? Whateverhappened to federal funding? asks a congregant. "They told you whatyou wanted to hear," he snaps back. "Half your kids are out of workand half in jail, so what are you gonna do, vote Republican?"
Then whisked to a fund-raiser at a Beverly Hillsmansion, he scans his speech. Gazing out at the fat-cat donors, hemuses, "Oh, mostly Jews here -- I'm sure they put something in aboutFarrakahn."
As for Israel, he tells the astounded group thatpoliticians say they will support it just to take your money.
The $32 million movie is Beatty's baby. Heproduced, wrote, directed and, of course, is the on-screen linchpinof this outrageous caper -- made, ironically, for theultra-conservative Rupert Murdoch, who owns 20th Century Fox.
Political movies, especially since they're upagainst some fairly stiff competition from the real thing these days,are not an easy sell. So Beatty is hitting the campaign trail asnever before to peddle "Bulworth" to the widest possibleaudience.
At the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills,Beatty, who turned 61 in March, looks in pretty good shape: There area few silver flecks in his full head of hair, a few wrinkles, but thewhole thing is pretty well preserved and immaculately attiredcompletely in dark-green cords, suede jacket and matching tie.
Throughout his long career, he has had a love-haterelationship with the media, but this time out, he's making nice.Like a politician on the stump, he walks into the suite anddeliberately shakes everyone's hand, paying particular attention toblack journalists. He knows there's an audience out there thatnormally wouldn't be seen dead at a Warren Beatty film, and he'sanxious to grab them. (When he's finished, he even sits patiently,signing photos and posing for pictures with some of the morestar-struck journalists.) This is uncharacteristic behavior, to saythe least, from a man who has shunned the media all his life.
"This," he declares, as if to convince himself,"is the best film I've ever made. It has a certain energy and makesme laugh when I look at it."
And it's pretty lifelike stuff, its creatorinsists. "In order for the film to work," he says, "it has to beviolent, sexy and funny -- or else it turns into C-Span."
This desire to get attention has sent Beatty intosome strange territory. There's enough rap music in his movie to keepthe most ardent fan happy. And Beatty compares the rappers of the1990s to Russian protest poets of Moscow, circa the 1960s.
It is also the first time that moviegoers get achance to see Beatty unvarnished, unairbrushed, filmed without thelayers of gauze he has lately employed when he takes to the bigscreen. In most of his movies, including the most recent, "LoveAffair," "Bugsy" and "Dick Tracy," Beatty has been filmed with thekind of devotion that only a Barbra Streisand can top. In "Bulworth,"he is unkempt, unshaven and crazed -- upon orders from Beattyhimself.
"I told [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro, 'Iwant to be ugly in this movie,'" says Beatty. "I wanted to do thething that was the most opposite to me."
And, so, the man who says with some justification,although not as much as he thinks, "I've been famous longer thananybody alive," is preparing to sabotage his legend."
And how does it feel to go out there symbolicallynaked in front of the multitudes? Don't expect a straight answer fromthe man who perfected the responseoblique.
"This is the kind of language you hear processedthrough the press," he says sharply. "It's so ephemeral and goofy. Ifyou were to get caught up in this whole image thing, you'd go down aroad of unrewarding narcissism. And that is something I have neverwanted to get involved with."
He then goes on to give the lie to himself inspades. "To tell you the truth, I've dealt with this legend thinglonger than most people...longer than Robert Redford and JackNicholson. My first film ["Splendor in the Grass," l961] was a hugehit. Those people had to wait decades longer before hittingit."
Failing to quit while he's ahead, he gilds thelily further: "If I put my career into perspective, this is what Isee: I've done some good work and got awards, got critical acclaimand made enough money to live happily. I have built up a body ofmovies to make it impossible to forget me."
Wonder what Bulworth would say about that one?
Ventura writer Ivor Davis writes a weeklycolumn for The New York Times Syndicate.