A Body of Work: "Rules Don't Apply" and the Twilight of Warren Beatty
“Nobody makes me be seen anywhere!”
So Warren Beatty, playing Howard Hughes, yells to an underling in his screwball Hollywood romance Rules Don’t Apply. The dialogue is an unfortunate augur for Beatty, considering many regular filmgoers don’t have the stomach for an eccentric tax-dodging billionaire’s whimsies, and last November the writer/producer/director/star’s long-gestating dream project set a record for the lowest per-screen box office opening for a wide Thanksgiving release. Mocked for its declarative title and alleged slightness—unworthy for a famously selective and perfectionist Oscar-winning film icon making his return after a long absence—Rules Don’t Apply was stitched together by four editors over nearly two years of post-production, the finished film whiplashing with tonal abrasiveness from hilarity to melancholy, Los Angeles to London to Mexico to God Knows Where Else, “Rockin’ Robin” to Gustave Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, in a manner befitting Hughes’ indecisive temperament. A luxurious and ostensibly old-fashioned picture of bygone Hollywood, headlined by a star to whom one generation hasn’t been properly introduced and another has probably forgotten, Rules Don’t Apply absconded from theaters and critical discussion quickly, and while Nostalgia’s stock is way up, not even the future Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich, playing the film’s principle witness) could spark interest in the return of the man behind Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Reds (1981), Ishtar (1987), Dick Tracy (1990), Bugsy (1991), and Bulworth (1998).
There wasn’t even time to make an argument for a film that may, in Beatty fashion, boldly straddle the tightrope between disaster and brilliance, the picture’s oddness emanating through conventional pretenses leading some to assess its curious qualities unfairly, as happened to Ishtar—produced by and starring Beatty, written and directed by Elaine May, its failure making it her last directorial effort—almost 30 years ago. The moody swerves that have baffled some moviegoers made Rules Don’t Apply a refreshingly weird mainstream release, a reminder of how Beatty, regardless of his remarkable Adonis looks and Insider Power Player status, was probably the New Hollywood’s oddest duck: set apart from the physical idiosyncrasies of Pacino, Hoffman, Nicholson, Hackman, De Niro etc, he appeared to be more of the comely company of Redford and O’Neal, and yet Beatty’s indulgence of his own sex appeal, conveying a purported narcissism in his private life that was infamously put into lyric by ex-girlfriend Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” is repeatedly juxtaposed with the body’s malfunctions, or the destruction and destructiveness of the flesh. Beatty wasted little time leaping from eroticized marquee idol as a sexually blooming youth in Eliza Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1962) to Bonnie and Clyde’s co-auteur/producer (forming the first of his many collaborative “dialectics,” as he calls them, in this instance with director Arthur Penn and writers Robert Benton and David Newman), having a decisive hand in dictating how he’s seen, the movie immediately—with 1930s photographs displayed during its open credits, followed by highly stylized immersion into its subject with the camera establishing a curious spatial relationship to Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker—calling attention to the image. Beatty’s tension of narcissism and voyeurism conjoins a body of work to—literally—a body. The 80-year-old’s (presumably) final offering of Rules Don’t Apply is, beneath its “slight” comic pretenses, a tragic withdrawal into the dark, away from body’s inflaming self-spectacle, dramatizing the era (the facts of which are subsumed in a mythology) in which Beatty led some Young Turks into Hollywood and the Old Studio System dissolved, between the indelible personalities of the dying/dead merchant moguls and renegade, radical approaches of the late ‘60s youth culture, there was the ascendency of corporate control. Recreating the past in 2016 with digital cinematography, the limelight dims and Beatty passes the torch to Ehrenreich and co-star Lily Collins’s pair of young lovers on the eve of continual social—and cinematic—paradigm shifts set 50 years apart.
But Rules Don’t Apply’s placid retrospective pretenses are deceptive. What Beatty’s wrought is as much his version of Chaplin’s Limelight (1952)—where art mirrors life, the iconic showman in one last fateful sprint to recapture greatness—as it is, indicated by the Mahler motif, his Death in Venice (1971), Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella of a dignified and aging artist, Gustave von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), and his intoxication and eradication after his gaze is absorbed by the youthful embodiment of beauty—a 14-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio—analogized with the the coming of what Mann’s novella refers to as the “stranger god,” Dionysus (whose detrimental physical analog is a cholera plague), decay accreting around the contours of Apollinian formal perfection. In his career dialectic between Splendor in the Grass and Rules Don’t Apply, Beatty offers himself as both the beautiful youth, frozen and preserved in celluloid reels (old footage of Beatty-as-Hughes romancing Hollywood starlets in the 1920s and 1930s might as well be glimpses of a Beatty biopic), and now the decaying, cosmeticized body approaching the last fade out. Beatty poignantly reconciles himself to the city of dreams that adorns, exhibits, exploits, and scrutinizes flesh, which made his fortune just as it destroyed the aspirations of countless others. Stuck as we are on countenances, this film has been derided as too conventional and compared unfavorably to the perspiring exertions of Damien Chazelle’s modern day Hollywood musical (and critics’ darling) La La Land. And sure, to quote Beatty’s Hughes as he wryly warns a freaked-out copilot (Steve Coogan) that he may pass out while recklessly flying a plane, his “arteries are less expansive” than La La Land’s youthful Iron Man competition bravado, but at his film’s core is an inscrutable wonder and curiosity about past, present, and future that’s far more tremulously realized than Chazelle’s millennial fantasy. Beatty’s film is the tender salute of the hanky-panky magic man, his body no longer suited for erotic exhibition, bowing behind the curtain and retreating from confessional exposure (a thought that makes the recent Best Picture flub at the 2017 Academy Awards, where Beatty and Faye Dunaway read the winner from the wrong envelope, almost a perfect epilogue to Rules Don’t Apply), using the same machinery of fiction to find eternal life in the great anonymous multitude, imagining Howard Hughes’ transmigration of flesh (rather than soul) through the DNA of a concocted child such as only the movies would dare invent.
Befitting its sugary and modest title, the center of Rules Don’t Apply isn’t Beatty’s Hughes but a sweet romance between one of Hughes’ drivers, Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), and an aspiring songwriter and actress, Marla Mabrey (Collins): Frank is a new employee, driving the industrialist mogul’s beautiful contract actresses around Hollywood, mindful that he’s to have limited interaction with them, while also adhering to superfluous driving directions (e.g. how fast he can drive going up a hill). A budding entrepreneur in his own right, Frank wants to pitch Hughes a suburban real-estate idea—the problem being he has yet to meet his reclusive boss. One of Frank’s first assignments is driving Hughes’ newest contract acquisition, Marla, recently arrived with her protective mother (Annette Bening) from Virginia. Uncertain of her own talent, Marla’s patience grows thin as she waits for a screen test that never comes, shackled by her contract that gives her a luxurious residence and steady paycheck, but little creative fulfillment. Frank and Marla, of course, are attracted to each other, their courtship flanked by Frank’s watchful, foppish colleague Levar (Matthew Broderick), in addition to the strict sexual mores of their respective religious backgrounds: Frank, a Methodist, himself promised to his grade-school sweetheart with whom he’s already been intimate; Marla, a Baptist, believing that any sexual consummation ties a person to their partner absolutely and forever.
The screwball hurled into this clockwork, sparking the “hilarity ensues” variable of the equation, is the engineer himself, Hughes, a presence restricted to antique newsreel footage for the first half-hour before summoning Marla to his secret bungalow. Underlit by Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography so as to make the reflective glimmer in his eyes sparkle with demonic ghastliness, Hughes emerges like a predatory vampire with a gaze feasting on a newly acquired commodity. While it seems he’s about to pounce on her and try adding the virginal Marla to his sexual conquests, Hughes instead picks up the phone and assures her of a screen-test. She’s sent away with Frank who, after dropping her off, comes back to have his first encounter with the boss. In his fedora and aviator jacket, Hughes misses no beats in taking the wheel from Frank, and the two become embroiled in a—usually one-sided—discussion, Hughes sharing his problems involving Merrill Lynch creditors, whom he’s sure want to “see” him in person just so that they can judge him mentally unfit to run his own company, after which they would strip him of his power and institutionalize him.
Meanwhile Frank gets closer to Marla, the attraction igniting a messy floor tumble that shatters a vase and—thanks to some ill-timing and over-excitement—visibly stains Frank’s pants. After Frank’s premature ejaculation, Levar unexpectedly arrives to chaperone Marla to a meeting with Hughes. Remorseful about her situation with Frank, the tea-totaling Marla begins gulping Hughes’ alcohol supply. Her abrupt drunkenness lends to some charming remarks and a moonlight serenade—a song she wrote for Frank, “Rules Don’t Apply”—the lyrics of which deeply move the billionaire. Hughes has an idea for a way out of his professional predicament: he can’t be institutionalized if a spouse doesn’t agree to send him away. Reminded how the rules of state and time are not applicable to a man of his stature, by the power vested in him he places a ring on Marla’s finger and deflowers her.
The erotic consummation signals an unraveling, however, as Marla discovers—by radio the next morning—that Hughes has wed Jean Peters instead. Topping things off, Marla is also pregnant. Hughes rebuffs her claim and she flees back to Virginia. Frank, who’s jealous over the mysterious procurer of what’s on her ring-finger (he suspects Bobby Darin), is distraught. He becomes a sturdy, if crestfallen, company man. Years later, Hughes is dogged by accusations of dementia in a biography penned by one of his body doubles, Richard Miskin (Paul Schneider), and has retreated behind his curtain. It’s not until Marla unexpectedly returns with a son, Matt, that Hughes draws back the mechanical drape and admits, “I should really get out more.” He contacts the expectant media, assuring them of his mental competence while exchanging an optical conversation with Marla’s young boy—and presumably his only progeny—at his bedside. Marla leaves the ring on Hughes’ dresser and Frank, understanding Marla’s motives for leaving years ago, decisively quits his job to follow her, away from the cloistered world of artifice, illusion, and isolation and into the light with a family, perhaps towards those suburban developments he envisioned. The “Hooray for Hollywood” happy ending is an exodus from the city of stars. Hughes closes the curtain again and resigns to his storied vampiric sarcophagus, withdrawn from photographic exposure, his bloodline immortalized from the burdens of his complicated identity while the apocryphal legends of “Howard Hughes” haunt Hollywood ever more—the man who refuses to be seen repeatedly embodied for the Hollywood establishment in sundry motions pictures from Welles’ F for Fake to Demme’s Melvin and Howard to Coppola’s Tucker to Scorsese’s The Aviator to Rules Don’t Apply.
The “Hooray for Hollywood” exit music ties in with the picture’s humorous opening card, “Never check an interesting fact,” an alleged Hughes quote followed by Beatty’s parenthetical assertion that names and dates have been changed. What we’ve seen here is a slapdash tarantella of fakery, where indeed very few of the facts line up—for example, Hughes had been out of the motion picture business for years before the film’s 1958-1964 timeline. The very framing scenario—the media thirstily awaiting Howard Hughes to break his silence and refute the alleged autobiography—took place years later, in January 1971. “Hughes wanted us to believe almost anything,” Orson Welles tells us in his 1975 documentary F for Fake, which includes excerpts of that highly publicized phone call, Welles citing Hughes as a born mystery maker whose final mystery was himself. In F for Fake, the Citizen Kane prodigy ties his own legacy with Hughes. The famous War of the Worlds radio performance is prelude to Welles’ journey to Hollywood where we have an interesting admittance from fellow Mercury player Joseph Cotton, how he was originally cast as the lead in Welles’ first film, which was to be about a “high flying Mr. Moneybags.” “Would I have been the first or the last to impersonate Howard Hughes?” Cotten wonders, altering Citizen Kane’s mythology by suggesting that before the 1941 masterpiece took on the biography of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the original model was Hughes. Welles and his archivist Richard Wilson go on to explain, “Who could believe that a man like Howard Hughes existed?...The super secret celebrity who went all out for world fame, won it, and then got to be more famous trying for privacy.” Between that film’s freewheeling anecdotes and displays of art forgery, recreational “girl-watching,” and magic tricks, Hollywood’s exiled Falstaff Welles gradually weaves in some ostensible personal confessions, from which he retreats in the safety of his celluloid medium’s duplicity. Is the voice of Hughes we hear in the film indeed Hughes’? And here, while spotlighting the author and trickster of the alleged Hughes biography, Clifford Irving, Welles inserts the hypothesis of a Hughes body double being behind the whole plot—a scenario adapted by Beatty in Rules Don’t Apply for Paul Schneider’s composite character “Richard Miskin.”
Disclosures obfuscated by onion layers of illusions and doubles, speculative magic mirrors irresistibly calling us in and entangling truth-seekers in the perennial “hanky panky” of fellows like Hughes and Welles, For for Fake sets an interesting lateral canvas for Warren Beatty’s musings on Hughes and, as with Welles, his own legacy. The breakneck rhythm of Welles’ picture, which calls attention to its own maddening assembly as the director talks to us from an editing room choking with reels, is strikingly congruent with how Rules Don’t Apply skips onward. As F for Fake dashes ahead in its mind-boggling back-and-forths, stopping before moving back for some perspective, I’m all the more compelled to think of Warren Beatty now taking this latest impersonation of the indecipherable and over-exposed mystery maker as a means of pulling us into the backwards mirror of his body of work, and then still eluding us and leaving behind more riddles even while, like Welles at Chartres, at last acknowledging his lineage and mortality.
On the DVD extras of 1991’s Bugsy, Beatty’s lavish biography of violent and charismatic gangster Benjamin Siegel, there’s a retrospective roundtable discussion where the star/producer insists to director Barry Levinson and writer James Toback that he always initially assumes he’s wrong for the leading role of whatever film he’s developing, be it Bugsy, the comic book hero Dick Tracy, communist John Reed in Reds, the football player in Heaven Can Wait, or Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Toback, having his collaborator and friend’s number, quickly fires back, “That’s a defense against narcissism.”
Beatty has used Frank and Marla as a similar deflector from himself in Rules Don’t Apply, and more than that, Hughes (“This isn’t a Howard Hughes biography,” etc). This fictional Hughes sets a template onto which Beatty examines his relationship to his own image, the movie medium a Faustian evasion from exposure and vulnerability to time. Hughes is a buffer for Beatty, taking the role as unreliable narrator as he sets down his Hollywood impressions. Is the handsome movie star and mogul a double for Hughes, with Beatty, who against all expectations married in 1992 and had several children, wondering if that obsessive compulsive old man hidden from the world representative of the man he very well may have become had he never fallen in love with actress Annette Bening? Or is Ehrenreich’s Frank representative of Beatty’s coming of age in Hollywood, and Hughes analogous to studio head Jack Warner, with whom Beatty had several spats during the making of Bonnie and Clyde? Consider how soon after the release of Bonnie and Clyde, Warner would relent hold of his studio to Seven Arts, one of his concerns being, much like Hughes in Rules Don’t Apply, if the new corporate bosses keep his family’s name.
A striking element of Rules Don’t Apply is the Hollywood backdrop we see projected through Frank’s car windows, old style stock footage (at least bearing the countenance of stock footage perfectly) woven through the digital fabric of a relatively low-budget ($30 million) 2016 release. The sunny old timey backdrop feels eerily distinct from computer-generated period setting CGI art direction, establishing its bygone environment in a way that fits in with Bonnie and Clyde’s photograph motifs, or the assorted talking head “witnesses” of Reds. It’s as if the images are authentic artifacts of a lost city. And in the 1960s that city, according to Mark Harris’ Pictures of a Revolution (an engrossing book examining the aesthetic and cultural significance of the five 1967 Best Picture nominees, such as Bonnie and Clyde), was itself frozen in yesteryear. Particularly if one was coming form New York, “[studio] life in 1967 was very much the life it had been for years and years and years.” Encroaching on the apparatus of entertainment (in tandem with competition broadcast on television sets) was significant social change.
In the earliest moments of Rules Don’t Apply we see several images of Hughes, but it’s archival news footage from the 1930s and 40s highlighting a young man, a romantic hero with an alternating cast of women on his arm depending on the week. Hughes exists through that younger avatar, accompanied by body doubles groomed and sculpted to his exacting specifications (a Nicaraguan representative meets with “Howard Hughes” after the billionaire’s plane lands and notes how Hughes has barely aged). Sexuality is suffocated—or imperiously controlled—as Hughes’ contract actresses are virtually prisoners reaching like hungry animals for their paychecks lowered from Hughes’ corporate windows. There’s something unnerving about Marla’s screen-test, as although Lily Collins is absolutely gorgeous, the proportions of her body—particularly her chin as she speaks in a profile angle—are being scrutinized in such a way that her sentience and agency is vestigial. Hollywood’s regressive Venus factory, hiding sex while aggressively selling it, is analogous to the sermons Marla and Frank encounter at church. The protesting restrictions are trying to smother something that will inevitably explode, staining everyone’s trousers indeed.
Beatty was at the forefront of change with Splendor in the Grass, Kazan’s 1962 film opening on a frustrating make-out session with Natalie Wood in a parked car, a nearby waterfall amplifying sexual arousal which, of course, cannot be satisfied onscreen in a Hollywood movie (we’re still two years away from such frustration found its way in the nuclear annihilation launched by General Jack Ripper, withholding his “purity of essence,” in Dr. Strangelove). Splendor is known as the first Hollywood film to feature French kissing; what more, Kazan, through Beatty’s appearance, broke mold for representing female desire, shifting the adoring gaze, even more than he had earlier done with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, onto this young male body. The Puritanical boundaries of Splendor in the Grass’ Kansas showcase a system of hypocrisy similar to what we see in Rules Don’t Apply’s Los Angeles. Kazan’s film has concentrated church scenes of watchful gazes replicated by Beatty’s film 50 years later, and indeed, the image of Howard Hughes watching Hell’s Angels on repeat in his screening room ties in with the younger Beatty watching the 1928 silent melodrama Glorious Betsy in Splendor, the cinematic eroticism transplanted from innocent spectating to a moviemaker’s onerous indulgence with his tools and creations. Linked through elements of sex, religion, bodies on display, abortion, rape, and poetry (Splendor’s title comes from Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” while Rules Don’t Apply, fitting its saga of images adorned and disintegrating, quotes Milton’s “On His Blindness”), it’s as if Beatty’s last film appearance is trying to talk with his first, setting up a primary mirror through which the narcissist, musing over his image, reaches.
Splendor in the Grass is representative of the old guard undergoing metamorphosis, its significance a tacit portent over the events in Rules Don’t Apply. After 1964, Beatty was instrumental in incorporating the “stranger gods” from the East (Godard, Truffaut), his first collaboration with Arthur Penn, Mickey One (1965), often thought of as a French New Wave film made by Americans. Bonnie and Clyde famously took this further, as writers David Newman and Robert Benton were primarily inspired by the offbeat modulations of what was happening with international cinema. Alongside the offbeat rhythm of the French New Wave’s Jules and Jim and Breathless, there were divisive sects with allegiance to either Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Antonioni’s L’Avventura; the spiritual journeys of Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light; the perplexing ambiguities of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad; and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which had influenced the studio hit The Magnificent Seven (and so triggered renewed interest in Kurosawa’s 1954 original). As Harris tells it, Newman and Benton were interested in smuggling a new sensibility amidst the bloated war movies, westerns, biblical spectaculars, and musicals. They even originally pitched their Bonnie and Clyde to Godard before Arthur Penn was hired.
The result held to the Howard Hughes edict of “never check an interesting fact,” as the sociopathic Depression bank robbers were molded as counter culture heroes fighting the establishment, the tone an offbeat amalgamation of comedy and violence (again, a wacky rhythm Beatty as director brings to Rules Don’t Apply), and thusly earning Bosley Crowther’s critical scorn: the film “whips through the saga of the cheapjack bandits as though it were funny instead of sordid or grim,” Crowther wrote, and the filmmakers might as well have been making light fun out of Lee Harvey Oswald or Adolf Hitler, again as Beatty would make “light fun” out of Howard Hughes (it can be argued that this is exactly what Welles did with his scattered Hughes sections of F for Fake). Even the film’s backing studio head, Jack Warner, hated what Beatty and Penn showed him. The story famously reads that after the screening Warner said, “What the hell was that?” Beatty confidently replied, as if rehearsing what his patron might want to hear, “It’s an homage to old Warner Bros. gangster movies.” Warner shot back, “What the fuck’s an homage?”
Beatty’s career symmetry between then and now allots the rather hokey conclusion that the rules did not apply. Whatever Crowther’s or Warner’s discontents, Bonnie and Clyde became a phenomenon, won several awards, and has been credited with opening up the formal approach filmmakers could make, particularly with its shocking use of violence towards the end, meant to evoke what was happening in Vietnam (and so on American television sets every night). But also amidst its many historical alterations is the decision the filmmakers made about Beatty’s characterization of Barrow, who was originally written (reflecting the historical research) as bisexual. Not believing this aspect would be digestible for mainstream audiences, a compromise was made where Barrow, played by the dashing young leading sex symbol, would be impotent, suitably assuming the posture of a virile gangster then undercut, when met with Bonnie’s sexual aggressiveness, with his admittance of “not being a lover boy,” her dissatisfaction triggering his frustrated conscientiousness of inadequacy.
It’s a fascinating decision with implications for the character and reverberations consistently felt throughout Beatty’s subsequent work. The antique photographs and meta-musings on movies and journalism throughout Bonnie and Clyde, in conjunction with the innovative camera set-ups and lens scrims, remind us of the hollowness of the image on its own, the mirror that draws us in but is nothing more than a beautiful mirage or fake, and here Beatty casts himself as such a symbol, the coveted sex object denied the ability for sex, a discord between formal beauty and libidinous spirit, what’s seen and what is. The film is transfixed with seeing and representation when juxtaposed against the grain of actual phenomena. The action draws attention to the eye, such as Estelle Parsons being blinded during a police ambush, and the sunglasses Beatty wears in the final scenes, one dark lens missing, suggesting a paradox of sight. In their last moments, Bonnie and Clyde become a gruesome spectacle, the mutual conscientiousness of their fates expressed in their impassioned optical cry toward each other, stressed by Dede Allen’s rapid fire cross-cutting, followed by the audience being subjected to barbarity with which their eyes were previously unaccustomed. Conversely, it’s when Clyde is able to hear his own story as a sculpted and extended work of creation—Bonnie’s poem of their relationship and crimes, published in a newspaper—that he’s able to function as a “real” man and consummate their union. The focus, as with Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, is on Beatty’s disconnect between his beauty and his physiological fulfillment with those infatuated with him. The beautiful object realizing the separateness from his image and then assimilates with the image. He then not only has to die, but also has his perfected physiology shattered, violently (note Beatty’s deaths in the two most notable films he made after Bonnie and Clyde—though he had no hand in the production—Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View; but nature’s merciless cold or gunfire, Beatty isn’t permitted to maintain his body).
In Shampoo (1975), directed by Hal Ashby and written by Beatty and Robert Towne, Beatty plays Los Angeles hairdresser George Roundy who, in contrast to Clyde Barrow, is locked and loaded to bed an assortment of pursuing women over the course of 24 hours, though his sexual congress is almost always interrupted by other lovers, husbands, or professional duties. The desirable body performs as ably as he’s able to sculpt satisfactory haircuts (again, rarely finishing the job), but in activating his professional aspirations and juggling multiple women (Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, Julie Christie) George’s body is out of step with an identity he’s trying to fashion. He preserves his body (a reconciling chat with jealous rich husband Jack Warden assuages the threat of pummeling heavies), but is left with nothing—the pleasure of his wasted company—as his lovers follow alternate trajectories, the action transpiring as the nation has laced itself up with fashion and sexual liberation but abandoned its soul through such distractions: lateral to the debauchery, Richard Nixon has just been elected president.
Beatty’s next production was his directorial debut (with Buck Henry and a script written with Elaine May) Heaven Can Wait, where he plays Los Angeles Rams backup quarterback Joe Pendleton, who through disciplined training and diet has successfully nursed an injured body back to optimal performance—only to have it maimed by oncoming traffic and then—before the cosmic authorities played by James Mason and Buck Henry realize Joe’s death is a bureaucratic discrepancy on their part—cremated. Heaven Can Wait begins Beatty’s displays of peak athleticism being met with a humorous chorus of “Lookin’ good!” from various onlookers. Pendleton now has to find an appropriate body matching his past-life proficiencies, the difficulty of which lands him in the inadequate flesh of a cuckolded millionaire businessman. Nevertheless, what Joe sees in the mirror is always “Warren Beatty,” “lookin’ good,” the body’s engineered utility outrunning consciousness to the extent that, by the time Joe transmigrates to his third and final body—heaven is finally able to find him another football player—his memories as “Joe Pendleton” disintegrate, though he’s able to move forth with the ostensible “happy ending” alongside Julie Christie. All there is, in effect, is body image. Upon examination, it’s one of the most depressing “happy endings” in a Hollywood romantic comedy.
The elderly true-life witnesses talking to us during Reds carries a similar intimation when their haggard faces and stuttering memories are juxtaposed alongside the milieu of their youth, the 1910s when new political and social ideas were conflagrating, Beatty stressing sexual liberation (Henry Miller reminds us that “there was as much fucking back then as there was now, but back then there was something more romantic about it”). The relationship between communist leader John Reed and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) was one that challenged convention, particularly with playwright Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson) thrown in the mix, their ideological fertility is matched by physical vibrancy—and then, as the ideals of the Russian Revolution begin to ossify with malignant authoritarianism, Reed’s kidneys fail and he’s eventually consigned to his deathbed.
Beatty’s Ben Siegel in Bugsy is another charismatic charmer and prolific lover, projecting his passion—for himself or for moll Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), whom it’s suggested he loves so much because she’s somewhat similar to him—onto plans for the Flamingo Hotel and (laughable) Hollywood screen tests. Both of these visionary dream embodiments end up as jokes, the former ensuring his death at the hands of lifelong gangster colleagues who’ve bankrolled his project. Siegel’s body—which we’ve seen him groom with the best clothes and skin treatments—is destroyed by gunfire as the screen test plays behind him, the last shot sending his eyeball across the room. Siegel is a beautiful underworld character fetishizing and hording beauty. “No woman’s worth a bullet between the eyes,” actor friend George Raft (Joe Mantegna) warns him of Hill, currently attached to another gangster. Siegel replies, “Depends on whose eyes and which woman,” not hesitating to make his move. Screenwriter James Toback’s wordplay offers many such rewarding punchlines, but the remark also again conveys this whirlwind of beauty conjoined with physical eradication, specifically on the vehicle absorbing beauty as go-between phenomena and precious memory, the eyes. To quote one of Ishtar’s terrible/awesome songs wrought by Beatty’s character, “She said you have a wardrobe of love in your eyes. Come in, look around, see if there’s something your size!”
Beautiful as Beatty’s leading ladies have been throughout his career—Natalie Wood, Faye Dunaway, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Isabel Adjani in Ishtar, Madonna in Dick Tracy, and Bening, it’s nevertheless his poise and physical allure that draws in the camera, the artist as model relishing his own fit features while immolating himself as a grand sacrifice at the conclusion, a Eucharist onto himself (I’m even including the wonderful stage finale of the comedy Ishtar, where Beatty and co-star Dustin Hoffman “triumphantly” seal state-sanctioned fame, reveling in their clueless performances of pitch-perfect awfulness). An exception is probably 1990’s colorful comic book vehicle Dick Tracy, in which Beatty allows Al Pacino’s grotesque villain Big Boy Caprice to walk off with—and really save—the entire movie, the erotic tension between Beatty’s titular Dick Tracy and real life girlfriend Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney a sterile background of chic sexual posturing (appropriate, given “Vogue,” the pop star’s seminal hit from the film’s accompanying album, I’m Breathless). Beatty’s erotic smothering climaxes with Bening in Bugsy, the actress tartly holding her own with him in flirtation scenes (“Talk is cheap in Hollywood, Ben. Why don’t you go outside and jerk yourself a soda”), and an enfolding blanket of luscious lighting and movement peaking with a silhouette collision behind a screen. It’s Beatty’s body that still holds the center, exploding with its gruesome destruction, Virginia Hill’s suicide relegated to a post-script title. But after Bugsy, and the two actors married and began a family, the curious and rather unremarkable Beatty passion project of Love Affair (a 1994 remake of An Affair to Remember) has a far more equal balance between Beatty and Bening, the latter’s body maimed by a car accident, leading Beatty’s character to lament as he embraces her at the end, “Why’d it have to be you?”
Beatty’s follow-up, the hilarious and edgy satire Bulworth (1998), was a 60-something matinee idol’s last stand as comely gentleman (onlookers confuse Beatty’s Senator Jay Bulworth for other suave, greying Hollywood stars like George Hamilton and Clint Eastwood). The Senator is undergoing a meltdown before an “unaroused” electorate, realizing the disparity of his present comfort zone of power from the liberal ideals of his youth. Having not eaten for days, Bulworth sits in his office and reruns a campaign video of himself reciting hollow words (“we stand on the eve of a new millennium…”). A doctor examines him and yes, the “body” is optimal in terms of cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. But something’s eating away at Bulworth through the televisual mirror. In his despair, he hires a hitman to take his life, intending his teenage daughter collect the sizable $10 million life insurance policy for which he’s unethically strong-armed from a shady exec (Paul Sorvino). However, this new mortal vulnerability changes Bulworth and, after spending time on the campaign trail in poor African American neighborhoods, the senator’s troubled unconscious begins sublimating through hip hop rhyming, exacerbated by his sudden infatuation with a young woman, Nina (Halle Berry). The stuffed-shirt slick politician begins luxuriating in his corpulence, masticating through KFC buckets and crispy crab cakes and ice cream, dancing, sexual arousal (his turn-table club antics conjoining “dick” and “pussy”), and unhampered speech, his hip-hopping rhyming a direct line to his heretofore repressed unconscious. Bulworth’s insane sagacity launches a metamorphosis from aging white rich man to angry young black man (making Bulworth undeniably “problematic,” to use today’s trendy parlance), but the body’s aspirations—possessed by a “spirit” when the aging man was close to becoming a “ghost,” as the film’s soothsayer-of-sorts tells us)—still leads, in its ecstasy to an existential ground zero, as Nina, the source of Bulworth’s visual delight and inspiration for his political resurrection, is his hired killer. Even so, as Bulworth’s methods stimulate the long-dormant electorate, he falls asleep in Nina’s arms before sexual consummation can occur, waking up in his old stuffy white guy persona, killed by an assassin (presumably hired by Sorvino’s insurance company stooge) before he can activate change. The spirit of change takes root in a gait, a physical rhythm and the body’s speech, without which we’re left with another ghost, such as haunt American political memory—and the political and erotic aspirations in Warren Beatty’s filmography.
Nearly twenty years later, Beatty’s Howard Hughes indeed is a haunting, ghost-like figure in Rules Don’t Apply, less embodied than will-o’-wisping through Hollywood Apocrypha, his handsome and romantic countenance preserved in several black-and-white screens showing off the younger Hughes, air-bushed as the younger Warren Beatty with ladies on his arm and monumental feats beneath his wings. Beatty the director meanwhile ingratiates the eye with the robust screen-ready beauty of Ehrenreich, Collins, and Hughes’ young contract actresses. Meanwhile, familiar character actors introduced to us in their youth—Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Matthew Broderick—manifest as poignant, deferential nods to the “ineluctable modality of the visible,” but less grotesque than elegiac and graceful—Beatty is not to be outdone here, and he will reserve the grotesque dimension of aging for his own star, which means withholding his mien like a Colonel Kurtz before taking shape beneath shadows.
The film’s title song, catching Hughes so off-guard as Marla drunkenly serenades him, is a stinging, reconciliatory hymn in this film and for this Hollywood power player. While an ever-aspirant Faustian figure, Hughes is visibly moved by the lyrical sentiment—“In the movies we see, in the shows on TV / And in anthems passionately sung / There’s a message that you’ve got to keep believing in yourself / But they generally mean if you’re young”—but the song was inspired by Frank’s reassurance to age-anxious Marla, feeling that as a twenty-something starlet-to-bloom she’s running out of sand in accordance to how the camera captures her proportions, “The rules don’t apply to you.” The narcissistic, world-dominating figure Hughes monopolizes meaning for himself and his Ozymandiasian self-shrine eminence, but it’s an expression of the troubling standards of the image industrial complex, its orientations, much like the church, calibrated to sculpt and control female form and sexuality with draconian callousness. The thirst for eternity, for something outlasting the body, permeates this ostensibly “trifling” romantic comedy, sprouting from a personal firmament in Beatty, as the filmmaker perhaps projects his true-life sentiments for his wife, Annette Bening, by having the naïve Frank mistake the fifty-something actress for Hughes’ latest ingénue (the rules not applying).
From there, as “aging” Marla looks for the limelight, the film seeks to expose Howard Hughes/Warren Beatty, who with this particular film is at last unveiling a long-planned opus, the late-stage culmination of a life’s work of which many other stars from his generation dream to realize, but rarely can muster the capital and momentum to do so. As Rules Don’t Apply gets mired in Hughes’ life, we first notice Mahler’s Fifth Symphony rendered as a tragic fragrance drifting through the comedy, again the theme used by Visconti in his own twilight years for Death in Venice.
The dialectic between this old and ragged Beatty and the younger sex symbol from 50 years earlier cannot help but, through intertextually referencing Visconti’s film, conjoin the antipodal points of voyeurism and object explored by Thomas Mann’s original text, the author describing the aging author Gustave von Aschenbach (to make his art more palpable, Visconti makes him a composer), “Now his life was slowly waning, and his fear of not completing his artistic mission, his concern that the clock might run down before he had done his bit and given fully of himself, could no longer be waved off as an idle quirk.” Meanwhile, Aschenbach’s fixation (in Mann’s ironically detached prose) on beauteous form is manifested in artistic representations of St. Sebastian the martyr, seen as “an intellectual and adolescent manliness that, in proud modesty, clenches its teeth and calmly stands there while its flesh is skewered by swords and spears,” a juxtaposition that calls to mind the numerous beautiful, slain or injured figures portrayed by Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Parallax View, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bugsy, and Bulworth. “After all,” Mann continues, “confronting destiny, maintaining grace under torture—these do not betoken merely passive endurance: they are active achievements of positive triumph,” Sebastian being the finest symbol of art as a whole.
But that’s the safety abstraction, and when Aschenbach confronts the beautiful youth Tadzio, perfection in nature, he’s overwhelmed. Venice itself, where Aschenbach is visiting, meanwhile is beset by cholera, the “stranger god” from the East infecting inhabitants as Dionysus is infecting Aschenbach’s soul. Aschenbach remembers Plato’s Phaedrus, and discussion of how the beautiful youth reminds the earthbound soul of the wings it once had and lost, triggering noble, intellectual aspirations, as Mann puts it, “It is only with the help of a body that the soul can then rise to a more sublime contemplation…making us burn with pain and hope.”
That burn is there in Visconti as Aschenbach (played by Dirk Bogarde) watches Tadzio, and we see it in Beatty’s film as Hughes watches Marla serenade him. Both are intoxicated, albeit by different spirits—alcohol and Dionysus. The truth about Beatty’s film is that Hughes’ “Tadzio” isn’t Marla but, in hearing her song about hope in aging, himself, the body he once possessed and displayed proudly, now hidden away. Beatty’s Hughes is uncomfortable in the light, wants surrogate Hughes doubles to keep him young to spectators, and is clearly bothered after his face is badly scarred after his famous Los Angeles test plane crash (“What am I going to do about this?” he says, looking at his reflection; he grows a mustache). A man searching for perfection, his amorous collision with Marla sends him soaring once more between cities and ice cream flavors, playful with children (where before he wouldn’t even recognize them as children—“Get that person out of here!” he yells when he spots a young boy who infiltrated his bungalow in search of ice cream).
But at the end of the search for perfection, with Aschenbach and Beatty’s Hughes, is nothing: “Is not nothingness a form of perfection?” Mann’s novella asks. Aschenbach’s spiritual pursuit of Tadzio is a willful embrace of the “abyss.” He loses himself in trying to fuse with beauty, cosmeticizing his aging visage and coloring his hair. But as this infected Aschenbach hobbles through corpse-strewn Venice streets, he becomes a grotesque parody of beauty, a tragic clown, giving out a exasperated amalgamated laugh and cry. What’s remarkable is after Marla and Frank leave Hughes to his draped bed, Beatty offers the same exasperated cry of Bogarde’s worshipper of beauty. A maestro of machinery, Hughes is left alone with his body, simultaneously blessed with the possibility of biological immortality as his DNA walks out the door in Marla’s little boy, Matthew.
Hughes earlier explained this new science of “DNA” to Frank, like an alchemist seeking out his options to grasp eternity. He also, in a scene that gives him pause, wonders about his own biological father. After asking about Frank’s absent father, Hughes explains how much he misses his “daddy” and just wishes he could talk to him. It’s a moving scene in the film that, in a sense, seems out of place or a strident addition to make Hughes human. But it’s really in the character of the whole film with its meditations on links between eras, and also as a personal remark by the director/star on his own career, where he’s almost always played characters who exist like Hughes does, in a vacuum without parents, as opposed to father figures and brothers (and father figures, like Noah Dietrich played by Martin Sheen, are disposable). The last time a father played such a significant role for him was Beatty’s father portrayed by Pat Hingle in Splendor in the Grass, who tried to control his son’s amorous options and ended up committing suicide. Here, the reconciliation with the father—even as an abstraction—is Hughes, like his aging director/portrayer, acknowledging his disintegration and mortality, his exasperated cry towards the end, as Marla, Frank, and Matthew get away from him, a melancholic recognition and submission to the grim copilot flying closely through his death-defying feats, or as Orson Welles says at Chartres in F for Fake, “The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. We’re going to die. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter that much.” The perfection of nothingness looks back from a mirror that devilishly reflects the contours of an intoxicating physique.
When Aschenbach dies on a beach as his eyes reach out to Tadzio in the sea, there’s an unmanned camera looking on, the “image” savoring something private and unnamable. The voyeur is himself the subject of a gaze conscripting him to its fateful crosshairs. Drawing the curtains closed, Hughes and Beatty escape the shutter and cloaks his vulnerability again. As Rules Don’t Apply concludes, its streak of self-referential intimations moves from fiction to once again non-fiction, joining F for Fake the documentary Truth or Dare, filmed during Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour in 1991, when the pop diva was dating Beatty. “Don’t hide, Warren!” she yells during a post-show party. “You pussy, man.” There are three cameras in the room, and Beatty is clearly uncomfortable with them and the effect of public presentation they impinge on any social situation. Later on, Beatty comments on “the insanity of doing this all for a documentary.” His relationship to the image is pointedly at odds with how Madonna, similarly a master of self-presentation and her sexuality, handles it: the sculpting perfectionist who tirelessly works to create an illusion vs. the embryo of Reality TV, where exposure itself is commodity. “She doesn’t want to live off camera. Much less talk. Why would you say something off-camera? What point is there existing?”
When Truth or Dare was released, Beatty’s presence and sentiments were lampooned as the hokum of the aging patriarch chiding his conspicuously younger girlfriend (Papa Don’t Preach, indeed), and nearly 25 years later the landmark documentary’s sensibilities, and its star, have been much more influential in dictating present day fashion and entertainment. Yet retrospectively, Beatty comes off as the film’s more sagacious figure (contra Madonna, borrowing another lyrical indeedism, from Ishtar, “Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand!”) “Do they talk about it?” he asks about the people filming and watching. “No. They accept it,” she answers. “Why don’t they talk about it?” “Because.” “Well, you want to think about that, don’t you?” “No, I don’t,” with a wink of youthful recalcitrance.
Twenty five years later, as the world of screens saturates so as to drown and desensitize, eyes responding to accelerating stimuli in an increasingly kneejerk fashion, there’s a sense that we’re seeing less. Viewers are subsets of an image apparatus, tantamount to selected avatars. There’s certainly something transcendent about Bonnie and Clyde’s identification with their mythological personae, as much as with the flesh-and-blood Madonna becoming indistinguishable from the superstar persona on stages and screens. But Warren Beatty, while similarly trapped by his self-made image, seems wary of the social mirror’s Narcissist pull. His aging Howard Hughes is relegated to a non-space where his bid for immortality ineluctably flies away—in an imagined child carrying his DNA or the movies and myths that will yet be made of him after he’s gone. The body in time is beauty’s insurmountable foe, and so the pictures get away. We hear the true-life Hughes say in F for Fake, “I’d rather be back in the movies,” and the weight of that sentiment is carried over in Rules Don’t Apply (“I should really get out more”), as the narcissist’s trance is broken, the Self realizing it’s broken off from the beautiful, frozen reflection playing in a loop—surrendering to the fact that how, where, and when he’s seen is out of his hands.