Interview: Film Icon Warren Beatty Knows ‘Rules Don’t Apply’

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CHICAGO – When encountering film producer, director, writer and “movie star” Warren Beatty, I entered into an interview that would be truly one of a kind. The spontaneous Mr. Beatty works a talk in a give-and-take Socratic method, searching for the truth underneath the rhetoric, as he did with his new film “Rules Don’t Apply.”

The film is a quasi-biographical profile of the legendary American billionaire Howard Hughes, but don’t mention that to writer/director Beatty (who also portrays Hughes). What he wanted to explore was the truth around Hughes, in the personification of a fictional couple (Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins) working for the billionaire. Set in 1958 Hollywood – the same year a young Warren Beatty arrived there – the film highlights the clash between the sexual looseness that existed in the movie business, and the potential seekers that “got off the bus” in tinsel town, still mired in their 1950s puritanism.

Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes in ‘Rules Don’t Apply’
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

It is an interesting topic for Warren Beatty to pursue, given his reputation as someone who enjoyed the fruits of the overall sexual revolution that was to come later, as he became a major movie star. Born in Richmond, Virginia (as Warren Beaty) he grew up in an academic family with his older sister Shirley MacLaine, and decided to follow her into the movie business after one year of college at Northwestern University. He began his career on television in New York City, where he studied acting under Stella Adler. He was a semi-regular on TV’s “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (1959) in his first job in Los Angeles, and made his major film debut in “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), co-starring Natalie Wood and directed by Elia Kazan.

Beatty immediately became a sensation, working in high profile films like “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” (1961) with Vivien Leigh, the John Frankenheimer directed “All Fall Down” (1962) and “Promise Her Anything” (1964) with Leslie Caron. It was his work with director Arthur Penn in “Mickey One” – set in Chicago – that led to the next phase of his career, as they partnered again in the classic film “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967). This “New Hollywood” film, with its rule breaking authenticity, helped to usher in the 1970s-era evolution of cinema grit that introduced the new American director – eventually including Beatty himself.

In the 1970s Warren Beatty continued on a path of ground-breaking films, including the Robert Altman directed “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971), the conspiracy-oriented “The Parallax View” (1974) and the 1970s excess-defining “Shampoo” (1975). He made his directorial debut (with Buck Henry) on a remake of a studio-era film called “Heaven Can Wait” (1978). The success of that film set him up for his greatest triumph, as he produced, wrote, directed and starred in “Reds” (1981), portraying American reporter John Reed during the height of the Russian Revolution in 1917. It received 12 Academy Award nominations, and four for Beatty himself (Best Picture, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay). He won the Oscar for Best Director.

Welcome to Hollywood: Warren Beatty in 1961’s ‘Splendor in the Grass’
Photo credit: Warner Home Video

His post “Reds” work was distinctive for many reasons. He appeared next for director Elaine May in the infamous bomb “Ishtar” (1987), but came back strong by directing and starring in “Dick Tracy,” the highest grossing film of 1990. One year later, he met his soon-to-be wife Annette Bening on the set of “Bugsy” (1991), and topped off the decade by producing, writing, directing and starring in the blazing political satire “Bulworth” (1998). Beatty has been politically progressive his whole adult life, working on behalf of the Democrats in the 1960s and on the campaign of George McGovern in 1972.

It was the box office disappointment of “Town and Country” (2001) that began a hiatus for Beatty which lasted until “Rules Don’t Apply.” During that break, he concentrated on raising his four children with Bening, becoming a family man after a previous string of relationships, having been linked at times to Joan Collins, Julie Christie, singer Carly Simon (which earned him a nod as the inspiration for the song “You’re So Vain”), Diane Keaton and Madonna (he makes a brief appearance in her documentary “Madonna: Truth or Dare.”). sat down with the freewheelin’ Warren Beatty, for an unforgettable back-and-forth conversation, trying in vain to corral his spectacular career. What was fascinating to you about creating the larger-than-life character of Howard Hughes?

Warren Beatty: My primary interest in this experience was to convey some feeling about when I went to Hollywood in 1958. I keep saying to people that this isn’t a biopic of Howard Hughes, it’s more of a story about two people who are both very religious, and who both happened to come to Hollywood at the same time. The girl was a Baptist from southern Virginia, and the boy was a Methodist from Fresno. They come in at the same time, and work for Howard Hughes.
What interested me about the year of 1958, when I first came to Hollywood, is to take a look at the consequences of American sexual puritanism. The effects of it, the comical and sometimes sad circumstances of it, that began to change with the first burst of feminism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This led to the liberation of the female, and the subsequent sexual revolution of the 1960s. Well, since you were part of that, did we come out it better as a society, or did the pendulum swing too far? I mean, you certainly did your part to understand the era.

Beatty: I was a Southern Baptist. Were you from a church going family?

Beatty: Not particularly. I went to church on my own, and for me it was an interesting and formative few years of my life. So in the film, I wanted to get at the significance of this unique American sexual puritanism that so often has made us the laughing stock of France and other countries. It’s an important issue, and the advent and promise of feminism is the reward, and I don’t think the pendulum swung too far. We’re facing massive problems in other parts of the world, in dealing with the liberation of the female. With anyone who has daughters, as I do, it changes everything regarding my thoughts on that subject. Did you have direct contact with Howard Hughes?

Beatty: I was amused by him at the time, but never met him. But I like to say I met everyone who ever met him, because I heard so many stories, and they were hilarious. When I first went to Hollywood, and my first film was successful, and I became whatever-you-call-it… A movie star, but okay.

Beatty: What came with that was an appropriate amount of paranoia, regarding being followed by tabloids. I was at the Beverly Hills Hotel one day, and I felt I was being followed by someone at the tabloids. I complained at the front desk, and they checked it out. They came to me and said, ‘Mr. Beatty, those guys are not from the tabloids, they are with Mr. Howard Hughes.’
I said, ‘Howard Hughes? You mean the person in the suite next door to me is Howard Hughes?’ They told me that Mr. Hughes has seven suites, and five bungalows. Even then I thought that was grounds for a farce. I always held onto the comedic element of that, and put that into the film. In fact, everything that happens to Howard Hughes comes from stories that I have been told about him. They didn’t happen in sequence in the film.

Lily Collins and Warren Beatty in ‘Rules Don’t Apply’
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Well, like your other “real person” films, it wasn’t a conventional biography picture?

Beatty: Yes, I’d done ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ and ‘Bugsy,’ and ‘Reds,’ you change places, times and chronologies. You make composites of people they’ve known, so you wind up creating a fiction no matter what. I’m of the opinion that all history is fiction. Well, it is written by winners, after all.

Beatty: Yes, there were several quotes about history I remember, such as ‘History is Bunk,’ said by Henry Ford. ‘History will be very kind to me, because I intend to write it,’ said by Winston Churchill. And I’ve always liked Napoleon’s quote, ‘History is a set of lies agreed upon.’ You were born in Richmond, Virginia, and your mother was Canadian, right?

Beatty: Yes, she was from Nova Scotia. What did your mother and father imbue in you and Shirley that helped both of you get through the rigors of show business and Hollywood?

Beatty: Interesting question. It becomes more interesting as times goes by. [laughs] I don’t know how to answer that. They’ve been gone over 20 years. On big questions, I chicken out, because I don’t want to be reductive. What I’ve found, particularly as I get older, that I get quoted more and more. People are looking for your wisdom.

Beatty: What’s interesting about that is how often I am quoted incorrectly. And the most important point can be left out of the quote, because this is the technology that we’re living in. It’s hard now for anyone to be missing. Privacy, as we used to mislead ourselves that we once had, just doesn’t exist now.
To get back to the question, I can’t think of anything that wouldn’t be reductive, and I don’t want to do a disservice to our parents. The nice thing is I can’t think of anything negative to say about them. They were positive people. They had to be happy when both of you became movie stars, right?

Beatty: They were happy when we were happy. They were both academics, and their parents were academics. I think they were as pleasantly surprised about our development as Shirley and I were.

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