By his own admission there are very few luminaries in his lifetime that Warren Beatty has never met. When you talk to him as I got to do recently one afternoon at his Los Angeles home, iconic names would come up and he would say, “Oh, did you know him?” He was asking about people like Orson Welles, George Stevens, Samuel Goldwyn. I had to say no, I didn’t know them, but Beatty did — and he has a story for every one of them, even an occasional impression.
Beatty, himself a certified Hollywood legend, really has known all the icons of the industry and much of the world, perhaps, except one — and he makes sure that you understand he never actually met Howard Hughes. But now in Rules Don’t Apply, his new film opening next week and the first he has directed since 1998’s still-brilliant and even more prescient Bulworth, Warren Beatty has finally met him too — in the cinematic sense of the word. And after playing the reclusive billionaire he probably knows him as well as anybody, or at least he knows the Howard Hughes of the late-1950s period in which the film is set. This is the Hollywood the young Beatty remembers, and it has been exquisitely re-created with the kind of production values with which a Beatty-produced movie has always been associated.
When you look at his filmography it is remarkably spare compared to many of his stature, just 21 films by my count starting right at the top with Elia Kazan’s 1961 classic Splendor In The Grass, a movie he believes has a link with Rules in its emphasis on a certain kind of American sexual puritanism of the time. Since then the films might not have been numerous, but no one has made a more impressive collection when you consider the titles: Bonnie And Clyde, McCabe And Mrs. Miller, The Parallax View, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Dick Tracy, Bugsy, Bulworth — five of which he also directed — and winning the Best Director Oscar in 1981 for his epic love story Reds. Only that man whose name he threw out, Welles, has managed the trick of being Oscar nominated as actor, producer, director and writer of the same film. Welles did it first time out for Citizen Kane in 1941. Beatty, however, is the only person to have done it twice — first for 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, and then Reds.
In spending the afternoon with him I kept wishing I wasn’t doing an interview. I just wanted to sit there and listen to his stories, something I could have done for hours. But I knew the purpose was to talk about his new film. With Beatty, thank god, it’s impossible to do only that one thing. The man who says he hasn’t done interviews “in a thousand years” must have been saving it all up because he has a lot to say. In fact, he just wanted to talk at first without the recorder going. After 35 minutes I finally turned it on when Hughes’ name first came up.
“It is true I never met him. I sometimes feel I have met everyone he ever met, but I never met him. I am afraid to say I have always been, the word I would have to use is, amused by Howard Hughes,” Beatty said of the man he has been preparing to play in one form or another for decades in this long-gestating project that Beatty says is not, and was never meant to be, a biopic. “By the way, if you talk to people who actually knew him, nobody bad-mouths him. They liked him very much. It was difficult to accommodate him, everyone would say, and those stories would be very funny.”
He tells the story of being at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1964, the same night Howard Hughes was — apparently. Security guys he thought were with the tabloids were actually guarding Hughes’ seven suites and five bungalows as it turns out. It was the moment he first thought there might be a potential movie here somewhere. The Hughes angle eventually merged with something closer to Beatty himself.
Rules Don’t Apply, an apt title that also describes Beatty’s own life and career, is set beginning in 1958, the same year Beatty came to Hollywood. It revolves around the complex relationship between a young actress (Lily Collins) and a driver (Alden Ehrenrich) who both work for the very eccentric billionaire, dealing not only with him but also their mutual attraction complicated by their own devout religious upbringing. Although Beatty is playing Hughes, superbly, it is the younger man that may represent the most personal side of the star we have yet seen on screen. Beatty didn’t deny it when I asked him about that, and those early Hollywood years that inspired the setting of the movie he has once again written, directed, produced and starred in.
This has been percolating in one form or another with Beatty for 50 years and it is very important for him to emphasize repeatedly that Rules is defiantly not a Hughes biopic. “They would say, ‘Oh he’s working on a Howard Hughes movie’. No, I wasn’t. I was having a life. I’d like that to be quoted. And in the back of my mind I thought I’ll make that movie, but also other movies. And I finally got around to doing it, but it’s not a Howard Hughes biopic. You could say that much more about Bugsy, or you could say it about Bonnie And Clyde sort of. But the two leading characters in this thing are the boy and the girl, just say maybe it’s a biopic of a kid who came to Hollywood in 1958, not that that’s me,” he said.
But is there some of Warren Beatty in that kid? “There might be some,” he says. More than in any other movie you have ever made? “Maybe that’s true. And so it’s important that, when you come out in a huge number of theaters, you don’t want people thinking you’ve done a life story of Howard Hughes when you haven’t, because they’ll be disappointed,” he said.
Going back to the beginning of his own career, Beatty says got lucky to start off working with the great Kazan and never looked back after that. “My first picture was with (Elia) Kazan, who was nobody to sneeze at,” he said. “When I came to Hollywood I would take the opportunity to get to know George Stevens, or Willy Wyler, or Billy Wilder, or Freddie Zinnemann. David Lean I got to know of course in London. And David Selznick, and Darryl Zanuck, not to mention Jack Warner, and Sam Goldwyn was actually very very nice to me.”
Beatty’s older sister Shirley MacLaine was already a star when he decided to leave their home state of Virginia, where he had the same sort of religious upbringing as those characters in his new film. “I came out and I made a deal at MGM for $400 a week. That was more money than I’d ever heard of. I had been paying $13 a week rent in Manhattan in a furnished room. The bathroom was in the hall. I was studying with Stella Adler who was a great, great teacher who encouraged me to be an actor. I had thought I would just write or direct or whatever. I wasn’t thinking very much of Hollywood. I was thinking only of the legitimate theatre. But then I changed.”
Hollywood was a completely different animal.
He recalled one day driving through Beverly Hills and spotting a beautiful girl on a bicycle. “I stopped at the sign, and she stopped at the other stop sign, and then I just thought, that girl is so pretty,” he said. “And I thought, I guess that’s what it’s like here. And then she came a little closer, and then she stopped because I was staring at her. And you know who it was? Doris Day, of course at that time the biggest star in the world. And I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it was you. Well, I’m honored to have met you’.”
After about six weeks of doing nothing, sitting around the Coldwater Canyon house that had been rented for him, he got a visit from Daniel Mann and playwright William Inge, who wanted him to come back to New York to do Inge’s new play A Loss Of Roses. Even though his interest was movies now, they convinced him not to “sell out” to Hollywood — but first he had to get out of his MCA contract. He hadn’t signed it yet, but he had been paid about $2500 to that point.
“I said I wanted to give them back the money,” he recalled. ” ‘Well do you have the money?’ this guy named Henry asked. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I would like to borrow the money from MCA’ which was running the world at that time. So I sat down trepidaciously with Lew Wasserman and I said, ‘Well, I would like to borrow the money from MCA’ and he stares at me. And there’s a long silence, and he says, ‘What do I look like to you, a bank?’ And I said, ‘No, no , no no’. He says, “Well what do I look like to you?’ And I took a deep breath, I said, ‘Well you look to me like a very, very brilliant agent who will be minus one client’ if he doesn’t lend me the money. And then he looks at me like dead seriously, and then he doubles up laughing and says, ‘All right, you’ve got the money’.”
Perhaps this nervy move was where Beatty’s producing career actually took root. But it became a full-fledged goal after his ill-fated experience on the 1965 film What’s New Pussycat?, a title he came up with based on a phrase he often used. He wanted to make the movie but clashed with producer Charles K. Feldman over creative differences including casting a young comic named Woody Allen that Beatty had discovered doing stand-up at the Blue Angel in New York. He eventually walked.
“I learned a big lesson, which was, you better be in charge. And that’s when I said ,’OK I’m going to do this Bonnie And Clyde thing, and I can only fire myself or walk out on myself, or whatever,” he said of the 1967 movie that represented his first producing effort. It ended up with 10 Academy Award nominations and two Oscars, but Warner Bros studio chief Jack Warner had not wanted him to do it. Warner in fact told his head of production that he should not greenlight it, that these types of gangster movies went out a long time ago when Warners originally did them in the ’30s and ’40s.
“I said to Warner, ‘I think you’re wrong’,” Beatty said. “And he said, ‘What do you mean, I’m wrong?’ I said, ‘I think we should do this and it’ll be good.’ He said, ‘Well look, you’re going to do what I say, because it’s my name on the (WB studio lot’s) water tower.’ I took a deep breath, I stood up, I went to the window, and said, ‘It’s my initials.’ He finally said, ‘All right, do whatever the f*ck you want’.”
And for the most part that is what Beatty has done ever since, though he says he perhaps haphazardly used Warner’s logic that certain genres were out of style when he turned down a little book, still in galleys, that Charles Bluhdorn of Gulf & Western which owned Paramount at the time had sent him — with the agreement he could produce it, direct it, star in it or do anything he wanted. “So I read it in galleys, and I said, ‘Charlie I know it is only in galleys but it is filled with misspelling and all kinds of typos. And by the way, I think these movies are over, I mean this type of movie. I don’t think it’s going to do well.’ Do you know what it was? The Godfather,” he said, laughing.
But he has no regrets. “If I had done some of the movies that I was offered as an actor, and very good movies by the way, and some of them big moneymakers, I don’t know that I ever would have taken what was the concentration or the time to do the movies that I produced. Reds is a good example, but Shampoo is also an example, and so was Heaven Can Wait. I was originally preparing that for Muhammad Ali to be in,” he said, noting that Ali would have played the lead role as a boxer rather than the football player it became when Beatty eventually took on the role — it was another of his films to garner 10 Oscar nominations. (Personally, Beatty has had 14 Oscar noms overall.)
He credits having always had “the luxury of not working” as a plus in being able to develop and make the movies he has wanted to make, at least those he controlled. It is an understatement to say he takes his time to make a movie, a process he compares to the act of vomiting.
Essentially for Beatty, that first producing gig Bonnie And Clyde was like making an independent film within the studio system, especially at the time. But Beatty notes it wasn’t the only time, citing Shampoo, Reds, and Bulworth as indie-spirited projects. Rules don’t apply to the way Beatty has been able to navigate his particular brand of movies through the studios, but even though it is being released by Fox, Rules Don’t Apply is the first genuinely independently financed movie Beatty has produced — and because of that there are a near-record 15 other “produced by” (not executive producer) credits on the film, along with a gaggle of production company names that roll by. Among those credited as producers in addition to New Regency’s Arnon Milchan (who was a key player) are Steve Bing, Ron Burkle, Steven Mnuchin and Terry Semel to name a few.
I asked Beatty about the large number of credits, which by the way did not please the Producers Guild and its efforts to rein in use of that credit. “I would say this: to do what I wanted to do this was by far the best way to do it, and that the people that I was fortunate enough to be involved with were impeccable, honest, helpful, supportive, and I couldn’t speak more positively about them,” he said. “I could have made the movie in more conventional circumstances, but I would have had to make some compromises that I just didn’t want to make.”
It is hard to believe the aforementioned Bonnie And Clyde turns 50 in 2017, the same year Beatty celebrates his 80th(!) birthday (on March 30). He doesn’t look it. He’s even talking now about doing a sequel to Dick Tracy, a quarter of a century since its 1990 release. You can tell he is enjoying being back on the big screen again, even though he hasn’t acted in a movie in 15 years. Life, as he says, took over. He took time for that.
“What I think is that having four kids, and having the marriage that I have, is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” he says of his 24-year union with Annette Bening , his co-star in Bugsy and Love Affair. “It’s given me a wonderful perspective on what my oldest child once called the tunnel at the end of the light. I don’t know what I would have felt in those years of the ’60s and the ’70s , which I associate with liberation of the female as much as anything, and political movement, and the freedom involved. I feel if I had married, I don’t know how well I would have handled it. And I had very loving relationships with several extremely impressive people who also avoided marriage, interestingly enough.”
He says he knew it was the right time to settle down (at age 56) the minute he met Bening, who also is among an impressive list of actors taking on small supporting roles in his new film. “Yeah. I could call it lucky, but maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit. I can say it’s lucky that I made a movie with Kazan, but I was good. And I could say lucky that I met up with Annette, got her to marry me. But then you could say I’m brilliant,” to which I paused the conversation and offered the word “charmed.”
“Or charmed,” he agreed. “Or let’s just go back to lucky.”