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Byline: Glenn Whipp Daily News Film Writer

If you talk to Warren Beatty these days and spend some time trying to get into his head (and what interviewer hasn't), there are certain words and phrases he repeats, consistent threads that run through conversation after conversation to the point where you know with absolute certainty what's important to Warren Beatty right here, right now. And you also know with absolute certainty that old Warren is beginning to resemble that crazy uncle from your childhood who kept telling the same story over and over again until you begged him to stop and then, amazingly, regretted it when he did.

The words and phrases we are talking about - that Beatty is constantly talking about - are as follows:

1) Anomaly

2) Marginalize

3) Unit publicist

Taken together, they mean nothing. Examined individually, they mean everything. Or at least they do to Beatty. We'll let you judge for yourself.

1) Anomaly. ``Bulworth,'' Beatty's latest film, is an anomaly. It's a political film that's actually about politics and ideas, unlike, say, ``Wag the Dog'' and ``Primary Colors,'' which were more about the political process or as Beatty indelicately puts it, ``Bill Clinton and his (penis).''

In ``Bulworth,'' Beatty plays a Democratic senator who, distraught over his money-grubbing, stagnant career, snaps and decides to put out a contract on his own life. Free from expectations and obligations, Sen. Bulworth goes on a truth-telling spree, speaking to anyone who will listen about race and greed and how special-interest dollars and massive advertising and marketing campaigns have corrupted the political process. And he does most of this while rapping and rhyming, clumsily, endearingly, less like LL Cool J than Woody Guthrie doing his ``Talking Blues.''

Rhyme and reason

Warren B making like Warren G could have been fatally embarrassing given the fact that Beatty is 61 and not exactly a household name in the hip-hop community. In fact, when Beatty pitched the movie six years ago to then-20th Century Fox chairman Joe Roth, he didn't mention rap or politics.

``It was a simple idea,'' Beatty says, rather disingenuously, since nothing is ever that simple with him. ``A man is depressed, takes out life insurance, puts a hit out on his life, then falls in love with a girl, changes his mind and tries to call the whole thing off.''

``Of course,'' Beatty continues, ``I did this pitch before I wrote the script. So as long as I stuck to this thin plot line, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. Because this picture is an anomaly. If I had gone to the studio, script in hand, it would not have been financed. Or if it had been made, it would have been marginalized. (We'll get to that word next.) But then `Titanic' was anomalous, too. And Jim Cameron turned out to be a hero.''

Will Beatty be a hero, too? Well, it's doubtful that ``Bulworth'' is going to reach ``Titanic'' proportions in the pop-culture canon. Fox doesn't quite seem to know quite how to market the movie and has moved its release date several times. Originally scheduled to open nationally today, ``Bulworth'' will now be released only in New York and Los Angeles and will go national a week later. One theater exhibitor opined that the decision didn't come from Fox, but from Beatty himself.

``He didn't want to get beat by that other old guy,'' the source said, referring to Robert Redford's ``The Horse Whisperer.'' ``He figures there's no honor lost in losing to `Godzilla.' ''

True, Beatty doesn't want to be marginalized. (We're getting there, we're getting there.) But he knows, too, from screening ``Bulworth'' for friends and industry types, that he has a winner on his hands. He just hopes it isn't so different, so novel, so ... anomalous that audiences won't get it.

``Warren has been massaging this movie for so long now,'' says Jeremy Pisker, who co-wrote the screenplay with Beatty. ``In some ways, it's been maddening, but he just wanted to make the best movie he could possibly make. And if you look at how far out on a limb he goes here, particularly with his performance, you really have to give him credit for doing something different. I think he's a brave mother------.''

We're down with that. We feel obliged to add, though, that Pisker seems to be having a tough time purging Dr. Dre's influence from his vocabulary.

Five-year mission

2) Marginalize. This is Beatty's favorite word these days, and understandably so. It applies to his politics (liberal), his taste in movies (story-driven) and to his own standing in Hollywood (respected, but almost forgotten).

Beatty says that if he was going to spend five years of his life writing, directing, producing and starring in a movie, it had better be dealing with something he loves. And Beatty loves the politics of ideas. He supported Bobby Kennedy in 1968, campaigned for George McGovern in 1972 and watched his close friend Gary Hart go from front-runner to flameout in 1984. He has watched Bill Clinton take his Democratic Party into Republican territory and, fed up, tried to make a movie about what he saw as the destruction of choice in American politics.

``Bobby, King, Malcolm, Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Jesse Jackson, you can go down the line,'' Beatty says. ``They've been marginalized by bullet or by gossip or by flashbulb. And now I feel like I've lost a little of my faith, and I know that I'm not alone. I don't want to quit the party, but I don't want to become a Rockefeller Republican, either.''

So Beatty became Bulworth, and he started to rhyme. In the film, Bulworth rails against bad movies, bad health care, African-Americans turning O.J. Simpson into a hero and the disparity between rich and poor in America. Like most rap lyrics, Bulworth's words play better to the ear than they do on the page, but here's a sample:

``They know the rich is gettin' richer and richer and richer

While the middle class is just gettin' more more

Just makin' billions and billions and billions and billions and billions of bucks

Well, my friend, if you weren't already rich at the start

That situation sucks.''

You get the idea. Or at least Beatty hopes you do.

``We say the economy is great and everybody's doing terrific, but how can it be terrific if there are 100 million people who aren't doing as well as they did five or 10 years ago?'' Beatty asks.

``It's the first time in history that a country whose gross national product has gone up, and the majority of the people are not going up - first time ... outside of a revolution or an occupation by a foreign power. So, 50 million prosperous people can kid themselves and say things are great. But the conclusions are obvious.''

Commercial chaos

The root of the problem, Beatty says, doesn't have anything to do with White House interns. He believes money and marketing have killed ideas in America, and it doesn't just stop with politics. Beatty lumps movies and hamburgers into the equation for good measure.

``Everything is a function of television advertising,'' Beatty says. ``The hamburger you eat at McDonald's and the placement of the pickle as well as the political content of the message you get from candidates are all a function of the 30-second spot and the demographic studies that tell the people what to put in that 30-second spot.

``Now, at first glance, you might say that this is a manifestation of democracy, but I don't think that's true. It's a manifestation of advertising disguised as democracy. The audience tells you what to put in the message or the movie or the hamburger. But the money is manipulating the audience. So, basically we're manipulating ourselves.''

That's one way to put it. Beatty, though, is cautious about rambling on for too long about this without throwing in a disclaimer or two. He doesn't want people to construe ``Bulworth'' as a ``political'' movie because he wants people to see it. So he'll say things like: ``I don't want to be heavy about this movie.'' Or: ``I'm not sending a message. If I wanted to do that, I could go on C-SPAN and be much more articulate.'' Or best yet: ``I'm not saying, `This is your medicine, now take it.' Just laugh, and if something interests you, great. Talk about it later.''

Toward the end of our last conversation, and still afraid that his movie is going to be marginalized to the ghetto of ``intelligent cinema,'' Beatty tells me: ``Look, Sam Goldwyn was not stupid. He said, `If you want to send a message, call Western Union.' You understand what I'm saying?''

Yes, I do, Warren. And it leads us directly to our last Beattyism ...

3) Unit publicist. Beatty seems obsessed with the fact that no one from Fox assigned a unit publicist to ``Bulworth.'' Now, most movies do have unit publicists, whose job it is to coordinate on-set visits from journalists and compile production notes for publicity kits. Beatty equates the absence of one as an absence of support, although he's quick to add that Fox was totally cooperative while he was making his movie.

``They didn't assign a unit publicist,'' Beatty says for the third time. ``And they didn't come up with a poster, which was fine. I came up with my own. But while I had total artistic freedom to make the movie, I have no control over the marketing.'' Pause. (And when Beatty pauses, day sometimes turns into night.) ``I have no control at all ...''

While that's certainly not altogether true, a lack of control does disturb Beatty, particularly when he has spent five years making a movie about a subject close to his heart.

``We believe there is a place in the marketplace for this picture,'' says Tom Sherak, chairman of Fox's Domestic Film Group. ``We're doing everything we can to make it happen. If some people don't buy it, it won't be for a lack of trying.''

So why no unit publicist? Why no poster ideas? Why aren't the commercial spots more enticing? If the commercials - which Beatty believes are the bedrock of persuasion in American society - fail, how can the movie's message (not that there is one) reach the people?

``Who knows if people are ready for this movie,'' Pisker says. ``What's more important to me is what people are going to think about it five years from now.''

Five years from now, the notoriously reclusive Beatty may not have even made a follow-up to ``Bulworth.'' So he would much rather cash in his chips now while he can. But at this point, the situation is - gulp - well beyond his control.

``As we speak, the media is going to do better with Viagra than they are with `Bulworth,' '' Beatty says. ``And next week, they're going to be talking about a giant lizard that smashes things with its foot. I am completely reliant on the good faith of News Corp. (Fox's parent company), which is perverse because, needless to say, the politics of their control officers are antithetical to mine. But Rupert (Murdoch) is a very likable guy, so you never know. You just never know ...''

True enough. Maybe this is one anomaly that won't be marginalized after all. But don't quote us on that. Call the unit publicist at Fox.


3 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) A `BULWORTH' SESSION

Warren Beatty raps on politics, movies and race

(2) Warren Beatty on ``Bulworth'': ``If I had gone to the studio, script in hand, it would not have been financed. Or if it had been made, it would have been marginalized.''

(3) Warren Beatty's disillusionment with politics and the economy prompted him to make a movie about a disillusioned U.S. senator who puts out a contract on his own life and goes on a truth-telling spree.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 15, 1998
Previous Article:WHAT'S HAPPENING : FILM.

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