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Where Have You Been, Warren Beatty?

With his first film in nearly two decades, the 79-year-old actor-writer-director-auteur proves it's never too late

(Video) What I Learned: Warren Beatty and Alden Ehrenreich: Actors Warren Beatty and Alden Ehrenreich discuss what they learned from each other while filming the movie "Rules Don't Apply" and what they discovered about themselves in the process

"I have been famous for a long time."

This is Warren Beatty's explanation for many things I am about to hear: for his understanding of people's desire to reach out to him, for patience, for privacy, but most of all for his exasperating ambivalence about me and this two-day transaction we've embarked upon. He hates being interviewed — hates it, though he denies hating it — but after almost two decades of virtual public silence, he is willing to speak.

That's because he's just finished a new movie, Rules Don't Apply, which stars Warren Beatty. It was produced by Warren Beatty. It was written by Warren Beatty — and directed by Warren Beatty. I should add that this interview, too, is by Warren Beatty, because he says nothing he does not want to say. He is a fan of control and precision in his speech: He quibbles over imprecise words, bats away "not quite" phrases and praises sentences that are accurate. He seems to be always taking notes on his own reactions, which probably contributes to a sense of dreaminess that he gives off. It's as if he's always listening to himself as he talks. Spend a little time with him and it's easy to see how Carly Simon, briefly a lover, was inspired by him to write "You're So Vain": You probably think this song is about you.

We meet for lunch at the Sunset Tower Hotel in L.A.; he's got the healthy salad but steals bites of my greasy sliders. Even here, where celebrities grow like kudzu, the staff keep making unnecessary pit stops to chat him up. Each time someone drops by, he stops eating, folds his arms and listens. At 79, Beatty is lean and graceful but makes no artful efforts to look young. His hair is mostly gray, his skin weathered, and he wears a beige windbreaker so frayed I wonder aloud if it's one of those good-luck pieces of clothing guys can't part with. ("No, but look at these pockets. It's got great pockets," he says.) Unlike 95 percent of the famous people I've interviewed, he is deeply curious about other people.

Yes, he has been famous for a long time, since his first starring role, in Splendor in the Grass in 1961. His fame has given him entrée into the lives of everyone and anyone; there is hardly any figure on the world stage over the past 50 years that Beatty hasn't met, dined with, perhaps made love to, as the stories go. But at the same time, he is frightened, even contemptuous, of fame and of that part of him that may make some sort of calamitous misstep — a betrayal of family or loved ones — in service to the actor's weakness. And what is this weakness, exactly?

Warren Beatty in 'Splendor in the Grass'

Warner Bros./Photofest Digital

Warren Beatty in "Splendor in the Grass"

The consequences of American Protestant puritan sexual guilt and repression, which I feel is the theme of ['Rules Don't Apply'], is something I have a strong interest in.”

Beatty takes off the '70s aviators, fixing me with those teal eyes. He quotes the famous explanation Laurence Olivier gave when asked why actors do what they do: "Look at me, look at me, look at me!"

Of course, we've never been able to help looking at Warren Beatty. And now we are looking again.

At the movie screening where we first met, I asked him why it had been 18 years between this and his last film. "Because," he says, "I'm slow at everything I do." Then he smiled. And suddenly I wasn't thinking about the movie anymore.

Wait, where was I? Oh, yes, the movie. Rules Don't Apply follows Howard Hughes through a period when the eccentric, reclusive billionaire, then running RKO Pictures, becomes even more eccentric and reclusive. Although Beatty, as Hughes, dominates the film with his outsize performance, at its heart the movie is a tender romance. A Hughes starlet, played by Lily Collins, and a rising assistant in the Hughes organization, played by Alden Ehrenreich, fall in love. Constrained by their religions and their shame about sex, the troubled relationship is played out against the background of Hughes' casting couch, and his disintegration.

Beatty had been interested in Hughes, whom he never met, for many years, ever since staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel at the same time Hughes was in residence. The tabloid reporters Beatty thought had been sent to spy on him were, in fact, Hughes functionaries. Hughes kept multiple suites and bungalows there, and no one, not even the hotel staff, knew where he was at any given time. "Right away I thought, This is very unusual. It amused me, the idea of a man being so public yet so private," Beatty says. Typically, he considers his own emotions from a remove. "I was fascinated by my fascination with this person."

"Howard Hughes was the first person I met when I came to Hollywood," says Beatty's older sister, the actress Shirley MacLaine. "Hughes had this theatrical mysteriousness that Warren always found intriguing."

Warren Beatty

Sam Jones

Warren Beatty, age 79, returns to the silver screen with "Rules Don't Apply."

Henry Warren Beaty (he added the extra "t" so people would stop saying "Beat-y") was born in 1937 and grew up in Arlington, Va., the son of two educators. Though Hughes came from enormous wealth, the parallels between him and Beatty seem obvious: the charm, the omnivorous curiosity, the need to dabble in politics without running. (The actor spent a year campaigning for George McGovern; he was with Bobby Kennedy the day before he was shot. It is no coincidence that the recurring music in Rules Don't Apply, the Adagietto movement from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, was performed at Kennedy's funeral.) And, of course, there's Beatty's self-confessed control-freak nature and, in his single days, his gargantuan appetite for women.

Naturally I assumed Beatty identified with Hughes. I assumed wrong.

"The protagonist in Rules Don't Apply is the young guy Frank that Alden Ehrenreich is playing, who comes to Hollywood in 1958," Beatty begins. "I — and the character of Frank — come from a Protestant American background. The consequences of American Protestant puritan sexual guilt and repression, which I feel is the theme of the movie, is something I have a strong interest in."

"So you're saying you — you? — felt hindered by your sexual puritanism when you came to Hollywood?" I ask.

"What do you think?" he responds sarcastically. "The answer is yes."

What I think is that he got over it pretty quickly.

"My delay in forming a family, marriage was that I felt, or maybe I would say feared, that there was an element of impermanence to relationships that was somewhat new.”

 

Beatty insists that for a long time "I resisted knowing I was interested in acting. I guess the word you'd use would be 'shy.' I preferred sports." He won several college football scholarships, yet turned them down to study drama at Northwestern. In 1956, after dropping out, he moved to New York to train with the legendary Stella Adler, supporting himself by playing piano in bars and working construction. He relocated to Hollywood in 1958 (the year in which Rules Don't Apply takes place) and costarred with Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass in 1961. He's been a movie star ever since.

But as time went on, he proved himself perhaps even more talented behind the camera, as attested to by 10 Oscar nominations for the movies he directed, wrote, produced or some combination of the above: Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bugsy and Bulworth. Yet making films is far from a comfortable process for him. "I have often compared making a movie to vomiting," Beatty says. "I don't like to vomit. But there are times I think, Maybe I'll just feel better if I go ahead and throw up. So then I make the movie."

Still, it's easy to remember his sinewy biceps in Love Affair, but rather harder to remember that Beatty is, in fact, one of our most interesting auteurs. Of course, that is partially his own doing.

From the 1960s onward, his romances often overshadowed his professional life. There were great loves (Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton) and many, many shorter trysts, from Cher to Madonna. He insists there is wild hyperbole in his reputation as a manslut and disputes the mathematics of the 12,775 women one of his biographers, Peter Biskind, has claimed for him. "Think about it, sleeping with 12,775 people," he says, not without a certain amount of glee. "That would mean not just that there were multiple people a day, but that there was no repetition."

So let's say, for the sake of argument, it wasn't 12,775. Let's say it was a few hundred. Why is every star biography, every tabloid report, about what a great lover he was? And why is it nobody seems mad at him? Forget the quantity; everyone wants to know the secret of bedding half of Hollywood and not having them want you dead.

Beatty just blinks at me innocently, with a kind of guileless sincerity. It's the look he gives pretty much everyone in Shampoo. "Look, I never misled anyone," he says. "And … and I'm a nice guy."

But there is no question about this: He sees a clear demarcation in his life — BA and AA, Before Annette and After Annette. That would be Annette Bening, his wife of 24 years.

"I waited a long time to be married," he continues. "When you don't get married until you're 54 … well, as Arthur Miller said, 'It comes with the territory.'" Beatty is referring to a line in the playwright's Death of a Salesman: "A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory." Part of being a movie star is maintaining an illusion of beauty, success … and success with women. "You're participating in a profession that, for obvious reasons, needs to heighten elements of sexuality," especially "if you delay marriage a long time."

Beatty insists that the wait was not so much about maintaining a long adolescence, but because he worried that any marriage he had wouldn't last, particularly as feminism and changing mores of male-female relationships became the norm in the '60s and '70s. "My delay in forming a family, marriage," he explains, "was that I felt, or maybe I would say feared, that there was an element of impermanence to relationships that was somewhat new."

He had often been involved with his leading ladies, but this was not the case when he worked with Bening in Bugsy. "During the making of the movie, there was no suggestion as to a future relationship," Beatty says. "I mean, there was in my head, but otherwise, no." When filming started, he told her, "You don't have to worry about me."

 

Warren Beatty in 'Rules Don't Apply'

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Warren Beatty in "Rules Don't Apply"

"I want to see the world through the eyes of my children. They’re so different; they all want to go to different places. The big question is, Will they want me there with them?"

And she said, "Well, I didn't ask."

After the movie wrapped, he invited her out to dinner. He was lovestruck over a plate of garlic chicken.

Asked to enumerate the qualities that made Bening different, he hems and haws: "To answer that would be reductive, and she means too much to be reductive." He does allow that when he met Bening he was relying on a sense he puts a great deal of stock in: what he calls "the blink"—essentially, that gut feeling of whether something is right or wrong. "The unconscious is so much more intelligent than the conscious," he says. "I thought it would be a good time to get smart."

Part of getting smart is finding the person who respects us as well as loves us. A brief conversation with Bening, who plays Lily Collins' starchy but loving mother in Rules Don't Apply, reflects her deep admiration for the artistry of the man she married. "There's always a part of what he's doing that's private," Bening says, "but we talk a lot about everything. Some people pay lip service to listening to others and they're really not listening. He does. He loves actors, and while he's shooting he's always interested in what people are saying. He's a terrific audience."

To be sure, there's a price to pay for listening to many people and taking time to make up your mind. Beatty is reported to have taken so long going through photographs, trying to choose just the right camels for Ishtar, that by the time he decided, the two he wanted had been eaten.

I ask Bening about the years when the idea for Rules Don't Apply was gestating for her husband. After having him at home for almost two decades, it must have been difficult to have him focused on something other than their family. "Are you kidding?" she says, laughing. "I was like, 'I am ready to kill you. Just make the movie, please, please, please.' But like other people at his level of talent, he does it when he's ready. And no one's saying anything made a difference, including me."

So what was Beatty doing all those years? Does he have hobbies? "You know you're old when you're asked, 'Do you have hobbies?'" he says, smiling. "No. It's a luxury to spend time with your family. And I was always mulling projects."

One of those projects was rebuilding his home. The 1994 Northridge earthquake shattered parts of Mulholland Drive, where Beatty and Bening live. "Building a house is a lot like moviemaking," Beatty says. "The attention to detail, the sense that you're doing something that has longevity."

Warren Beatty

Sam Jones

Warren Beatty wrote, produced, directed, and starred in "Rules Don't Apply."

Longevity — and not just his own but the idea of living on through one's children — is a subject on his mind a great deal these days. "DNA becomes more relevant as we get older," he says. His four children — Stephen, 24 (who has cofounded Vetch, a poetry journal for transgender writers); Benjamin, 22, an actor; Isabel, 19; and Ella, 16 — are "by far the best thing that happened to me."

"I always knew I wanted to have children," Beatty says. "I wanted to do it well, and I wanted to do it with someone who felt the same way." For all the legends he has known, he says that his own mother and father were his greatest influences — and he clearly hopes his children will feel the same way about him. Often, while we are talking, he looks expectantly at his phone, occasionally sending texts. He is, he says, "giddy" because his younger son agreed to have dinner with him tonight. "I'm an attentive father," he says sheepishly. "I have to struggle somewhat not to be overly attentive."

Being an older father doesn't seem to be an issue for him. Being a famous father does: "It's a burden to be the child of not only one famous parent, but two."

For much of his life, Beatty didn't buy a home because he wanted to be free to move around. Now he's interested in traveling for quite another reason. "I want to see the world through the eyes of my children," he says. "They're so different; they all want to go to different places." He is thoughtful for a moment, then amused. "The big question is, Will they want me there with them?"

The promotion for Rules Don't Apply is gearing up, so Beatty isn't making travel plans yet. Nor is he making new-movie plans, though a Dick Tracy sequel comes up. "I liked the original very much, and it was very profitable," he says. "Jeffrey Katzenberg once asked me to do a sequel. At the time, I thought sequels were beneath me. Now I realize how far below sequels I am."

But Beatty knows that he has the biographer's instinct, that his best movies have been about real-life people — Bugsy Siegel, the communist activist John Reed and now Howard Hughes — who have flouted convention and lived by their own rules. Perhaps he has a notion of another real-life character he'd like to join the pantheon?

He slips on the aviators, thinks, removes them. He is smiling at me, but he is lost in another time. "I would be very interested," he says, "in playing Warren Beatty as a young man."

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