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Revolution as Ego Trip

Hollywood is an industry, of course, but it comes across more as a televised group therapy session, sustained by the media’s appetite for glimpses into the “inner life” of the calculatedly superficial. In this spirit, I’ve strung together some tales gathered from biographies of Warren Beatty and added some commentary. I hope to contextualize Reds on the 30th anniversary of its release by considering it in light of the concepts that define both the story itself and the man who made it: myth, history, celebrity, biography, politics, commodity, publicity, career. I argue that Reds is not the movie it sees itself as, nor that it could be; it is so closely bound to its creator that it cannot succeed in connecting us to the past.

First, a tiny but telling story about Beatty himself, the man who conceived of, produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in Reds, and who also persuaded his celebrity friends and acquaintances into taking cameo parts, thus giving genuine importance to the incident known as the Russian Revolution. This anecdote, from Suzanne Finstad’s Warren Beatty: A Private Man, concerns the making of Beatty’s first movie, the 1961 Elia Kazan-directed picture, Splendor in the Grass, with Natalie Wood:

Others viewed Beatty’s attention to detail with respect to his looks as sheer vanity. Donald Kranze, one of the crew who disliked him during Splendor, considered Beatty “six feet of pure ego.” Kranze once observed Beatty “in front of a mirror, a set stage … he’s got a straight pin, right? He’s putting that pin into each eyelash and separating them, and moving them forward.”

The crew didn’t like him … they gave him a name. It was “Mental Anguish.” When he’d come on the set, it was, “Here comes Mental Anguish.” Then it was shortened to M.A. Natalie did it, too.

Based on this account and myriad others, we would seem to be talking about a prima donna, about that variety of actor who relishes driving the director crazy with questions about emotion and motivation. An actor whose difficulty on the set is itself a carefully calibrated performance designed to communicate his uniqueness and importance and sensitivity and intelligence – not just to cast and crew, but to the world at large, as conveyed by Hollywood’s powerful publicity apparatus.

Warren Beatty was, as at least one biographer declares, a “self-created illusion,” the good-looking brother of a gifted sister (Shirley Maclaine), his aura of stardom generated before he had appeared in any film. This he accomplished with the help of a movie publicist named John Springer, who advised him skillfully on the art of forging a bad-boy image, and the long chain of noticeable women with whom he would publicly canoodle, starting with Joan Collins. The Beatty Image did not arise out of his career – not at all. The career is an appendage of the image, and every aspect of Beatty’s life, from his love life to his film choices to his politics, emerge from this urge to constantly refine this carefully constructed pseudo-self.

Reading about Beatty (particularly in the 2010 biography Star, by Vanity Fair editor Peter Biskind), one begins to understand how thin a concept “reality” is to those who attain stardom and must learn to live within their manufactured persona. Hollywood is a world of the hot and the not, the magnified few and the invisible remainder. It is an Olympus of superhumanly alluring and charismatic but flawed demigods, generally no more than two per picture, endlessly re-enacting with only minor variations the iconic roles of romantic hero and irresistible siren. In this setting, history of necessity becomes over-focused biography; biography is reduced to psychodrama; and psychodrama collapses at last into heartwarming or tear-jerking cliché.

We see this scenario play out during the filming of Reds, a long and painful process that took place in England, cold Finland, and hot and dusty Spain. The challenges of filming were milked fully by Warren Beatty, who knows as well as anyone the PR value of the appearance of artistic monomania. The following is from Warren Beatty: The Last Great Lover of Hollywood by John Parker:

There was a further poignancy about one crowd scene in Spain, where they were recreating Reed’s speech to the multitudes in Baku. Beatty got on the podium and made a speech to the extras, explaining what the scene was all about and providing a summary of John Reed’s life and times – which was all duly translated for the Spaniards pretending to be a crowd of Russians. He explained that he wanted a sea of upturned faces peering at him with admiration, perhaps wonderment. But before the scene was finally shot, there was a strike.

Extras revolted over pay and conditions, standing around for hours on end in temperatures exceeding 110 degrees. Beatty said he quite agreed with their stance. Was this John Reed striking against Warren Beatty? Or Beatty against himself? Or all against [Paramount chief] Barry Diller? Pay was increased by twenty dollars a day, Diller checked the number of his local heart clinic, and the whole unit then moved on to the frozen wastes of Finland before returning to America. The cost was being estimated at more than $30 million – and it would go higher, for although the main location work was in the can, Reds was nowhere near finished. Would it have that greatness Diller had forecast? Or would it be seen as one man’s obsession taken to a worthless extreme?

One wonders how Jean-Luc Godard would have handled the incident, of the abused extras in a revolutionary drama enacting an unscripted moment of class conflict. That scene may well have become the movie, as the director interwove past and present, fiction and reality, theory and praxis.

For Beatty, it becomes another Hollywood anecdote, albeit more complex and suggestive than most. Beatty remains the Director; the extras are given their raise, but remain extras, not actors, historical or otherwise. Their moment of bravery is a source of self-dramatized heartburn for Diller, and yet another obstacle for Beatty’s quixotic attempt to present the tale of John Reed, the randy radical with whom he identifies. The John Reed that Henry Miller describes within the film as “just a busybody whose political consciousness came from empty-headedness or the need to suppress his deeper problems,” who was always seeking to escape Upton Sinclair’s label as “the playboy of the revolution.”

Here’s another story cited by Parker about Charlie Bluhdorn, the chief of Gulf Western, the conglomerate that then owned Paramount Pictures:

Diller and Beatty flew to New York to meet Charlie, who seldom read scripts himself but liked to have the outline read aloud to him. On listening to the outline, he sat back, pondered and then spoke.

What we’ve got here, he said incisively, is a story about an All-American boy who turns Communist and goes to Russia, becomes an idol of the Reds, has a love affair with a dentist’s wife, gets sick and dies and they bury him a hero in the Kremlin. And you want me, who raises money through the supreme channels of the capitalist system, to back it?

“Right.”

This is a very iffy subject, Warren. How much are we talking?

“Charlie, I can’t say for sure.”

Twenty-five million dollars?

“Around that figure.”

Do me a favor, Warren.

“What?”

Take the 25 million dollars; go down to Mexico and spend some on making another picture and keep the rest for yourself. But just don’t make this picture.

Beatty explained that he had got to make the picture. He had lived with it for 10 years, and he woke up every morning with a feeling of self-disgust that he hadn’t done it yet.

All right, said Bluhdorn. Make the goddam picture. 25 million. Right?

The dialogue must come from Beatty himself; it is repeated almost verbatim in Biskind’s book, but this time with Bluhdorn using a cartoonish Mitteleuropa accent (“Vat iz diz vilm goyink to cozt?”). The story is itself suspiciously cinematic, with its archetypal characters, dramatic tension, peppery dialogue and happy ending, revealing the hero’s charm and perseverance, the crusty tycoon’s deep-down decency, and the system’s well-known support for artists in their quest for creative freedom and self-respect.

According to Biskind, Beatty reciprocated Bluhdorn’s willingness to bankroll the risky and pricey project by telling a colleague, “One of the things that gives me the biggest kick about making this movie about an American communist is that I get the money to do it from one of the most right-wing fascist people in Hollywood, Charlie Bluhdorn!” The anecdote reveals the extent to which Beatty’s liberalism is a way of cocking a snook at the dinosaurs then running the studios, and distancing himself psychologically from the moneymen who in the end he has no choice but to serve.

Which is not to deny that Warren Beatty is a seminal figure: Bonnie and Clyde really did change things, not only on the screen but also behind it. It helped make Beatty arguably the most successful impresario-star since Chaplin. He showed that the power of the autocratic old studio bosses could be siphoned off and rendered hip and relevant by someone more in touch with the zeitgeist – in this case, 1960s-style generational revolt. Beatty plays a lead part in the second golden age of Hollywood, the period that began with the audacious, class-conscious Bonnie and Clyde and ended with Steven Spielberg’s special effects-driven Jaws. It was a period when independent producers could make films that aggressively questioned authority – and find a sizeable audience of disaffected and searching youth.

But in retrospect, it is clear that Beatty was recasting the old scenarios, not abolishing them. His advent in Hollywood was an amicable palace coup, the ousting of a tired and decadent dynasty, and not a revolution. The industry’s penchant for mythologizing and romanticizing and heroicizing and sentimentalizing and oversimplifying was not questioned. The underlying pandering attitude toward the audience did not change one iota – for that would challenge the P.T. Barnum logic of celebrity culture, and potentially dim Beatty’s own luster.

So even stories with revolutionary potential – such as Bonnie and Clyde or Reds – become cautionary fables of misguided youthful passion and romantic excess. These films squeeze the material of history into the mold of melodrama, complete with bottom-line messages that are discouraging and ultimately conservative: Don’t fight the banks or the cops or the bureaucrats – you won’t win, and more importantly, you can’t find happiness trying to change the world or escape your appointed station in life. Apply that restless adolescent energy to finding and keeping a good woman or a good man. Let the world take care of itself. The great challenge in the making of Reds was to pull John Reed out of the American revolutionary context that he helped create and cast him as yet another doomed and memorable rebel, whose stubbornly oppositional existence offers negative life lessons to us all. Beatty (according to Biskind) sums up Reds – and the human condition – as follows: “If you’re chasing the locomotive of history, you do your best, you fire your best shots, and you live and learn, and then you die. It would be great if you had some fun, and it would be really great if you had some kids.”

This hopeless chase after the unreachable is the motif that animates Reds. It is why the movie tells us more than we need to know about John Reed and Louise Bryant, a vintage 1981 post-feminist dysfunctional couple, and not enough about the Russian Revolution, which remains dim and shapeless and foreign. Reed is linked to the present mainly through his sexual foibles, mirrored in Beatty’s strained relationship at the time with Keaton. In brief intercut segments, ancient Wobblies and wrinkled lady novelists discuss their memories of Reed and Bryant and the Bolshevik takeover, but there is no Angela Davis discussing the continuing relevance of Reed’s commitment to the class struggle, no Jane Fonda or Vanessa Redgrave talking about balancing politics and art.

Reds’ great virtue is that it presents the drama of the Russian Revolution to an audience beyond the ghetto of the Left. But the October Revolution is to Reds as the burning of Atlanta is to Gone with the Wind. It is an extravagant background, against which emerges a curiously off-kilter picture of John Reed. For all his flaws and limitations, Reed struggled mightily to become part of something bigger than himself, to find immortality not in his personal literary work, but in his cause, to which he indeed did give all. Yet the film de-emphasizes the milieu in which he was most truly himself, that of radical politics and journalism, and focuses on the domestic sphere, which, even by the evidence of the film, was not where his talents or inclinations lay.

The movie could plausibly end with the fall of the Winter Palace in Petrograd and the rapturous union of Reed and Bryant, happy together at last as the triumphant revolution unfolds around them. Instead it tacks on another hour and a half, essentially replaying part one in a minor key, ending with Reed’s death amid squalor and futility. Made in a town built on the happy ending, the film goes out of its way to close sadly. It seems Beatty’s point is to bury John Reed’s culture and circle of acquaintance, not to praise it. “Reed chooses political commitment over personal commitment, and is punished by death, the ultimate disincentive,” pronounces biographer Biskind.

So what is Reds? I see it as one of those dreams in which the dreamer plays all the roles, the victim being chased as well as the monster at his heels. Warren Beatty is John Reed himself; but as the film’s creator, he is also the imaginative force behind the hack magazine editor in New York who chops up Reed’s story without his permission, and the Soviet commissar who deliberately mistranslates Reed’s speech to make it more accessible to the masses. Beatty is the difficult actor and the demanding director, the visionary artist and the philistine movie producer, the virile Hollywood lone eagle and the emasculating Hollywood system, all wrapped up in one handsome but somewhat vacant and self-negating package.

No wonder Reed’s identity never quite seems to jell in the film, unlike Diane Keaton’s harder-edged Louise Bryant. In post-revolutionary Russia, with Reed’s allies in power and no one to effectively oppose, Reed’s energy sours and dissipates. At a certain point, it becomes hard not to side with Grigory Zinoviev, the manipulative and pragmatic Soviet bureaucrat (played beautifully by novelist Jerzy Kosinski), against this stubborn, touchy, grandiose foreigner.

The second half of the movie recounts Reed’s Job-like decline of fortune from revolutionary hero to failed parliamentarian to prisoner to invalid, as his personality loses its vigor and definition. Reed is victimized by forces he has helped set in motion and can no longer control. But revolution isn’t about control, it is about liberation – a concept the immature and egotistical Reed as depicted here can never quite fathom. Reds is the tale of a man of ability and intelligence who nevertheless fails to negotiate the boundary between outsider and insider and is torn apart by the conflict between the two roles. But whom are we now describing: John Reed or Warren Beatty?

In funding and executing a project that no one else would or could do, Beatty demonstrated his power in Hollywood. This is exactly what Reds is about: it is three and a quarter hours (plus intermission) of unimpeachable evidence that Beatty, through sheer sex appeal and chutzpah, had transcended Hollywood’s rules and could move freely about the board. No longer merely a “rebel,” Beatty had become a conquering hero, able to impose his will on an intractable industry.

But achieving power and knowing what to do with it are separate things. In the case of Warren Beatty, a man who longs to be perceived as outside of and bigger than the system of which he is a part, the ultimate result of his effort is a movie drenched in anxiety and paralysis, a reflection of the lack of purpose beneath the driving ambition. The system may be conquered but it cannot be altered, lest the stars fall from heaven and return to an all too solid and ordinary earth. It is this ambivalent psychic stalemate, this rebellious will terrified by the prospect of genuine revolution, that Reds illustrates and embodies.

HUGH IGLARSH is a Chicago-based writer, editor, speaker and movie buff (and is also a member of the Nelson Algren Committee, which will be celebrating the great mid-century novelist’s birthday this March 26; www.nelsonalgren.org). He can be reached at hiiglarsh@hotmail.com.

This essay originated as a presentation for the Open University of the Left in Chicago.

 

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