Sixty one and still full of surprises, that's Warren Beatty. This weekend, Beatty goes head to head at the box office with "The Horse Whisperer," starring that other senior icon Robert Redford. Redford, like his contemporary Beatty, not only stars but also directs and produces his movie. May the best man win.
However, Beatty, never one to leave things to chance when he can micromanage every inch of his collected opus, is out there, looking for an edge -- and selling his savage political farce with the kind of intensity that would be exhausting if itweren't so charming. In an era when movies poke bitter fun at politicos (most recently "Primary Colors" and "Wag the Dog," both critically praised but not exactly box office dynamite), Beatty has put his head on the line in the genre.
He plays incumbent U.S. Sen. Jay Bulworth of California, just days away from an election and in the throes of a nervous breakdown. With the race razor's-edge close, he's become a blubbering mess, a disenchanted,burnt-out case, with a philandering wife (Christine Baranski) and little to hang on to. So he comes up with a unique solution to his problems: He hires a hit man to kill him for a fat life insurance policy that benefits his daughter.
But along the way to being 6 feet under, Bulworth meets the gorgeous Nina (Halle Berry), a bright woman, 30-plus years his junior, raised by 1960s activists living in South Central Los Angeles. Bulworth, understandably, decides to cancel the hit. It's too late.
What follows is a "Warren in the Hood" political tragicomedy-cum-farce, which gives the savvy Beatty a chance to savage not only the hometown Hollywood industry, but to fire deadly arrows at assorted sacred cows, from politics to racism. Beatty as the demented candidate turns into a hip-hopping, rap-spouting politico who decides the only way to salvation is to tell it like it is: about Jews, blacks, Hispanics and the entire U.S. political hierarchy.
Why should politicians follow through on their campaign promises to blacks, he asks his audience at a South Central church, when blacks don't make financial contributions? Whatever happened to federal funding? asks a congregant. "They told you what you wanted to hear," he snaps back. "Half your kids are out of work and half in jail, so what are you gonna do, vote Republican?"
Then whisked to a fund-raiser at a Beverly Hills mansion, he scans his speech. Gazing out at the fat-cat donors, he muses, "Oh, mostly Jews here -- I'm sure they put something in about Farrakahn."
As for Israel, he tells the astounded group that politicians say they will support it just to take your money.
The $32 million movie is Beatty's baby. He produced, wrote, directed and, of course, is the on-screen linchpin of this outrageous caper -- made, ironically, for the ultra-conservative Rupert Murdoch, who owns 20th Century Fox.
Political movies, especially since they're up against some fairly stiff competition from the real thing these days,are not an easy sell. So Beatty is hitting the campaign trail as never before to peddle "Bulworth" to the widest possible audience.
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 the whole thing is pretty well preserved and immaculately attired completely in dark-green cords, suede jacket and matching tie.
Throughout his long career, he has had a love-hate relationship with the media, but this time out, he's making nice.Like a politician on the stump, he walks into the suite and deliberately shakes everyone's hand, paying particular attention to black journalists. He knows there's an audience out there that normally wouldn't be seen dead at a Warren Beatty film, and he's anxious to grab them. (When he's finished, he even sits patiently, signing photos and posing for pictures with some of the more star-struck journalists.) This is uncharacteristic behavior, to say the 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 makes me laugh when I look at it."
And it's pretty lifelike stuff, its creator insists. "In order for the film to work," he says, "it has to be violent, sexy and funny -- or else it turns into C-Span."
This desire to get attention has sent Beatty into some strange territory. There's enough rap music in his movie to keep the 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 a chance to see Beatty unvarnished, unairbrushed, filmed without the layers of gauze he has lately employed when he takes to the big screen. In most of his movies, including the most recent, "Love Affair," "Bugsy" and "Dick Tracy," Beatty has been filmed with the kind of devotion that only a Barbra Streisand can top. In "Bulworth,"he is unkempt, unshaven and crazed -- upon orders from Beatty himself.
"I told [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro, 'I want to be ugly in this movie,'" says Beatty. "I wanted to do the thing 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 than anybody alive," is preparing to sabotage his legend."
And how does it feel to go out there symbolically naked in front of the multitudes? Don't expect a straight answer from the man who perfected the response oblique.
"This is the kind of language you hear processed through the press," he says sharply. "It's so ephemeral and goofy. If you were to get caught up in this whole image thing, you'd go down a road of unrewarding narcissism. And that is something I have never wanted to get involved with."
He then goes on to give the lie to himself in spades. "To tell you the truth, I've dealt with this legend thing longer than most people...longer than Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson. My first film ["Splendor in the Grass," l961] was a huge hit. Those people had to wait decades longer before hitting it."
Failing to quit while he's ahead, he gilds the lily further: "If I put my career into perspective, this is what I see: I've done some good work and got awards, got critical acclaim and made enough money to live happily. I have built up a body of movies to make it impossible to forget me."
Wonder what Bulworth would say about that one?
Ventura writer Ivor Davis writes a weekly column for The New York Times Syndicate.