The Enduring Politics of Warren Beatty

Daniella Nichinson

What defines a political filmmaker? Though there are numerous interpretations, one in particular stands out: a political filmmaker must be willing to push boundaries in order to present the most honest and unfaltering depiction of their views.

Warren Beatty, having starred in his first film “Splendor in the Grass” in 1961, would soon be catapulted into stardom, seducing the City of Angels with his charm, intellect and ravishing good looks. Beatty began to take an interest in producing, writing and directing, introducing Hollywood to a creative mind that has since become an icon in the sphere of political filmmaking and the promotion of art to reflect societal unrest.

Beatty’s first foray into behind-the-camera work was “Shampoo,” a film which he co-wrote with Robert Towne and was directed by Hal Ashby. Though the least explicitly political of his films, “Shampoo” would ignite Beatty’s transformation from actor to filmmaker. Set on the eve of former president Richard Nixon’s election into office, “Shampoo” follows the chaotic day of womanizing Los Angeles hairdresser, George (Beatty), as he struggles to placate three unhappy women he has been sleeping with. The script is masterful and underappreciated, utilizing the irony of knowing exactly what would be the culmination of the Nixon administration. “Shampoo” was a product of the people’s vexation and disquiet at the Watergate scandal and Beatty’s own frustrations.

Set in 1968, the film focuses on sexual politics, having come out of the era of Woodstock and free love. Though George wants success and a stable relationship, his unquenchable lust hinders him from his aspirations, and by the time he realizes the consequences of his philandering, the three women he loved have left him for men offering more security. Though “Shampoo” was scathingly satirical and a triumphant feat for Beatty, his best work was yet to come.

The idea for “Reds” would strike Beatty nearly 20 years before its release and would result in his most ambitious, challenging and career-defining work. Having read “Ten Days That Shook the World” and researched the man behind it, eminent journalist John Reed, Beatty became consumed by Reed and by the idea of devoting an entire film to his story.

Three and a half hours in length, “Reds” chronicles Reed’s excursions into Russia prior to and during the Russian Revolution and his attempts to bring socialism to the United States. Beatty crafted an ingenious structure for the film: he interspersed the fiction with interviews from people who knew Reed and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), his lover and fellow activist-journalist. This served the paramount purpose of supplying the audience with factual knowledge without introducing exposition into the film. By doing this, Beatty was able to tell an invigorating story without abandoning or adulterating its politics and history.

“Reds” was doomed to fail — it encountered financing problems, feuds over the script between Beatty and co-writer Trevor Griffiths and even breakdowns on set due to the excruciating hours and Beatty’s compulsive re-shooting. But a film of this caliber requires some sacrifice of sanity. The result of all this hardship was one of the most magnificent and enduring pictures of the 20th century. In “Reds,” Beatty combined the telling of a crucial time in history with a heartbreaking love story, all without losing sight of the importance of staying true to your beliefs.

A film of Beatty’s that seems to be unjustly overlooked is “Bulworth,” a satire about the staged and dishonest nature of politics. Beatty, who directed, wrote, produced and starred in the film, plays Senator Jay Billingsworth Bulworth. During his reelection campaign, Bulworth undergoes a transformation of mentality when he suddenly decides to preach the truth — in the form of rap.

Released 18 years before 2016’s unforgettable and surreal presidential election, it is astonishing how relevant “Bulworth” is in today’s political atmosphere. As the media and politicians have become puppets in a reality show, Senator Bulworth’s unabashed voicing of his unfiltered thoughts is not so far-fetched.

Hollywood has yielded few filmmakers like Beatty. A man devoted to sharing controversial ideas and presenting the wants of the people, Beatty is an extraordinary talent who has been the driving force behind the film industry’s responsibility to portray provocative and contentious stories.

Beatty said this strikingly well in “Reds.”

“When you separate a man from what he loves the most, what you do is purge what’s unique in him, and when you purge what’s unique in him, you purge dissent,” Beatty said. “And when you purge dissent, you kill the revolution. Revolution is dissent.”

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 5 print edition. Email Daniella Nichinson at [email protected]

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