Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced Americaby Peter Biskind
In this compulsively readable and constantly surprising book, Peter Biskind, the author of the film classics Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, writes the most intimate, revealing, and balanced biography ever of Hollywood legend Warren Beatty.
Famously a playboy—he has been linked to costars Natalie Wood, Julie Christie,/i>/i>
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In this compulsively readable and constantly surprising book, Peter Biskind, the author of the film classics Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, writes the most intimate, revealing, and balanced biography ever of Hollywood legend Warren Beatty.
Famously a playboy—he has been linked to costars Natalie Wood, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, and Madonna, among others—Beatty has also been one of the most ambitious and successful stars in Hollywood. Several Beatty films have passed the test of time, from Bonnie and Clyde to Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds (for which he won the best director Oscar), Bugsy, and Bulworth. Few filmgoers realize that along with Orson Welles, Beatty is the only person ever nominated for four Academy Awards for a single film—and unlike Welles, Beatty did it twice, with Heaven Can Wait and Reds.
Biskind shows how Beatty used star power, commercial success, savvy, and charm to bend Hollywood moguls to his will, establishing an unprecedented level of independence while still working within the studio system. Arguably one of the most successful and creative figures in Hollywood over the last few decades, Beatty exercised unique control over his films, often hiring screenwriters out of his own pocket (and frequently collaborating with them), producing, directing, and acting, becoming an auteur before anyone in Hollywood knew what the word meant. In this fascinating biography, the ultimate Hollywood Star comes to life—complete with excesses and achievements—as never before.
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“He was insatiable. Three, four, five times a day, every day, was not unusual for him. I felt like an oyster in a slot machine.”
ON A HOT summer night, in 1959, Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda were having dinner at La Scala, on Little Santa Monica in Beverly Hills, when Beatty spied Joan Collins at a nearby table. Collins, a striking brunette, was a younger, svelter, later-model Elizabeth Taylor, with a British accent to boot. She had been dubbed “the British Open,” for her parade of well-heeled boyfriends. But Collins was no bimbo—she had a biting wit, which she would occasionally exercise at Beatty’s expense, as she would prove nineteen years later in her autobiography, Past Imperfect. Then twenty-six, she was four years his senior, and had been in Hollywood for five years, having appeared in a number of low-rent pictures, including Land of the Pharaohs, a sword and sandal epic wherein she lay recumbent while cradling a diamond (paste, of course) in her navel. At the time, she was training with Candy Barr to play a stripper in Seven Thieves, and hoping to wrest the lead in Cleopatra away from Taylor.
As Collins tells it, she was brooding about her lengthy and increasingly unhappy affair with a handsome producer, George Englund, then married to Cloris Leachman, and forking cannelloni into her mouth (she was always a big eater and had to fight her weight), when she noticed the indecently pretty young man boldly eyeing her from a nearby table. He was twenty-two at the time, but he looked like he was barely old enough to drive.
Although he was precocious—dating senior girls when he was a freshman at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia—sexually speaking, Beatty was a late bloomer. Born in Richmond, the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and raised a Baptist among Baptists, he had been a virgin until he was 19 and ten months, and had had only one or two relationships he considered “serious.” Since he dropped out of Northwestern University in 1956, he hadn’t had any. But he had discovered in himself a raging lust for women. He realized, too, that women were drawn to him. It was as if he heard them calling out to him where other men were deaf, the way canines respond to whistles inaudible to humans. Says writer Peter Feibleman, who would help polish some of his scripts in coming years, “Hollywood was candy land for him. I once asked him, ‘Why is it that every time I put my weenie in something, yours has already been there?’ He just had a tremendous appetite.” A few years off, when his career was prospering and his horizons broader, no female would be beneath his notice—stars, starlets, and models, of course, but also TV newscasters, studio executives, journalists, hatcheck girls, waitresses, dental hygienists, even daughters of friends—any woman, in other words, who crossed his path, and many who didn’t, the innocent bystanders grazing the stacks in a library, stopped at a traffic light in the next car, pulling bread off a shelf in a supermarket, or sitting, like Collins, at a nearby table. As Clint Eastwood is reputed to have said, “No matter how hot a girl is, there’s always someone who’s tired of fucking her,” and that person always seemed to be named Warren on-to-the-next Beatty.
What accounted for this passion, outside of motive, means, and opportunity, is hard to say. To hear him tell it, his juvenile immersion in a sea of estrogen was formative. “My childhood was very strongly and very positively affected by women,” he said. “My mother, my sister, my aunts, my great-aunts, cousins, all of whom were women—and I was fortunately not smothered by them.” Indeed, with Beatty, it wasn’t just lust. He had a romantic streak; he wanted to make a connection, wanted to fall in love. Collins was ground zero, as it were, for his seduction of the whole town, the women, of course, but the men as well, figuratively speaking. No shrinking violet herself, she returned his gaze with equal boldness. He raised a glass and smiled. Her dinner partner remarked, “That boy who’s looking at you is Shirley MacLaine’s brother, Warren something or other.” She took a second look. He was wearing a blue Brooks Brothers shirt and a tweed jacket. She was struck by his clean-cut, Clark Kent good looks, Kirk Douglas dimple, and sensual mouth, which would be remarked upon shortly by no less an authority than Kenneth Tynan. There was nothing wrong with that picture but the “spots” (British for acne) that marred his face, and Fonda, his date, who was giving him her full attention.
Beatty had met Fonda earlier that year in February, when director Joshua Logan had asked him to test with her and a few other actors in New York for Parrish, a tortured teen picture set on a tobacco plantation in Connecticut. “I really thought I was hot shit and I had in fact turned down a couple of movies,” says Beatty. “I was broke of course. But I thought, I really don’t want to do something until I do something that’s good.” Working for Logan would have been an excellent start. A giant of the theater, Logan had won a Pulitzer Prize for co-writing South Pacific, and directed a number of hit plays.
The director had wanted Beatty to smother Fonda with passionate kisses, but the young actor merely pecked discreetly at her cheek. “I thought he was gay,” Fonda recalled. “He was so cute, and all his men friends were gay, and brilliant. And he liked to play piano in a piano bar—I mean, what were the odds he was straight? Shows you how dumb I was.” Underwhelmed by Beatty’s tepid approach, Logan said, “Look, are you afraid of Jane or something? Grab her, boy, grab her. Don’t be shy.” Beatty leapt upon Fonda, kissing her with such ferocity that Logan had to yell, “Cut! Stop! Hey, Warren, we’re all out of film. That’s enough!” Recalls the actor, “Oh my God. We kissed until we had practically eaten each other’s heads off.” Later, Beatty would reportedly say that she gave the best blow job in L.A., due to her ability to virtually unhinge her lower jaw, like a python that swallows prey much larger than itself. Coming from him, for whom blow jobs were routine as breathing, this was high praise indeed.
Collins next ran into Beatty at a Saturday night party given by Tyrone Power’s widow in the flats of Beverly Hills. He was playing the piano, doing impressions of Erroll Garner, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, catnip to women, who gathered around to watch him finger the ivories. They exchanged smiles, but he appeared engrossed in the music, and she went home.
The following day, Collins went to the beach to work on her tan, knowing she would have ample opportunity to show it off later when she zipped herself into a too small black faille dress for a party that evening. Her date was Gardner McKay, the six-foot-four heartthrob starring in TV’s Adventures in Paradise, who, in the considered opinion of Life magazine, was the handsomest man in America. She arrived home to find six messages from Beatty, instructing her to call him at the Chateau Marmont, where he was staying. When Beatty went after a woman, “nothing would stop him,” as production designer Dick Sylbert, who would become a colleague and close friend, put it. Before she had a chance to oblige, the phone rang. A boyish voice said, “Hi, did you get my messages?” She was impressed by the fact that although they hadn’t spoken so much as one word to each other, he had found her phone number and was so self-assured that he didn’t bother to identify himself. He invited her to dinner that night. She accepted, which meant blowing off McKay. Beatty instructed her to meet him at a place on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills at eight, adding, “I can hardly wait.”
After the party, Collins rushed back to her Shoreham Drive home, wriggled out of her dress into jeans and a shirt. She knew Beatty was a few years her junior, so she removed some of her makeup, hopped into her rented yellow Ford—he was driving a rented Chevy—and met him at the Casa Escobar for Mexican food and margaritas. She was pleased that he was an Aries, a sign compatible with her Gemini. He was pleased that she was—Joan Collins. They admired each other till well past midnight. He drove her to her car, said he would follow her home to make sure she arrived safely. As she entered her parking garage, with him right behind her, she weighed the pros and cons of asking him up for a nightcap. He got out of his car, and short-circuited her should-I-or-shouldn’t-I? interior dialogue by saying, “I’m coming up for coffee.”
This was the beginning of an intense, nearly year-and-a-half affair, during which he took over her life, evincing a need for control that would characterize his behavior in future relationships. He urged her to stop smoking and take vitamins as he did. He called her repeatedly, at her count eighteen times a day. And it wasn’t just her. He lived on the phone, making two, three dozen calls between the time his eyes opened in the morning and the time he closed them at night. He had remarkably good recall and committed many of his most frequently dialed numbers to memory after hearing or seeing them just once. (Ten years after they would break up, she ran into him at a party, and he still remembered her number on Shoreham Drive.)
Once Beatty and Collins connected, they were always together. He haunted the set where she was shooting Seven Thieves. The love-struck couple whiled away the time languishing on the beach. He wrapped himself around her, licked the salt off her lips, her fingers, wherever, as the breakers gently lapped the sand. In the evenings, they went to restaurants, clubs, and piano bars, exchanged fond glances, held hands, kissed, and canoodled. He made love to Collins relentlessly, although every now and then he would accept calls while he was inside her. Unlike Jack Nicholson, with whom he would become fast friends, he was not subject to premature ejaculation, but on the contrary would become famous for his staying power, his ability to go on and on and on, giving his partner multiple orgasms before coming himself. But for Collins, it was too much of a good thing. One Sunday morning, exhausted, she stumbled out of bed. Dragging on a forbidden cigarette, she said, “I don’t think I can last much longer. He never stops—it must be all those vitamins he takes.… In a few years I’ll be worn out.” Later, a skeptic asked her if they really had sex seven times a day. She replied, “Maybe he did, but I just lay there.”
Some of her friends found their relationship strange and unhealthy. He was too callow, they said, unknown and impecunious, using her to kick-start his career. But she was deaf to their doubts, impervious to their warnings. As a teenager, Beatty had been struck with George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), with its story about a handsome but penniless young man on the make who sees his pot of gold within reach when he secures the love of a beautiful heiress, but who has to get rid of his pregnant and very inconvenient lower-class girlfriend. One can only speculate about the significance this story had for him in the context of his romance with Collins, who was way above him on the ladder to the stars. “Warren was 21 [sic] when I met him,” she observed. “He was just desperate to become famous.”
True, Beatty was struggling, but his career had been showing signs of life. His agents at MCA, Music Corporation of America, toiling on his behalf, had succeeded in securing him a five-year nonexclusive contract at $400/week from MGM on the basis of his screen test with Fonda. “When I got out here you know. I didn’t have any money,” Beatty recalls. “Suddenly I was under contract to MGM. That was just tremendous. I rented a little one-bedroom house near Coldwater Canyon. I had a car, a convertible. There was an orange grove beside the house which I thought was amazing, to see oranges growing on trees. There was nothing to do at the studio. Nobody complained that I was picking up this check.” He had been nearly incapacitated with a bad case of hepatitis—he lost thirty-five pounds—but thanks to a doctor who had put him on a nutritious diet and discouraged him from drinking, he had steadily improved. Not that he was inclined to drink anyway, having grown up with a father who had an alcohol problem. As MacLaine described their father, “He’d come home drunk, set something on fire, leave again until the wee hours, then return and sleep til noon.”
The hepatitis scare, along with nascent hypochondria exacerbated by a wannabe actor’s vanity, left him with what would become a lifelong fascination with things medical. He even became a surprisingly good amateur diagnostician. “Can Warren talk medicine?” asks Dick Sylbert, rhetorically. “He can go on about cholesterol numbers the way racing drivers talk tread thicknesses. Obsessed. The amount of attention that these stars demand is extraordinary. Warren once had a little rash. He went nuts. He’s so careful, he’s got no dirt on him, no antibodies. He gets a cold, he’s knocked down, goes out. Like a baby, for weeks.”
Collins was still entangled with Englund, who was in Hong Kong with Marlon Brando, prepping The Ugly American. When he returned, he tried to reclaim her. She reluctantly agreed to meet him at the Cock and Bull, a faux-British pub on Sunset Strip. Beatty peevishly asked her how long it would take her to send him on his way. Trying to assuage his anxiety, she said she imagined no more than an hour. Nervously scribbling shapes on a scrap of paper, he sourly imagined she would decide it was Englund she loved, not him. Enfolding him in a warm embrace, she reassured Beatty, but he was already on the phone before she was out the door. Englund pressed her to dump him. He echoed her friends, reminded her that for all his self-assurance, Beatty was barely out of short pants, while she was a woman of the world, a movie star, for Christ’s sakes! She wavered, thought, Warren is pushy, awkward. Englund reminded her that he was divorcing his wife for her, and gave her a week to make up her mind. After one hour had turned into three, she jumped up from the table and left. He followed her to her car and kissed her with some passion.
Minutes after Collins got back to her apartment, Beatty arrived, furious, by her account. Apparently he had been circling the restaurant in his car while she was with Englund, frantic with jealousy. Pulling off his glasses and tossing them on the sofa, he shouted, “I saw you, necking in the parking lot.”
“We weren’t. He kissed me goodbye, that’s all.”
He tried to intimidate her, but sans glasses, he was so nearsighted as to be almost blind, and fell over a stool. They abused each other through the wee hours, shouting hurtful things. But the next day, following a session with her psychiatrist, she chose Beatty. They celebrated at La Scala with MacLaine.
BEATTY HAD arrived in New York City in 1956, when he was nineteen, after leaving Northwestern, where he was enrolled in the Speech and Drama Department. His big sister had made the same journey four years earlier, when she was eighteen. “I remember the morning I left home,” she wrote. “Warren had skipped football practice. He sat down at the piano to beat the hell out of it.… He was tall and handsome by now and didn’t need me any more to finish his battles. I wondered when I’d see him again. I wondered when he’d decide what he would do with his life. I didn’t know then (because he was as shy about his inside self as all of us) that every afternoon… Warren was in the basement acting out his soul to every Al Jolson record ever made, and memorizing in detail every play Eugene O’Neill ever wrote.” She continued, “Warren and I might have believed we were not from a show-business family, but… because we both lived out the unfulfilled fantasies of our parents, I think we had a greater inspirational motivation than the Barrymores or the Redgraves.”
Beatty found a $13 a week apartment on West 68th Street, previously occupied by a junkie. He lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, worked at odd jobs, including dishwasher, bricklayer’s assistant, construction worker, sandhog (in the Lincoln Tunnel), and piano player at Claven’s on W. 52nd Street. He even had something of a singing voice. When the hepatitis hit, he lay in bed for weeks. It was a dark time; he feared he would never get better, never work as an actor again.
One day, as Beatty recalls, “A friend of mine asked me if I would audition with him in a scene for CBS. Which I did. And I was offered a job on one of the dramatic religious shows they used to have on Sunday mornings. I did that. And then agents started to see me and offer me things and I began to work.”
This led to that, as it has a way of doing. “I needed money, and I wasn’t that good a piano player and I was not what you’d call the world’s outstanding sandhog,” he recalled. “It began to occur to me that I could make money acting and that I could find in the theater a tool for expressing myself.” He worked his way through shows like Studio One, Playhouse 90, and the Kraft Theatre. He did summer stock. In the course of his education, he began to recognize the names that were on everybody’s lips—Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, who starred in A Place in the Sun. He heard that they mumbled, so he mumbled.
Beatty had done some TV show and was eagerly awaiting some response from his friends. In his words, “There was an ancient and very beautiful actress of twenty-six with whom I had become, let’s say, friendly. I mean very friendly. She was in California, she called, and said, ‘Hi.’
“‘Hi.’ I waited.
“‘Well, you really looked terrific.’
“I said, ‘What does that mean?’
“‘You’re gonna be a big movie star.’
“‘Yeah, you thought I was good?’
“‘You just looked wonderful.’
“‘But what’d you think of my work?’
“‘Well, I had a little trouble understanding some of what you said. But you looked so good.’
“‘What do you mean you had trouble understanding what—’
“‘Let’s not get into that. The thing is, this can all open up for you—’
“‘Just tell me, what do you mean, you had trouble understanding what I said?’
“‘I don’t think that’s productive.’
“‘What percentage couldn’t you understand?’
“‘What percentage? Don’t be ridiculous.’
“‘Just give me an idea.’
“‘Don’t get me into this, because, you know, it’s not fair.’
“‘How much, like 10 percent?’
“‘What, 20 percent?’
“‘Don’t do this. Take it from me, you looked terrific, and that’s what’s gonna be important for you.’
“‘What, 30 percent?’
“‘Don’t do this!’
“‘So what are you saying, you lost half of what I said?’
“‘If you don’t stop…’
“‘I’m not gonna stop.’
“‘Okay, 90, 95 percent.’
“‘You missed 90 to 95 percent of what I said?’
“‘That’s not possible.’
“‘Did I tell you there was no point in saying this?’
“‘Oh my God… ’”
Eventually, Beatty decided he might benefit from some formal instruction. He recalls, “A friend of mine saw me walking up Eighth Avenue one day in 1957, and said, ‘Where’ya going?’
“‘I’m going to such and such an acting school.’
“‘You can’t go there.’
“‘There’s only one person for you to study with. Stella Adler.’
“‘Who’s Stella Adler?’”
Beatty enrolled in her class. “She was an amazing, flamboyant figure,” he continues. “I came to the first day, and Harold Clurman, who used to be married to her, stood up and gave the opening speech, a sort of call to arms. It was mesmerizing. There was a seriousness of approach to the study of acting that came out of a resentment with the superficiality of the commercial theater of the 1920s and the early 1930s, as well as the influence of the revolution in Russia, of Chekhov, and Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater, that worked its way into the Group Theatre, which Clurman presided over. And out of that came Stella and Lee Strasberg and Sandy Meisner. Stella used to tell a story about when she and Harold would be wrestling around in bed at night. She would punch him and say, ‘Harold, don’t sleep like a great man. Just sleep.’”
Despite his admiration for the politics and passion that drove the Group Theatre and its heirs, Beatty didn’t last long with Adler, with whom he got off to a bad start. Adler, apparently convinced that he was getting by on his looks alone, took a dim view of him. One day, he was a few minutes late to class. When he walked in, she announced, grandly, “Here comes Mr. Broadway.” He was embarrassed, did some shit-kicking, hemming and hawing, but she had an attitude toward him that she never got over and he never understood. He directed Rita Gam in a scene from A Hatful of Rain. When they presented it, Adler, in Gam’s words, “criticized Warren for being mannered and uncommitted.” Beatty lasted about eight months. He never went back, although he always speaks about Adler with admiration.
Logan had first glimpsed Beatty on stage at the North Jersey Playhouse in Fort Lee in December 1958, when the actor was playing Richard Loeb in Compulsion. The audience was packed with agents and casting directors trolling off-off-off Broadway regional theaters for the next big thing. A young Mart Crowley was assistant to the director. (He later went on to write Boys in the Band.) Crowley recalls, “Warren always wanted to discuss and discuss and discuss his part. And he didn’t like people calling him ‘Beetie.’” He was fond of saying that his name rhymed with “weighty,” not “Wheaties.” Even then, when he changed the spelling of the family name from “Beaty” to “Beatty,” he revealed the caution that would govern his behavior throughout his life, as well as his taste for endless toying, tinkering, tweaking. Unlike his sister, who got rid of her father’s surname entirely, exchanging it for her mother’s, he merely fiddled with it.
Compulsion ran for two weeks. Beatty got good notices. Logan was close to William Inge. Inge, along with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, was among the big three American playwrights in the 1950s. He had had four Broadway hits in a row: Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). He had a thriving Hollywood career as well; all of these plays had become wildly successful movies.
Inge, a nondescript middle-aged Midwesterner with thinning hair who looked like a dry goods salesman, was gay. Even more than his friend, he was captivated by Beatty. “Inge was in love with Warren Beatty on sight,” Logan observed. “Warren’s career was assured. ‘I absolutely must have him,’ Bill said.” Wags used to refer to Inge as Beatty’s “fairy godfather.” Inge was looking for an actor to play the lead in a script he was writing for director Elia Kazan called Splendor in the Grass, and decided that the young man would be just the thing.
Inge invited Beatty to his home at 45 Sutton Place South, in Manhattan. The actor had just gotten out of a sickbed, down with food poisoning. When he finally made it to Inge’s apartment, he introduced himself as MacLaine’s brother, an indication of the state of his nerves, since he was determined to make his own way, not ride on his sister’s coattails. Inge told Beatty that he would try to get him the lead in Splendor, and in his new play as well, A Loss of Roses. From the actor’s point of view, there was no smarter career move than to attach himself to a writer like Inge, on the one hand, and hot directors like Logan and Kazan, on the other.
Beatty was most likely aware of his effect on Inge, and would exploit it, but it is doubtful that they had an intimate relationship. Says photographer Michael Childers, who was director John Schlesinger’s partner and later shot stills on several Beatty productions, “How smart of Warren to become a little coquette in order to ingratiate himself with Inge and Logan. Of course they were in love with him. I think Warren was smart enough to play it for all it was worth. Why not, if it was gonna get him a better part, or make his life easier. No sex was involved.”
Inge introduced Beatty to Kazan, who was favorably impressed. “I liked Warren right off,” he said, adding, “Warren had never been in anything before. He had been a high school football player, uncertain but charming.” Later, he wrote, Warren “wanted it all and wanted it his way. Why not? He had the energy, a very keen intelligence, and more chutzpah than any Jew I’ve ever known. Even more than me. Bright as they come, intrepid, and with that thing all women secretly respect: complete confidence in his sexual powers, confidence so great that he never had to advertise himself, even by hints.”
Beatty arrived on the scene at an opportune moment. Rarely had the movie business been afflicted by such a scarcity of young leading men. The older generation of actors, men like Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster, was headed for the Motion Picture Home. James Dean had been famously killed in his Porsche Spyder in 1955, while Montgomery Clift was more or less sidelined with a disfiguring car accident of his own the following year. Marlon Brando was thirteen years older than Beatty and had already begun his descent into an auto-de-fé of self-parody. Paul Newman was twelve years older, and Steve McQueen, seven.
The late 1950s produced a sorry crop of new faces, the likes of Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, and R. J. Wagner, as well as a slew of good-looking actors who failed to break out, like Michael Parks, John Philip Law, Richard Beymer, and Brad Dillman, but only Tony Perkins, five years older than Beatty, had any real talent, and he was a niche actor, insufficiently masculine to play romantic leads. Dennis Hopper was too crazy to make it until much later, when he settled for being a character actor. Even Robert Redford was buried in the pack, his star lagging Beatty’s by nearly a decade. Clint Eastwood was struggling in B-movies, hoping someone would notice him. Rock Hudson was wooing Doris Day. Sean Connery, also behind Beatty, would become trapped in James Bond hell. “There was this period between 1960 and 1967, where I don’t think there were any young actors that were bankable,” says Beatty. “I didn’t have a lot of company.”
Kazan was looking for new faces. He liked to work with young actors, because they were hungry and full of enthusiasm. “They say that fighters come to fight. These guys—Dean, Brando, Beatty—they came to act. You couldn’t stop them,” he observed. Kazan appeared ready to give him the lead in Splendor.
Inge summoned Beatty to his apartment once again, this time to read for the lead in A Loss of Roses. It was set in a small Midwestern town in 1933. Beatty would play a young man, Kenneth Baird, deeply attached to his mother, but distracted enough by her old friend, an aging actress, to have an affair with her. Eventually, he leaves both behind for a life of his own. Inge thought Beatty was perfect for the role of Kenny, whom he described in a letter as someone who so luxuriates in his masculinity it was as if “he feels a wreath has been hung on his penis.” Inge wanted Kazan to direct, but he begged off, and the playwright was obliged to put Roses on hold. Meanwhile, Logan failed to get Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh for Parrish, and dropped out, leaving Beatty high and dry. (Logan later made the film with Troy Donahue in the role slated for Beatty, while Claudette Colbert and Karl Malden played the parents.)
Beatty returned to L.A. in a fruitless attempt to snag a part in a Playhouse 90 production. But his luck changed when he secured a recurring role in a hit TV series, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, with production set to begin in L.A. in mid-May 1959. But outside of his sporadic appearances on Dobie Gillis, Beatty had precious little to show for himself but promised parts that might—but more often might not—materialize. MGM, meanwhile, was offering him parts he didn’t want, and withholding the ones he did want, arguing, with some reason, that he lacked experience. He was growing increasingly unhappy as a contract player.
Then A Loss of Roses came back to life with Daniel Mann directing. (Mann had directed the movie version of the playwright’s Come Back, Little Sheba , with Shirley Booth, as well as Shirley MacLaine in Hot Spell .) Inge pressed Mann to let Beatty read, and in September, after five weeks of indecision during which the actor fretted, Mann gave him the part in what would be his first Broadway play.
Beatty was thrilled. “I thought, I gotta go do the play because I’m not doing anything that means anything,” he recalls. “I felt that I was turning into a very large piece of citrus fruit. I knew I had to get out of the deal with MGM.” The studio responded, “You can’t do a play.” He said, “I said, ‘I can, too,’ so I went back and did it.” He borrowed $2,600 from Lew Wasserman to buy himself out of the contract.
ROSESWAS due to open out of town at the National in D.C., where as a sixteen-year-old teenager Beatty was employed in the summer of 1953 to chase rats from the alley behind the theater. When he arrived in New York in late September to begin rehearsals, he found a profoundly troubled production. Shirley Booth, who was playing Kenny’s mother, didn’t think her part was big enough; Carol Haney, playing the actress whom Kenny seduces, didn’t like Booth, who in turn was disdainful of Haney for being a dancer, not an actress, while neither they nor anybody much liked Beatty, who was a novice, and struck them as tentative and unsure of himself. Booth resented the attention the director lavished on the young actor, who peppered Mann with questions about his motivation. For his part, Mann regarded Beatty as a loose cannon, who might say or do anything when he got on stage. “Warren won’t listen to me,” he complained. “He’s going to do nothing until opening night and then he’ll play on the sex appeal and charm and all the crap and do something on stage we won’t even know about.” Mann apparently contemplated replacing Beatty and told his understudy to get ready. But Inge protected his protégé. He told Mann that although the actor was insecure and undisciplined, he’d be great when the curtain rose.
After Joan Collins finished up the instantly forgettable Seven Thieves in October, she took the red-eye to Washington, where A Loss of Roses opened on October 29, 1959. Beatty’s notices were good, although the play itself got no better than mixed reviews. Beatty meanwhile introduced Collins to his parents, Ira and Kathlyn, who were living in Arlington, across the Potomac River. She was slated to do Sons and Lovers in England. According to her, Beatty not only thought the story was tacky, he wanted her close by. “Warren kept me selfishly with him,” she said, bitterly. “Warren’s number one priority, in those days, and for many years after, was Warren.” He was getting a big publicity bonus from his connection to her, and with A Loss of Roses less than a sure thing, it was a bad time for her to disappear. “Don’t go, Butterfly,” she said he “begged. ‘Don’t leave your Bee.’”
Butterfly heeded his entreaties. Instead of going to London, she went to New York to be with him when the play opened at the Eugene O’Neill on November 28. It was slaughtered by the critics—Inge’s first flop—and left a legacy of bitterness in its wake. Rex Reed, in a famously bitchy Esquire profile of Beatty published in 1967, quoted an unnamed cast member recalling that on opening night in New York, Beatty “changed lines, business, blocking, and completely screwed up Carol Haney so badly that she ran into her dressing room in tears.” Beatty didn’t care. He was having fun with Michael J. Pollard, also in the play. They had a short scene together. It “was written to be about two minutes long,” Beatty recalled. “We turned it into seven and a half minutes.” But Mann cared. He said, “In my forty-year career, I’ve directed some of our finest actors—Brando, Vanessa Redgrave, Anna Magnani, Elizabeth Taylor—but I have to say, Warren was one of the few to give me a problem.”
Roses marked the beginning of Inge’s decline. But despite the caustic reviews, Beatty emerged smelling like, well, a rose. In The New Yorker, Tynan famously described him as “sensual around the lips and pensive around the brow.” Walter Kerr called him “mercurial, sensitive, excellent,” and he was nominated for a Tony. Best of all, perhaps, was that Kazan had caught one of the performances.
Roses closed after twenty-one nights. It would be the last play Beatty would ever do. His burnished reputation aside, it left a bad taste. “There’s no more enervating experience in the world than to do a play for more than one performance with actors who don’t work well together,” he says. “It’s torture.” He added, “The New York theater’s a mess,” not worth enduring “just to win the approval of four critics who decide whether you’re going to be allowed to keep doing the play. That’s a bore.” Once again, he set his sights on the movies.
BEATTY AND Collins moved back to L.A. in early 1960, where they lived at the Chateau. Her sister, future sex-and-shopping scribe Jackie, once visited her there in what struck Jackie as her sister’s plush movie star suite. She recalled, “I said ‘Oh this is lovely, great!’ [Joan] snapped, ‘Yes, you won’t actually be sleeping here. There is a little room at the top of the hotel where you will be sleeping.’ I found at night Warren would change places with me. He would sleep in the suite, and I would be in his little attic room. Like everybody else, I got propositioned by Warren.… But Warren would proposition a chair if it looked at him sideways.”
Beatty and Collins ate at the Aware Inn, a health food restaurant on Sunset near Doheny. Beatty continued to pressure Collins to give up drinking and smoking. He consumed soy burgers, drank carrot juice. Afterward, they walked to Turner’s drugstore and looked for pictures of themselves in the fanzines.
Beatty still had his sights set on Splendor, which was set up at Warner Brothers. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, especially for a first film. He was determined to work with the best directors (according to Jane Fonda, he’d made a list), and with Kazan he was starting near the top. A former member of the Group Theatre and proponent of the Method, Kazan was a titan of the stage and screen. He had directed the work of Williams, Miller, and Inge—as well as the greatest film actors of his era, including Brando, Clift, and Dean. Along with Miller, Arthur Penn, Lillian Hellman, Lee and Paula Strasberg, and most members of New York’s theater community, he was a child of the Depression and man of the left, profoundly influenced by the Communist Party USA—first as an acolyte, then as an antagonist—which lay wounded and bleeding from the hammer blows administered by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and its ill-begotten child, the Hollywood blacklist. Kazan had not only testified before HUAC as a friendly witness, wherein he sacrificed friends and associates on the altar of patriotism, but he had infuriated them by groveling before HUAC, and then added insult to injury by placing an ad in The New York Times on April 12, 1952, in which he exhorted others to do the same. Victor Navasky observed in his book Naming Names that “part of the reason he left the Party was because they wanted him to confess error and humiliate himself.” The irony of it all was lost on no one. “Kazan was a pariah,” director Arthur Penn recalls. “Lillian Hellman despised him. She frothed at the mouth.”
Beatty was aware of this history, which was still very much an open wound in 1959—the year the blacklist was broken when Otto Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo to write Exodus and Kirk Douglas revealed that Trumbo had written Spartacus—but it wasn’t his fight, and for an actor coming up, the advantages of working with Kazan far outweighed whatever damage might be incurred by flak from the angry but largely impotent Broadway and Hollywood left.
Splendor told the story of star-crossed lovers from a Kansas oil town. Bud Stamper, son of a self-made businessman, has little interest in his father’s ambitious plans for his career, and instead merely wishes to till the soil, a humble farmer. He falls in love with Wilma “Deanie” Loomis, daughter of the local pharmacist, whose wife is determined to build a firewall around their daughter’s virginity. Although lust indeed bubbles just below the surface of their relationship, Bud and Deanie’s love burns with a pure blue flame. They wish for nothing more than a simple happiness that nevertheless seems out of their reach. It’s Romeo and Juliet all over again. Verona becomes a tiny town in Kansas, while the outsized aspirations of Bud’s father and the pinched Puritanism of Deanie’s mother stand in for the Montagues and the Capulets. The story unfolds on the eve of the Great Depression, so that history joins psychology to batter the characters into submission. Inge’s story is inflected by the twin towers of 1950s American culture, Marx and Freud, whose stock always seemed inversely related. As Marxism waned in the chill of Cold War, Freud ascended, and Freudianism provided the lingua franca for the intellectual discourse of that decade.
Deanie’s proper upbringing in some respects mirrored that of the Beaty children, as set down by MacLaine in one of her memoirs. To hear her tell it, their parents led lives of quiet desperation. “We were taught to respect all material possessions, because it took long, hard years of work to be able to afford such things.… The three Wedgwood bowls and the matching plates and ash trays, the antique Chinese vase, the reproduction of ‘Blue Boy’ in the gold plated frame always made me think twice before I invited someone to the house. I was afraid something would get knocked over.”
Sexual hypocrisy was a subject that would become dear to Beatty’s heart, and there was much for him to identify with in the character of Bud, whose 1920s was the actor’s 1950s. Beatty always explained the sexual adventurism for which he would become renowned in the 1960s by referring to the famously timid Eisenhower era that preceded it: “I went through exactly the same sexual revolution as the country went through,” he said. “In the Fifties when I was a kid, I was walking around in a mode of behavior that related to centuries of Protestant repression. Every cell and fiber around you was influenced by religious upbringings of the past. It was a very puritanical time.” But the resemblance to his own story stopped there. There was no 1960s to provide a happy ending for Bud and Deanie.
For Deanie, Inge suggested Natalie Wood to Kazan. Wood was a former child star—she had made her debut at five and struck gold with Miracle on 34th Street in 1947—but by the fall of 1958, she was twenty and was having a difficult time making the transition to adult roles. Warners had not done her any favors by forcing her to do a series of lame pictures like The Girl He Left Behind and The Burning Hills, among others.
Moreover, Wood’s private life was in disarray. She was needy and neurotic, with a controlling mother and an alcoholic father, both of whom looked to her to be the breadwinner. Recalls photographer Michael Childers, who got to know Wood well at a later date, “Her mother was the meanest motherfucking woman, this dark shadow in the background, the mother from hell. Natalie was unstable, a wreck by the time she was sixteen.” She had married R. J. Wagner in 1957, just after Christmas. The couple quickly became yet another pair of “America’s sweethearts” in the fanzines. Wagner too had come up through the contract system, at Fox. But his career had stalled before he achieved stardom. Their spacious home at 714 North Beverly Drive, with its saltwater pool, was heavily mortgaged. Wood was hooked on sleeping pills and uppers. Says Mart Crowley, who would be Kazan’s gofer on Splendor, and later became Wood’s confidant and assistant, “When they were sober they treated each other terrifically, but it was kind of Jekyll and Hyde when they drank. She wanted to go to a psychiatrist, mend the marriage. His family, and particularly his mother, a very la-de-dah lady, was totally against it. There was no craziness in the family, and she didn’t want any divorce, either.”
The director was dubious. “When Natalie was first suggested to me, I backed off,” Kazan said. “I didn’t want a ‘washed-up child star.’” Nor was his first impression of her favorable. She was wearing ear-to-ear lipstick, a fur coat, and all the trappings of a star. He thought she was exactly what he didn’t want, too Hollywood. But Jack Warner told him he could have her cheap because he needed her rehabilitated into an asset, and Kazan was smart enough to see beneath the facade. “When I saw her, I detected behind the well-mannered ‘young wife’ front a desperate twinkle in her eyes,” he continued. “I knew there was an unsatisfied hunger there.” He sensed there was a “bad girl” hiding inside the “good girl.… I could see that the crisis in her career was preparing her for a crisis in her personal life,” he wrote. “Then she told me she was being psychoanalyzed. That did it. Poor R.J., I said to myself.”
Wood signed in mid-January 1960, which ratcheted up Beatty’s anxiety level. He had dumped MGM and quit Dobie Gillis for Roses, but nobody in Hollywood cared about his handful of laudatory theater reviews. Kazan was testing other actors, or at least one other actor who had captured his interest, Jody McCrae, son of Joel. But Beatty campaigned vigorously for Splendor. Inge also pushed Beatty on Warner, showing him the actor’s reviews from Roses, while predicting that he was going to be bigger than Dean or Brando.
One day, Kazan told Beatty, according to him, “I saw a screen test of you. I’ve got to be very honest with you. I don’t know if I want you.” Beatty’s stomach turned over.
“Well, what should I do?”
“Do you want to make another screen test?”
“Sure.” Beatty tested with Wood at Stage 4 of the Warners lot on March 3, 1960. He was nervous, but not so nervous that he didn’t complain about this and that. When he objected to his lines, Kazan, giving him a dark look, as if to say, Who’s directing this, you or me? merely grunted “Really,” a noncommittal, slightly skeptical response that Beatty would make his own. He recalls, “I made a suggestion where I thought his blocking was a little off. I said, ‘Why don’t I go over here and I’ll play the piano a little bit. Because I play.’ He said, ‘Really?’ About twenty or thirty minutes after that, Karl Malden came in, and Kazan said, ‘Karl, you take over.’ And he left. I thought, This is no good, I’ve disappointed him. That night, we were all supposed to have dinner together at Chasen’s. We met at Natalie’s house, about seven of us. As we were leaving, again I thought, He’s being distant with me. I guess I didn’t get the movie. Then suddenly, he grabbed me by the lapels and shoved me up against a wall. He said, ‘Look kid, you got the part, okay? You know that thing where you said to me that that was not a good idea that I had? That was good. I need that. Keep doing that.’ I felt a chill start at my heel that went up my back to the top of my head, because I thought, Unless I’m stupid, I’m not going to be poor. I have a shot. And I can do something with it.” He was paid $15,000 for the movie, but no expenses, which amounted to $19,000. He continues, “So I came out of that movie broke. But elated, because I knew that it was a good movie.”
Beatty’s problems weren’t over, however. At the beginning of April, just after he had turned twenty-three, and right before he and Joan Collins were due to fly to New York so he could begin rehearsals on Splendor, she realized she was pregnant. “Pregnant?” Beatty exclaimed, incredulously, she recalled, “in his little boy voice,” gulping handfuls of vitamin E. “How did that happen?”
“The butler did it. Or maybe it’s an immaculate conception.”
“This is terrible. Terrible!” Indeed, it was. Not only was he broke, he didn’t want to be tied down, least of all by a baby. For an actress Collins’s age—she was one year older than MacLaine, and worried she was already over the hill at twenty-seven—motherhood was career suicide. Besides, they both knew they weren’t ready for the responsibility. Abortion was the only option, although years later Collins said, “I desperately wished I could keep the baby.… But the fact that he wouldn’t even consider the possibility hurt me dreadfully.”
They flew east. Beatty accompanied her to a doctor’s office in New Jersey. In those days abortions were illegal and often dangerous, even fatal. He was sweating profusely, and seemed to have lost his ability to speak. She thought, He’s more scared than I am. He sat in a nearby coffee shop listening to “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” on the jukebox, while she underwent the procedure. The deed done, she recovered reasonably quickly. They rented a small apartment on Fifth Avenue and tried to put the episode behind them.
Kazan went into production at Filmways Studios on East 127th Street at the beginning of May 1960. As always, he was on guard against making a “Hollywood” picture, which meant that he used actual locations—Staten Island, Riverdale, upstate New York—as much as possible. He couldn’t have been happy when Wood arrived in New York on the Twentieth Century Limited in a $6,500 mink coat accompanied by Wagner, Eddie Fisher, and Elizabeth Taylor, who was about to shoot Butterfield 8 in the city, along with a great many pieces of luggage. Crowley recalls, “Kazan said to me, in his macho, down-home way of not doing anything Hollywood—no limos, no great dressing rooms, no nothing—‘I guess we’ve gotta have some kind of little welcoming party, here’s some petty cash, go out and buy some liquor and some ice.’ I stacked up some cardboard liquor boxes and put a white tablecloth over them to make a bar. They walked up to me at the same instant, like, ‘What’ll it be, Mr. Wagner and Mrs. Wagner?’”
Kazan immediately set out to deglamorize Wood, turn her into a normal person. Remembers Crowley, “He told her, ‘Of course, the eyelashes have got to come off, the lipstick.’ Whenever she tried to sneak some on, even lip gloss, he always knew it, and told her in no uncertain terms, ‘Wipe that off!’”
Beatty admitted to The New York Times that he was “scared and worried.” He was well aware that his brief stint with Adler hardly prepared him for something like Splendor. “I suppose Ihave a method… sloppy, I guess,” he wryly explained, the following year. To make matters worse, he was still fatigued from the hepatitis, and napped in his dressing room between takes.
Kazan was the first in a string of major directors Beatty sought out, mentors or father figures from whom he wanted to learn. His own father was, in MacLaine’s words, “a spectacular disappointment to himself.” He had tried any number of professions—he was at various times a musician, teacher, high school principal, and Realtor—and tried to spare his children disappointment by discouraging their great expectations, insisting that they play it safe. At the same time, he was overbearing. Beatty didn’t need Freud to point out that he was searching for an older man whom he could accord the respect he couldn’t give his own father. But his attitude toward them was ambivalent. Guilty, perhaps, that he was betraying his own father, he was always testing them, and invariably, with the exception of Kazan, found them wanting.
The two men were wildly dissimilar—mentor vs. protégé, director vs. actor, immigrant outsider vs. native son. Kazan was armed with the confidence born of age and success, while Beatty was virtually aflame with the arrogance of youth. This made for a potentially combustible mix, especially at the start, before they decided they liked each other. Beatty thought that Kazan, who was short and physically unprepossessing, a veritable Caliban next to Beatty’s Ariel, was jealous of him, “didn’t like good looking guys,” and indeed, Kazan went out of his way to needle Beatty over his looks, making him self-conscious about what the director called his “turkey neck.” Beatty was mumbling his way through the dialogue until Kazan called him on it, according to Dick Sylbert, who designed the production. Kazan told Beatty, “Just shut up and do what I say. I invented mumbling. I want you to say the lines.”
During the first week, the director did something that angered his star, who lashed out at the spot where he knew Kazan was most vulnerable, the director’s friendly testimony before HUAC. He snapped, “Lemme ask you something—why did you name all those names?” Recalled Beatty, “In some patricidal attempt to stand up to the great Kazan, I arrogantly and stupidly challenged him on it.” Kazan grabbed his arm, asking, “What did you say?” and dragged him off to a tiny dressing room where they had some privacy, whereupon the director proceeded to justify himself for two hours. Recalling this incident later, Beatty said he immediately understood “the terrible effect that what he had done had on his life.” Beatty continued, “He still thought that he had done the right thing.… But of course I think he did the wrong thing. There were a lot of people that suffered. And they suffered badly. Arthur Miller was a friend of mine. Lillian Hellman was a friend of mine, as was Joe Losey, Adrian Scott, Carl Foreman.”
But regardless of whatever judgment Beatty rendered upon behavior widely considered unconscionable, the two men reached an accommodation. Says Beatty, “I like the title that Robert Vaughn used on his book, Only Victims. There were only victims. There was just too much sadness. And fortunately that wasn’t part of my generation.”
Beatty was determined to learn as much as he could from Kazan, and the director was generous with his lessons, teaching him how to break down a script, how to think about acting, where to place the camera, and so on. He also helped Beatty with his performance. The opposite of Cal, the role Dean played in East of Eden, who fought his father, Bud “does not rebel against his father,” the director explained. Kazan took him aside, and unburdened himself with tales of his difficult relationship with his own father, saying, “I’m still afraid of that little, bent over man,” as if giving the actor license to submit.
Still, Beatty was having trouble. Perhaps his problems stemmed from the fact that Bud’s issues with his father were the opposite of Beatty’s with his. Both fathers seemed to disapprove of their sons, and in both cases the sons defied them—by doing more, in Beatty’s case, and less, in Bud’s—than their fathers wished. Bud’s father oppressed him with his expectations, demanding that he do great things. Beatty’s father discouraged his ambitions.
On the other hand, Beatty was able to draw on the relationship he had had with sometime actress Ellie Wood when he was at Northwestern. Wood was a junior when he was a freshman, and she had heard all about him from a dorm mate, his girlfriend in high school. Like Deanie, Wood was chaste. “It was never consummated,” she recalled. “We never made love. We just kissed. The fear of hell had been put in me. I was too well brought up.” He told her that his father was her mother, which is to say, that they both had authoritarian parents. Wood came to New York the same year Beatty did. They lived a block away from each other, but when she knocked on his door, he wouldn’t respond. She recalls, “It was as if a curtain had come down.”
By several accounts, the reputation for being difficult that Beatty earned on A Loss of Roses was proving prophetic. “Warren was a little‘snotty’—I don’t know a better word for how he behaved and can’t find one in my thesaurus,” Kazan wrote in his autobiography, adding, “but he was to grow into a formidable man.” According to Bob “B.J.” Jiras, Natalie Wood’s makeup man, who later became part of Beatty’s regular crew, as well as a friend, “The enemy—who none of us liked—was Warren. It was as if Warren Beatty had already become a movie star, had already made twenty movies. That was his attitude.” The crew didn’t like him either, and nicknamed him “Mental Anguish,” shortened to “M.A.,” in honor of his propensity for obsessional overanalysis, and the torment he put himself and everyone else through getting his part down. Added Don Kranze, Kazan’s assistant director, “Warren was a pain in the ass. He was very young, anyway, but his emotional maturity was about thirteen.… We all sort of felt about Warren that he’s an immature boy playing a man’s game.”
Not unlike other leading men, Beatty paid close attention to his appearance. His acne was a plague that he tried mightily to get rid of, especially after it had flared up during Roses, as a result of the makeup he was wearing. Occasionally, the six-foot-one actor was known to wear lifts in his shoes and to pump up his arms lifting weights before scenes in which his biceps would show, not unusual among actors. Crew members made fun of him for his vanity, barbs he eventually learned to deflect by calling attention to it before others did, when he would play variations on the tune of, “I’m the vainest actor in Hollywood,” or, “You’ll never meet an actor who’s as narcissistic as I am.” Kranze liked to tell a story about Beatty sitting in front of a mirror separating his eyelashes with a pin. According to one possibly apocryphal story, Kazan had the mirrors in his dressing room covered up so that he wouldn’t be late to the set. At the wrap party, the director needled him with the gift of a hand mirror.
Barbara Loden, who played Bud’s louche older sister, was having an affair with Kazan while he was still married to his first wife, Molly Thatcher. (Kazan and Loden later married.) Loden diagnosed Beatty with surgical precision. She thought he was just scared, afraid of being a movie star, and concealing his fears behind a patina of arrogance. She concluded that he had contempt for Hollywood, while at the same time seeking entry. She feared that, like Brando, he didn’t have much regard for the profession he had chosen, and therefore would never respect himself.
Collins haunted the set, alert for the errant spark she feared might ignite an affair between Beatty and Wood. She was due to leave for Rome in the middle of June to shoot Esther and the King, the kind of lavish sword and sandal spectacle that, along with Cleopatra and The Greatest Story Ever Told, was going to bury what was left of the old studio system before the new decade ended. Neither was looking forward to being separated, and Beatty tried to persuade her not to go. But this time she was determined. She had already been suspended several times by Fox for turning down assignments, and she didn’t want to risk another suspension. Moreover, not only had Sons and Lovers (1960) turned out well, but Mary Ure, who played the role she turned down on his advice, would be nominated for an Oscar. She wrote, “I was not about to let him interfere with my career again.”
Like Collins, Wagner spent his time monitoring the love scenes between Beatty and Wood. He didn’t really know Beatty, outside of the fact that both men went to the same gym. Crowley couldn’t help noticing that the tensions between Wood and Wagner were getting worse. “Their marriage was crumbling,” he says. “R.J. and she were trying desperately to get it back together. Natalie was fit for the loony bin.”
It wasn’t long before the gossip mills started turning. Even Kazan believed that they had begun an affair. “It was clear to Natalie, as it was clear to me, that Warren was bound for the top; this perception was an aphrodisiac,” he wrote years later in his autobiography. “All of a sudden, he and Natalie became lovers. When did it happen? When I wasn’t looking. I wasn’t sorry; it helped with their love scenes.”
Still, most knowledgeable sources agree that they were not seeing each other during the production. “If they were kissing between the flats, I didn’t know anything about it,” says Crowley. “It’s not true that Warren broke up the marriage between Wagner and her, that they started an affair during the picture. He was still going with Joan, and Natalie was crying her eyes out in the dressing room between takes, chewing her lip, just an emotional wreck. She would go home exhausted, not fit to have an affair with anybody. And she didn’t seem like any person that Warren would have gone for. Especially with Joan around. Her career was on the brink of extinction, his was just beginning, they had everything riding on this to be good, they were two very ambitious people, so they didn’t have time for each other, romantically.”
Wagner concurs. “Beatty had nothing to do with our breakup, and Natalie didn’t begin to see him until after we split,” he wrote. “If she had been sleeping with Beatty, she would have told me.” He adds, “I would have known about it.”
Beatty too has always denied that they began their affair on the set. “There’s a lot of apocrypha about Natalie and I having something going on during Splendor in the Grass. It’s utterly untrue. In fact it was a fairly distant relationship.” They struck Loden as jealous of each other, each thinking the other was getting more attention from the director. Wood disparaged him by employing the crew’s shorthand, as in, “Here comes M.A.” Adds Crowley, “She had great disdain for Warren during that picture. She told me that during the love scenes she wished Warren would bathe more!” Contradicting Kazan, Loden said that the director worried that the coldness between the two was affecting their love scenes. According to her, “Warren wasn’t coming through. Kazan said, ‘Pretend it’s Joan, Warren.’”
With the set a hothouse of marital dysfunction, Beatty scored a run for family values by springing a chopped liver surprise on Collins one Saturday afternoon on the eve of her departure. He directed her attention to the refrigerator in which was a small cardboard carton, not unlike the ones in which pet stores send goldfish home, filled with chopped liver. Buried inside was a gold ring festooned with diamonds and pearls. “Absolutely beautiful,” she exclaimed. “What’s it for?”
“It’s your engagement ring, dummy. I figured, since you’re going away soon and we’ll be separated we should um, well, um, you know… get—well, engaged.”
“Are you sure you really want to—I mean you’re not just doing this to make me feel secure, are you?” She wondered if he had bought it out of guilt over the abortion.
Popping vitamin C tablets, he replied, “No, Butterfly, I’m not—you know I don’t do anything unless I want to… and… um… well… um… I guess I want to.” They set the date for January 1961.
When Collins finally left for Rome, she said Beatty, worried that she might fall into the arms of a handsome, hot-blooded Italian, overwhelmed her with phone calls, telegrams, and letters, all professing eternal love. She asked him to help her with her part in Esther and the King. He advised her to imagine how Jesus would say the lines, and proceed as He would. Collins swore she never wandered, went to bed early, and wore a gold butterfly pin he had bought her from Buccellati. She even spent a weekend in London choosing fabrics for her wedding dress. He pressed her to visit. Finally, she flew to New York for a few days. She says he was convinced she was faithless, and nothing she said would dissuade him. They fought bitterly, and on the return trip, she began to wonder if he was so jealous because he and Wood were having an affair. She worked herself up into a fury, indignant at the thought that he dared treat her like his personal property, and chafed at her prodigious phone bills and hefty air fare she had paid to fly to New York. As she thought about her “pimply, bespectacled, white-faced” fiancé, as she put it, the Italian men she ran into every day looked better and better. The air had begun to leak out of their relationship.
Splendor wrapped on August 16, 1960. Two days later, Wood started rehearsals for West Side Story, which was already in production. Meanwhile, back in L.A., Beatty joined Collins in her rental house on Sunset Plaza Drive, which meant no more than he left his half-unpacked suitcase bursting with clothes, books, uncashed checks, and whatnot open on the floor, much to her annoyance. Beatty was edgy and anxious. He seemed to have trouble looking after himself, complained, “I’m terribly sloppy. I just can’t take care of money.” He did reserve duty for two or three weeks at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California, and worried about lining up his next movie. Inge was adapting a new novel by Leo Herlihy, All Fall Down, making sure it had a meaty role for the actor, and Kazan had signed him up for three more pictures, but he wasn’t forthcoming about what they might be. Beatty knew those personal deals most often amounted to nothing, but he was flattered.
The change of scenery had not improved the relationship between Beatty and Collins. She thought he was insecure, aggressive, insisted on always having his own way, and increasingly secretive. “I think [Warren] hides behind his glasses a lot,” she said. “You know, people who sometimes wear sunglasses even when the sun is not shining—they’re hiding.” She called him a “perfectionist,” and thought he had been spoiled by the fact that his first picture was Splendor, now rumored to be a masterpiece. In his eyes, no other project could measure up, not for him, not for her. But she didn’t relish cooling her heels, waiting for her agent to offer her the part of a lifetime, while Beatty tossed her scripts into the wastebasket. Meanwhile, her wedding dress hung mothballed in her closet.
Still, with the Kazan picture under Beatty’s belt and a new self-confidence, life started to feel good. He rented a Thunderbird. He began partaking of Hollywood’s frantic social scene, and cultivating relationships with the giants of the Old Hollywood, revealing an insatiable curiosity about everything and everybody. “During that time, everybody he met he met through me,” says Collins. He was the “most incredible person I’ve ever known for networking and contacts.”
“My first Hollywood party was at Romanoff’s,” Beatty recalls. “I wasn’t dancing because I never dance much, but let’s say I was working the floor.” He always stood out at the parties. He towered over the women, diminutive Jewish agents, writers, and executives, as well as the other actors, often shorter than himself, who filled the room. His hair was neatly cut and brushed back in an Elvis Presley pompadour, still the fashion of the early 1960s. He continues, “I looked around, and I thought, Wow, that’s Rita Hayworth. I walked over to her with my hands in my pockets and stared at her. She was dancing with a guy with funny shoes on. Strange shoes. She stared at me and I stared at her. I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry, forgive me. But I just couldn’t help it.’
“‘That’s okay. What’s your name?’
“‘Yes, I know that.’
“‘And this is Clifford Odets.’ That’s who she was dancing with. I couldn’t have predicted that I would lose interest in Rita Hayworth so quickly. By now Clifford Odets was a demigod. I said, ‘You’re Clifford Odets? I can’t believe that I’m meeting you.’”
Beatty had listened hungrily when Clurman and Adler had waxed lyrical about the good old days with the Group Theatre—he was only four years old when it was dissolved in 1941—and by bonding with Odets, also a friendly witness, he was able to channel the high passions that animated it, so conspicuously absent from the tail end of the 1950s. Breathlessly, Beatty asked, “Could I talk to you?” Odets replied, “Well, you’re talking to me.” The writer invited him over that night, and the two became fast friends. Beatty had found another mentor. The actor recalls, “So I went over to Clifford’s that night, and spent many nights drinking red wine and listening to Clifford rail on about a billion things. He was a genius who loved to talk. And obviously when he got to Hollywood he preferred talking to writing. He always ended up about 3:30 in the morning talking about his shoes, because he felt that his father hadn’t bought him shoes that were big enough and that had damaged his feet so he had these corrective shoes that he wore all the time. The shoes were a major thing with him. There was nobody that Clifford didn’t know. Male or female.”
Beatty and Collins watched the 1960 presidential election returns at Odets’s home. (Later he would bring Natalie Wood over. She fell asleep.) He met Jean Renoir there. “I was so stupid,” he continues. “I didn’t know who he was. I said, ‘Who is that heavy guy over there?’
“‘That is Jean Renoir.’
“‘What does he do?’
“‘He’s a pretty good moviemaker.’
“‘Well, he did a little picture called Grand Illusion. He did a movie called Rules of the Game.’
“‘Are they any good?’
“‘I think you should see them as soon as possible.’ I did see these movies and they became immediately my favorite movies. Jean was a major influence on me. Still is.”
But the relationship with Odets dissolved in acrimony in March of 1962. Beatty had set up one of his treatments at Fox, Fifteen Doves in Flight, which turned Camille into an interracial romance by casting a black actress in Garbo’s role. But when the deal fell apart, Odets suspected that Beatty was trying to edge him out. The actor explained that the studio would not meet Odets’s financial demands.
One night, when he was still new to Hollywood, he went to a party where he ran into Gary Cooper. Beatty always speaks admiringly about Cooper’s touch with women, saying, “He chased way more pussy than I did.” Cooper was standing next to Hayworth, his hand on her bottom, under her skirt. It seemed to Beatty that Cooper had his finger buried deep inside her butt. How Beatty divined this is not clear. He was becoming adept at interpreting looks and glances, reading people. Wizard of penetration that he was, perhaps he just parsed the language of the bodies, or maybe he was projecting his own fantasies.
Another pillar of the Hollywood establishment with whom Beatty became close was Charlie Feldman, the powerful agent turned producer, a bon vivant and ladies’ man who bore a resemblance to Clark Gable. He had founded Famous Artists, and represented everyone from Greta Garbo to John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich to Marilyn Monroe. As a producer, he had made countless movies, prestigious Serious Drama like A Streetcar Named Desire and mainstream comedy hits like The Seven Year Itch, as well as everything in between. He was romantically involved with Garbo, Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr, sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, Ava Gardner, Capucine, Angie Dickinson, Ursula Andress, and many other women.
Beatty had met Feldman a few months back on a plane from L.A. to New York when the actor was on his way to begin Splendor. It was love at first sight. As What’s New Pussycat? (1965) director Clive Donner puts it, “They spoke the same language.” Beatty appreciated Feldman’s joie de vivre. He frequented Feldman’s home at 2000 Coldwater Canyon, where he soaked up the wit and wisdom of the Hollywood alte kackers who so fascinated him. “Charlie’s patio was always an interesting lunch,” he recalls. “There would be Orson, or Zanuck, Cooper, Holden, Wayne, or Stevens or Hawks. Billy Wilder. Not to mention some fascinating European actress.”
Like Kazan, Feldman saw that Beatty was going to be big, and wanted him as a client, but the actor kept him at arm’s length. “As nearly as I could tell, Charlie had no real interest in being an agent,” he says. “But I liked that he hadn’t been to the office in ten, fifteen years. He was more fun than almost anybody I had met in Hollywood of the older guys.”
Feldman advised him not to make another multi-picture deal at MGM, which, recalls the actor, “turned out to be very good advice. I learned not to confuse [friendship] with business, not to expect people to act in other than their own best interests.” He loaned Beatty money. Says Sylbert, whom Feldman also mentored, “Charlie taught Warren a lot, like you don’t put anything in writing, you don’t sign contracts, you can walk out at any time. If directors are not your friends, you soon enough make them understand that they wish they were. Charlie always wore a red cardigan when he was going to bullshit somebody. He’d call a guy up, say, ‘Come on down,’ and he’d sit in the shade, face the guy towards the sun, and the guy would be falling asleep as he’s selling him the deal! He helped Warren to be Warren. Warren is not going to do it the way you want to do it, and he made Warren feel comfortable with that.”
Feldman taught Beatty to be stingy with information. As producer Bob Evans puts it, “Warren never answers a question, he only asks questions.” By example, if nothing else, Feldman showed him that it was acceptable to say one thing to one person and another to another. If he were circumspect enough, no one could ever accuse him of a falsehood. And if he were accused, so what.
THE STUDIO was not particularly excited about Splendor. Boss Jack Warner, writing to his number two, Benny Kalmenson, worried that it was glum and uncommercial. Bill Orr, Warner’s son-in-law, had fallen asleep watching it. (At one screening, Wood reportedly cried her way through the picture, while Collins laughed.) Aware of the studio’s apathy, Beatty frantically tried to exploit the heat generated by the picture even before it opened. Hungry to work on another quality production, he learned that José Quintero, who had launched the career of Jason Robards Jr. directing Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 1958 off-Broadway, was going to direct a movie based on a novella by Tennessee Williams called The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Recalls Beatty, “I wanted to play something that wouldn’t be another what they would call at that time ‘shit-kicking-American-stumbling-mumbling-Method part.’ I thought that’s a great opportunity to go do another nationality, another accent. That was something I knew nothing about but I thought that I would learn as quickly as possible. I was $15,000 in debt.”
The script was written by Gavin Lambert, and told the story of Mrs. Stone, a wealthy, love-starved older woman on holiday, who finds herself alone in Rome after her husband has a heart attack on the flight over. She is introduced to Paolo, an Italian gigolo, and foolishly, as it turns out, falls in love. Although he didn’t develop it, it touched on a theme that would become a hallmark of Beatty’s career: innocence chastised by experience.
Vivien Leigh, forty-eight, had been cast in the role of Mrs. Stone. She was coming off a divorce from Laurence Olivier, who left her to marry a younger woman, actress Joan Plowright. A clinical manic-depressive, Leigh needed lots of tender loving care. Just short of a decade earlier, while married to Olivier, she tried to tear off her clothes on a flight from Ceylon to Los Angeles, and jump out of the plane. On the set of the film she was then shooting, Elephant Walk, she cried nonstop, then began yelling “Fire! Fire!” as loudly as she could, more or less quoting Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the character she had played to wide acclaim two years before. (She was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor.)
Cast as the Contessa, who pimps out Mrs. Stone to Paolo, was Lotte Lenya, the Austrian-born actress married to composer Kurt Weill. The Threepenny Opera’s original Jenny, she would become best known to Americans as the sharp-toed Rosa Klebb in the James Bond picture From Russia with Love. Jill St. John, occasional Bob Evans girlfriend and future wife of R. J. Wagner, played the other woman.
Beatty had to be approved by Williams and Leigh. He was hardly a logical choice; sensibly, Williams was of the opinion that the role called for an Italian. When the playwright asked Lambert, “What’s going to happen with Paolo; who’s going to play him?” the screenwriter replied, “It’s not certain, but I hear, because of the Warner’s deal, that they’re pushing Warren Beatty.” Williams remarked, “Well, I don’t think he’s right.” Recalls Lambert, “We did look at a couple of Italian actors, but they didn’t have that sort of charisma and sexual dynamism that Warren had.”
Williams was recuperating from bad reviews—they supposedly gave him an ulcer—for Sweet Bird of Youth at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “I said to myself, Is there anything that I could do to get Tennessee’s approval for this part?” Beatty recalls. “I had never been to Italy. I thought, An Italian, he should be darker than I was, so I got something called Man-Tan. You put it on your face and you turned a sort of an orange-yellow. I found an Italian with an accent. I worked with him for two days. I got what I considered to be an Italian suit. I put on the suit. I put on the Man-Tan. I put on the accent, and I flew to San Juan. I walked into the casino just off the main lobby, and sure enough, hunched over a blackjack table was Tennessee, whom I had never met, but I recognized him. I asked the waiter to give me a glass of milk.”
Ever ready with medical advice, Beatty recalls, “In those days, they treated ulcers with milk. My father had ulcers, and he drank milk all the time, which, by the way, is the worst thing you can do. Milk is very irritating to the mucus membrane of the stomach—Crohn’s disease, and so on. Any Ashkenazi Jew who has a high level of stomach upset shouldn’t drink milk. Seventy to 80 percent are allergic to milk products. I’m not an Ashkenazi Jew except in Bugsy, but I have this kind of an allergy, you sometimes start clearing your throat if you drink a lot.”
Back on track, he continues, “So I wrote a note, that said, ‘Dear Mr. Williams, Anything you want.’ (Signed) ‘Paolo.’ Tennessee was kind of loaded. He looked up and he saw this geek of a young actor standing there. He recognized me from Splendor in the Grass. He threw up his hands and he said, ‘All right, all right, you’ve got the part.’” Williams biographer Dotson Rader wrote that as a closer Beatty offered himself to Williams. The story went, in Beatty’s words, “I put on a bathrobe and went to Tennessee’s hotel room, and he said, ‘You don’t have to do this. You’ve already got the part,’ which was bullshit.” Lambert recalls, “Tennessee was very impressed that he came to see him, with Man-Tan on, looking very Italian, and was eager for the part.” Williams himself observed, sadly, “He is so beautiful, just looking at him brings tears to my eyes. What a waste.”
With Collins in tow, Beatty met Leigh at the Dorchester Hotel in London for tea. “He didn’t say a great deal,” says Lambert, who was present. “He realized that he was being auditioned, and he knew that he had to be charming, which was very easy for him. He didn’t have to be good-looking, because he was. He was very polite, very well behaved, didn’t show off at all. Vivien was very, very taken with him, and said, ‘Yes, yes, he’s charming, he’s wonderful-looking, he seems to me to be absolutely right.’”
Roman Spring was shot at Elstree Studios, outside London. Beatty hung out with Stanley Kubrick who was shooting Lolita there. As Collins recalled, the actor looked “devastatingly handsome. There was little trace of the spotty boy I had first seen sixteen months ago. His hair had been darkened for the part of the Italian gigolo. He had a deep tan, which, although it was out of a bottle, looked as if it came straight from Portofino. He wore a beautifully cut beige silk suit from Brioni, a cream crepe de chine shirt from Battaglia, and a brown-and-beige Saint Laurent tie. No wonder half the females in the restaurant were tripping over themselves to get a glimpse of him. The Warren Beatty sex-symbol image was beginning to emerge. Women adored him. He was loving every minute of it.” It was nastily reported that he took longer with his makeup than Leigh.
Lotte Lenya later told Rex Reed that Leigh was infatuated with Beatty: “Like most women, Vivien had a tremendous crush on Warren,” she said. “He kept her so preoccupied that she allowed me to steal our most important scenes together. One night, we were watching the day’s rushes together and Vivien gasped, ‘Oh, how could I let you do that to me?’ And I said, ‘But dalink, you were very busy this afternoon and had no time to rehearse.’” Richard Burton is reputed to have told a journalist, “They were at it in broom closets, across billiard tables, in telephone kiosks; you have to hand it to the pair of them.” Lambert is skeptical. “I knew Lenya very well,” he says. “She never mentioned anything like that. There are all these stories, that he fucked Tennessee, that he fucked Vivien, none of which are true, I don’t think. I think Vivien fancied Warren. But I think he was much too smart to take her on. It would have been a very stupid move.” (Three decades later, Madonna claimed he admitted it.)
The character of Paolo was a stretch for Beatty, but Lambert thought he did a good job. “I don’t think that at that time, there was anybody better,” he says. “He had the charm and the sexiness and the odor of sexual corruption, which he played brilliantly. The only thing he couldn’t do was the Italian accent. It’s a little closer to Tijuana than it is to Rome.” Nevertheless, Quintero—unlike Kazan, Logan, and Arthur Penn to come—had no luck with movies. He was too tentative even to shout “Action.” “It was a mess,” said Beatty. “Nobody would tell him how [to make a movie].”
After the production wrapped in March 1961, Collins returned to Los Angeles and Beatty went to Rome. “It was the high tide of American power,” Beatty recalls. “Colonial America. I was like that, a sexual colonizer. I was Mrs. Stone. Arrogant. I pranced and preened down the Via Veneto, in my phony Italian suit, going to the hotels of all the actresses, the Hassler, the Excelsior…” He was at a café with Inger Stevens, when he ran into Lee and Paula Strasberg’s daughter, Susan. She found him “charming and intelligent, with a tremendous need to please women,” and the next day, he moved into her apartment for the rest of his vacation. He was wearing Paolo’s wool suit. The pants were so tight Strasberg wondered how he could sit down. In her memoir, she remembered an evening at the home of Luchino Visconti, who wanted Beatty for The Leopard. She described the great Italian director, who was gay, as a “salon Communist” surrounded by adoring young men. On this occasion, transfixed, he neglected them in favor of Beatty, who nevertheless kissed her discretely on the back of the neck as he withdrew to the bathroom with her at his heels. “When we returned to the living room twenty minutes later, we were greeted by six pairs of hostile eyes. To my embarrassment, I realized my blouse was still unbuttoned. I wasn’t quite sure how to act, but Warren beamed at one and all an enchanting, ingenuous smile.”
When Beatty returned to Sunset Plaza Drive in May, still sporting Paolo’s clothes—in particular a beige Eisenhower jacket he never took off—he and Collins continued their downward spiral. She wryly remarked that he was the only man she knew “who could get to the mirror faster than me in the morning.” Both knew the relationship was over, but neither seemed to have the willpower to end it.
Actor George Chakiris was quoted recalling seeing Beatty hanging out on the set of West Side Story at the end of April 1961. By early June, Natalie Wood had finished with the film, and Wagner was finishing up Sail a Crooked Ship. He reportedly threw a party on the Columbia lot. Wood had promised to be the hostess, but half an hour after the appointed time she hadn’t shown up. They started without her. Later she waltzed in with Beatty. She went over to Wagner and kissed him. He asked her why she was late. She claimed she had been sitting for stills, and had run into Beatty. According to a Columbia producer, the tension in the air was palpable. She pressed flesh, then Wood and Beatty disappeared for an hour. When they returned, Beatty had Wood on one arm and Joan Collins on the other. After the party, both couples went to the Villa Capri for dinner. Collins and Wagner looked on as Beatty and Wood giggled. Wagner says he does not recall the incident.
In July 1961, Collins was offered The Road to Hong Kong, latest in the Bob Hope–Bing Crosby road series, which would take her to London. Beatty threw the script on the floor. “It’s crap,” he said. “Crap! Why do you need to do it?”
“Two reasons,” she blurted out. “For the money—and to get away from you.” There it was, out in the open. Finis. Explained Collins, “It was obvious I had to be the one to end it with Warren. He seemed content to let it drift sloppily along.”
WOOD AND Wagner announced their separation on June 21, 1961. In July, she rented a house on Chalon Road in Bel Air. Beatty moved in and the two lived quietly together, usually eating alone. The actor always wore the same outfit, a loose shirt open at the collar, and gabardine slacks. He read omnivorously and played the piano for hours at a time. He struck Natalie’s sister, Lana, as “silent, studious.”
The gossip columnists couldn’t believe their good luck when Beatty and Collins separated at the same time as Wood and Wagner, and Beatty took up with Wood. They blamed him for breaking up her marriage, but quickly jumped on board as the new romance blossomed before their eyes. That summer, Beatty and Wood became the new “it” couple. Syndicated gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen wrote, “The way Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty are carrying on… it’s a wonder they have time to eat.” Wagner, still very much in love with Wood, confessed, “I wanted to kill the son of a bitch.” He went so far as to drive over to Beatty’s, brandishing a .38. “I was hanging around outside his house with a gun, hoping he would walk out,” he recalled. “I not only wanted to kill him, I was prepared to kill him.” He was talked out of it by a friend.
On July 27, Beatty was Wood’s date at a screening of West Side Story, their first public outing together. Collins, who had suspected there might be some truth to the rumors that the romance between the two had been kindled on the set of Splendor, didn’t know what to think. She was aware that Beatty was fully capable of juggling more than one woman at a time, which is to say, he was secretive and compartmentalized. “Even as a kid, Warren had a private world no one could penetrate,” wrote MacLaine. “He could shut everyone out.”
Despite Beatty’s attentions to Wood, he was by no means neglecting his career. Splendor had still not been released, but Inge had finished his adaptation of All Fall Down, expanding the character, Berry-Berry, intended for Beatty. (MGM was financing, and Beatty owed a picture to the studio for settling out his contract.) Berry-Berry is a selfish, violent, and misogynistic young man, who is nevertheless idolized by younger brother, Clinton, from whose point of view the narrative unfolds. His goal in life is to have sex with as many females as possible, among them Echo O’Brien, an older woman, whom Clinton also worships. Berry-Berry invites her love, gets her pregnant, and then spurns her. She commits suicide. Heartbroken, Clinton goes after Berry-Berry, only to find him collapsed in a heap. Clinton’s hatred turns to pity, and he leaves Berry-Berry alone to face himself.
Despite the fact that none of his movies had yet been released, Beatty was paid $200,000 to play Berry-Berry. The rest of the cast, an unusually strong one, consisted of Karl Malden playing his father, Angela Lansbury his mother, Eva Marie Saint as Echo, and Brandon De Wilde as Clinton. It was directed by John Frankenheimer, and produced by John Houseman. Like Kazan, Houseman was another icon of the theater. He had worked closely with Orson Welles, founding the Mercury Theatre and producing Welles’s famous 1938 radio hoax, The War of the Worlds.
At the time, the young star was riding the crest of a fierce wave of publicity, which the producer derided as “an astonishing campaign of self-promotion.” Beatty, he said, “had managed to get pictures of himself, together with articles, into every major magazine in the country. Using charm, sex, and unmitigated gall, he kept the nation’s female columnists in a tizzy. Before we had shot a single frame of film, he had turned a tall, nice-looking but rather awkward and completely unknown young man into one of the hottest names in the business—completely eclipsing such well-established fellow players as Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden et al.” He complained that Inge had pushed Beatty on him “almost against [his] will.”
Beatty finally made his deal for All Fall Down early in the summer of 1961, and began rehearsals on July 12. In his memoir, Unfinished Business, Houseman recalled, “Our most serious problem was young Mr. Beatty. With his angelic arrogance, his determination to emulate Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean, and his half-baked notions of ‘Method’ acting, he succeeded in perplexing and antagonizing not only his fellow actors but our entire crew.”
All Fall Down commenced production on July 27, 1961. At the end of September, Beatty flew to Key West for some location shooting. Worried that he would have an affair with Saint, Wood joined him. She invited Crowley to come with her. Once there, she realized she had forgotten her diaphragm. Recalls Crowley, “I said, ‘Oh?’ She said, ‘Now listen. Here’s the thing. I can’t go in the drugstore and buy one myself in this town. Key West is a big tourist place. So you’re gonna have to pretend like you’re buying one for your wife!’ We found the poorest-looking drugstore we could find, that had a gravel parking lot in front. She sat in the car, I went in, and said, ‘I need to buy a diaphragm for my wife,’ and there was no problem, I came out with the package, and we just looked at each other and died laughing.”
It didn’t take long before stories began to emanate from the set, all of which had a common theme: Beatty was impossible. According to Houseman, “Our veteran cameraman, Curly Lindon, became so exasperated with him that he flew a camera-bearing helicopter within a few inches of his head.” Houseman went on to recall that “on the last day of shooting, in a secret agreement with the local police, Warren Beatty was left to languish in a bare cell of the Key West jail while the company flew back to California.”
BY THE fall of 1961, as the opening of Splendor in the Grass approached, the studio whipped the press into a frenzy. John Springer, the head of the New York office of Arthur P. Jacobs and Co., was his East Coast publicist. An affable man who also handled Marilyn Monroe, he generated reams of gossip about his client, much of which made its way into the women’s magazines, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and the like.
Kazan and Inge advised the young star to make himself less accessible, lest he become known exclusively as a playboy. Springer reassured him that he was not going to be photographed in a swimming pool with a starlet. Beatty figured he could satisfy the publicists as well as those who urged restraint by the simple expedient of agreeing to speak with every reporter who called him, while saying nothing. He was withholding and inscrutable. He canceled interviews at the last minute, kept journalists waiting, failed to show up at all, or if he did, he took phone calls throughout the session. He skillfully created an aura of mystery around himself, so that when he deigned to do a substantive interview, journalists were flattered to death, and thus unstinting in their praise. It was all about keeping them off balance. Eventually, however, this backfired, earning him the enmity of the celebrity press. “The press has beat the shit out of me since 1960,” he still complains. “Nobody gets beat up like a twenty-two-year-old pretty boy.”
Splendor was finally released on October 10, 1961. Beatty and Wood attended the premiere together. The reviews were mixed. The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther, then the most influential American reviewer, called it “a frank and ferocious social drama,” primly adding, “that makes the eyes pop and the modest cheek burn.” He praised Beatty as “a surprising newcomer, [who] shapes an amiable, decent, sturdy lad whose emotional exhaustion and defeat are the deep pathos in the film. Except that he talks like Marlon Brando and has some small mannerisms of James Dean, Mr. Beatty is a striking individual.” Time magazine was unstinting in its praise for Beatty, predicting that he “should make the big time on the first bounce.… He has a startling resemblance to the late James Dean, and he has that certain something Hollywood calls star quality.” At the end of the year Splendor made The New York Times Ten Best list.
But by 1961, the early films of Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Michelangelo Antonioni were beginning to make their way to the United States, and in comparison to these, Splendor was puerile, which is to say, the high-brow critics sneered. Dwight Macdonald trashed it in Esquire, Stanley Kauffmann compared it to an “Andy Hardy story” in The New Republic, and Brendan Gill in The New Yorker called it “as phony a picture as I can remember seeing.” The movie did no more than respectable business.
Still, Beatty’s notices created a firestorm around the young actor. He was staying at the Delmonico on 59th Street and Park Avenue, and he likes to tell the story of the time he was walking out the door when he came upon two girls leaning against a car. One of them exclaimed, “Oh my God, you’re Warren Beatty!” and regarded him with adoration, until the other added, “God, you’re… nothing!” Beatty chalked up their disappointment to the fact that he wasn’t thirty feet tall, as he was on the screen, and thought, That’s fame for you.
One woman called Beatty’s talent agency, MCA, in New York threatening to jump out of a window if he didn’t phone her immediately. Alarmed, the assistant who took the call contacted him, saying, “I hate to bother you, but I’ve got this girl on the other phone, and her name is Mary Smith… and she’s gonna jump! Could you call her?” Beatty replied calmly, “No, no, no, this goes on all the time.”
Splendor made him an instant star, a serious candidate for the Method mantle so conspicuously worn by Brando, Clift, and Dean. Those who mocked Beatty’s mumbling and mannerisms as empty posturing were silenced both by the reception of the film and his performance. He was no longer just a pretty boy with a full dance card. Beatty had arrived.
Thematically speaking, Splendor is a true relic of the 1950s. Kazan and Inge’s quietistic work occupied a safe and sleepy interlude between the militant drama that preceded it, say, Odets’s plays—Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy—mounted by the Group Theatre in the 1930s, and Beatty’s own Bonnie and Clyde that followed. In the ending, Deanie, fresh from a stay at a mental institution, seeks out Bud, only to find him mired in domesticity and eking out a living as a farmer, not the captain of industry his father had wished him to be.
Often the best critic of his own work, Kazan said, “What I liked about this ending is its bittersweet ambivalence, full of what Bill [Inge] had learned from his own life: that you have to accept limited happiness, because all happiness is limited, and that to expect perfection is the most neurotic thing of all; you must live with the sadness as well as the joy. Perhaps this theme rings so true because Bill himself had come to a point where he had settled for less, a place not in the first rank of playwrights along with O’Neill, Williams, and Miller but on an honorable sub-platform.” The characters capitulate to what is portrayed as inevitable. As Kazan further explained, one reason he wanted to make the film was because Inge told him, “‘I’d like to tell a story about how we have to forgive our parents.’ Bill was in psychoanalysis then, he resented his parents, and he was right at the moment when he was forgiving them—when he saw what they were and let them go.” In other words, the name of the game was no longer resistance to or rebellion against the stultifying values of a society grounded on money and sexual repression; it was forgiveness and reconciliation, whether political, generational, or personal. Freud, not Marx, ruled.
One night, at a club in L.A., Beatty and Wood were eating dinner. Beatty glanced over at the adjoining table and couldn’t help noticing that John F. Kennedy, Peter Lawford, and assorted hangers-on were seated there. Lawford got up and made his way over to their table. He turned to Wood and said, “Number One would like to invite you to join his party.” Wood accepted on behalf of herself and Beatty, but Lawford made it clear that the invitation extended only to her. She demurred. “But it’s Number One,” Lawford exclaimed. Not apparently in Hollywood.
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone opened on December 28, 1961, to generally tepid reviews, certainly the first personally bad reviews that the young actor had yet received. In The New York Times, Crowther wrote, “Mr. Beatty… is hopelessly out of his element as a patent-leather ladies man in Rome. His manners remind one of a freshman trying airs at a college prom, his accent recalls Don Ameche’s allpurpose Italian-Spanish one.” As Nicholson, who labored in obscurity for many years observed, “It was much easier to do as I’ve done, with no one watching. Warren had to learn in front of everybody.” The picture disappeared without a trace.
In February 1962, Wood was nominated for an Oscar for Splendor. Inge was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Beatty was reportedly miffed that he didn’t get a nomination as well. Wood lost Best Actress to Sophia Loren for Two Women, but Inge won.
That spring, the press reported that the pair had become engaged, which was untrue, and that he had given her a Chihuahua puppy instead of a ring. But that didn’t prevent him from cheating on her when he had, or created, the opportunity. Beatty had a one-night stand with Cher, who was then sixteen. “When I was 16 years old, I fucked Warren Beatty,” she told Playboy. “Just like that. Of course, I’m one of a long list. And I did it because my girlfriends were so crazy about him, and so was my mother. I saw Warren, he picked me up and I did it. And what a disappointment! Not that he wasn’t technically good, or could be good, but I didn’t feel anything. So, for me, I felt, There’s no reason for you to do that again.”
All Fall Down opened two days after the Oscars, on April 11, 1962. The reviews were mixed. Despite his upbeat take on Splendor, Crowther was no fan of Beatty’s, and wrote starchily, “Everyone in this story is madly in love with a disgusting young man who is virtually a cretin. At least, Warren Beatty plays him so he seems like one.… Surly, sloppy, slow-witted, given to scratching himself, picking his nose, being rude beyond reason to women and muttering about how much he hates the world, this creature that Mr. Beatty gives us is a sad approximation of modern youth.” Beatty was quoted as saying he hated the picture himself, but took on the Times reviewer anyway: “Bosley Crowther has never liked me, but I don’t like him either. I told him so once at Sardi’s.” Stanley Kauffmann, writing in The New Republic, on the other hand, praised Beatty’s performance: “Warren Beatty, whose two previous film appearances were at best promising, fares much better here with the restless, bored Berry-Berry.… Physically, Beatty has the requisite magnetism; emotionally, he has the coiled-snake tension of black lower-middle-class frustration.”
On April 15, 1962, Wood filed for divorce, charging that Wagner “preferred to play golf than stay at home with me,” and that he ridiculed her friends who didn’t play golf. After she pleaded that she had to leave for Europe because All Fall Down was playing the Cannes Film Festival on May 13, the divorce was granted expeditiously. Beatty and Wood spent two months in Europe, including a week in Rome. The vacation was industriously exploited by the press. Wood appeared on the cover of Life magazine on June 15, and they were mobbed everywhere they went.
JUST WHEN Beatty thought he was embarking on his brilliant career, he had made two flops in a row, and worse, he was singled out for ridicule. He couldn’t help but take the reviews personally, and basically stopped working for sixteen months. He was desperate to play the lead in Kazan’s America, America, but the director didn’t think he was right, not enough rough edges, and turned him down. Beatty was bitterly disappointed and went on to reject Barefoot in the Park, The War Lover, and Visconti’s The Leopard. (He said he did not do costume dramas, and Alain Delon took the role.) He turned down Act One, a biopic of Moss Hart, Twilight of Honor, and most famously, PT 109, a film based on Robert Donovan’s account of John Kennedy’s World War II combat exploits. “The White House had asked Fred Zinnemann and me to please do PT 109,” the actor recalls. “Zinnemann didn’t like the script, and I didn’t like the script, so I said to the producer, Bryan Foy, ‘This is crap. You gotta rewrite it.’ I also said it to Pierre Salinger [Kennedy’s press secretary], who told the president.” Beatty adds, “Jack Warner knew that I told the president, and he got all upset. He essentially kicked me off the lot because I said, ‘Not only will I not do it, when I talk to the president I’m gonna tell him that he should not allow it to be done because it’s lousy.’ Warner said I’d never work at Warners again. I saw the president three days before he died, at a party. He said, ‘You were sure right about that one.’”
In 1962, he said that he had turned down a million dollars’ worth of work. According to Louella Parsons, he turned down seventy-five scripts and $2 million in salary between All Fall Down and the beginning of 1964. He called it all “crap.”
Looking back on this period two years later, Beatty confessed, “I was not prepared for it. I was not ready for the agony, the coarseness, the vulgarity, having to do things here, being pressured there until finally they rub out your talents. I was insecure. I’d lost the spark and I felt like I was being sold like a can of tomatoes.”
Beatty was still looking to attach himself to the great directors. Odets had recommended him to Robert Rossen. Fifty-four in 1963, Rossen was the crusty grandson of a rabbi. He was a short, barrel-shaped man with close-cropped, sparse gray hair, and a voice like sandpaper. Like Odets and Kazan, he was yet another member of the small circle of lefty writers and directors who had saved their careers by informing on their former friends and colleagues in the early 1950s. Like Kazan and Odets, he still considered himself a man of the left. Also like them, Rossen was a romantic figure for Beatty, a hero of the political wars of the Red Decade, despite his subsequent capitulation, and another potential mentor. He had a long list of distinguished pictures to his credit, including Body and Soul (1947), All the King’s Men (1949), which won an Oscar for Best Picture, and most recently, The Hustler (1961), with Paul Newman. He hired Beatty for a project called Cocoa Beach in July 1962, set in the world of the space program at Cape Canaveral.
Nineteen sixty-two and 1963 passed in a blur. As Beatty described them, they “blended into a series of very good times, good food, a lot of good-looking girls, and a lot of aimless fun.… I drank wine.… I was becoming an adult. I didn’t want to pass up really tasting my early twenties in order to churn up momentum.” One of the good-looking girls was Kim Novak, on whom he had a crush. Beatty met her at a party, and she invited him to accompany her up to the house she kept in Big Sur. She picked him up at his hotel in a sporty Jaguar XK140 or 150. In the car with her were a terrier, a parakeet, a parrot, and a St. Bernard. They drove up the Pacific Coast Highway and stopped at Nepenthe, the celebrated hotel built on the site of a cabin once owned by Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. “I realized that she had something going with the bartender, and that I’d been invited to make the bartender jealous,” he recalls, wryly. “I was the hot young male star. But she had absolutely no interest in me.” Beatty took this as a challenge. “I went to her house with her, but I couldn’t get to first base. I couldn’t stand it, faked a phone call, and told her, ‘I’ve got to go back to L.A., it’s an emergency, can you get me to the airport before it closes?’ She drove me to the airport, and we never spoke again.”
Rossen never finished Cocoa Beach, but he did have an adaptation of a novel by J. R. Salamanca, called Lilith, which he asked Beatty to do instead. By 1963, broke and $10,000 in debt, the actor didn’t have much choice and agreed. Lilith tells the story of Vincent Bruce, a war veteran who works as an occupational therapist in a posh mental hospital for schizophrenics. Lilith is what was known in those days as a nymphomaniac, voracious and indiscriminate in her choice of partners (women as well as men), an enigmatic and capricious heartbreaker, cruel in her disregard for those who orbit her star, driving them mad if they weren’t already. In other words, a female Warren Beatty, give or take some. One inmate (Peter Fonda) spurned by Lilith commits suicide, hastening Lilith’s collapse into gibbering lunacy, and Bruce, who has also fallen in love with her, ends up a patient himself, his fate up in the air.
The script contained all the ingredients necessary to pique Beatty’s interest. His relationship with Wood was nothing if not a window into the world of a world-class neurotic. Like Splendor, Lilith was another installment in the Freud-ridden tradition of Hollywood films going back at least to The Snake Pit in 1948, and including the previous year’s surprise hit, David and Lisa (1962). It was a downbeat drama about a serious subject, with a perfect, sensitive-young-man role for him, and an equivocal, read “European,” as opposed to a happy, read “Hollywood,” ending.
Perhaps atoning for his sins of conscience, Rossen struck a somber note. “Society considers the person who is outside its norms as sick,” he told Cahiers du Cinéma in 1967, sounding like R. D. Laing. “Now, my own feeling is that society itself is sick.… We have to say what is out of joint in our time.”
In the spring of 1963, Charlie Feldman approached Beatty about starring in and co-producing a project that he had originally bought in the late 1950s for Cary Grant, based on a Hungarian play called Lot’s Wife. He already had a script, by I. A. L. Diamond, who had co-written Billy Wilder classics like Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Kiss Me, Stupid. Beatty had a sharp sense of humor and a gift for comedy, although he had yet to find a satisfactory vehicle for it. He seized the opportunity to get away from the sober dramas that had so far defined his career. He was fascinated by “the plight of the compulsive Don Juan,” as he puts it. “It always struck me as a pathetic and funny character, a victim of himself or society or his conquests or whatever—but a victim.” But the actor stipulated one condition. He knew that Feldman would find a part for his then girlfriend, Capucine, if allowed, and he wanted assurances that nothing suitable for her would find its way into the script. Feldman, who did not take dictation, retorted, “Fuck you,” but eventually agreed, and work on the script proceeded.
Needless to say, Lot’s Wife was not going to be the title of the movie. Feldman was looking around for something more suitable. When Beatty was staying at Feldman’s home, the producer couldn’t help but hear him on the phone giving his customary greeting to female callers, “What’s new, pussycat?” One day, the light bulb went on. Feldman exclaimed, “Title!”
Feldman and Beatty were not happy with Diamond’s script, which they didn’t think was funny enough. They needed a good joke writer. One night Beatty went to the Bitter End, a club in the Village, to catch a kid he heard was funny, Woody Allen. Feldman was prepared to offer Allen, who had no film experience, as much as $60,000 to rewrite the script. Allen’s agent, and later producer, was Charles H. Joffe. Allen recalls, “When he said, ‘Aw, I’d like your guy to do a movie with Warren Beatty,’ Joffe didn’t believe it for a second. Joffe only asked for $20,000, and that’s what I got.” Later, Allen continues, “Feldman said to me, ‘I want you to write a script where we all go to Paris. There’s a lot of beautiful girls there, we can all have a wonderful time. You can have a small part in the movie.’” So a movie that was to star Warren Beatty, now starred him and Woody Allen.
Beatty gave Allen the script, which Allen recalls was written not by Diamond, but Claude Binyon, an old-timer whose first credit was back in 1932. The actor said, “This guy’s no slouch.” Allen rolled his eyes, and replied, “Yeah, but I’ve never heard of him,” and not bothering to look at it, started from scratch. “I didn’t have breathtaking interest in the project because I thought it was never going to happen. I thought it was just a lot of big talk. No one was going to take me off the stage and say, ‘Go write a script with a part for yourself in a Warren Beatty movie. He was this big star. But he kept coming night after night to the Bitter End, and he’d hang out with me between shows, and on the street afterwards, and we’d talk. He was very encouraging, very supportive.”
When Allen went to visit him at the Delmonico, where he was staying, Beatty was wearing a white terrycloth bathrobe and carrying a fistful of phone messages. “If we were going to go out and eat, he’d call the restaurant and say, ‘Hi, I’m calling for Warren Beatty—I still don’t know how he had the nerve to do that—and he would of course always get a wonderful table. He was very, very good-looking. He’d pass women on the street and they’d say, ‘Hello,’ and he’d say, ‘Hello,’ and you could see that he would light them up.”
When he was finished, Allen read his script—which he says had “a million great jokes”—to Beatty and Feldman, and the honeymoon ended. “You could see right away that Feldman came from the old school of Hollywood,” Allen said later. “I had named the lead female character Becky, a Jewish name. He didn’t like it. And when she met the lead male, who was supposed to be Warren, she had confident dialogue, she would say, ‘Well, you know, I’m gorgeous and I’m great-looking.’ Charlie couldn’t countenance that because it was immodest and against the cliché of what the heroine would say. He regarded me as a quote-unquote beatnik, the guy who was coming up there in sneakers and a T-shirt and giving them jokes about Charlie Parker and suicide. I think Warren was more in tune with me than Charlie was. He was trusting Warren’s instinct that I had something to offer.”
Meanwhile, Beatty had reservations about Rossen’s script for Lilith as well. He turned around and took Youngblood Hawke instead, to be directed by Delmer Daves. Then, abruptly, he changed his mind. This was the last straw for Jack Warner, who kicked Beatty off the lot for the second time. Worried that he would never eat lunch in that town again, Beatty took Lilith.
© 2010 Peter Biskind
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Meet the Author
Peter Biskind is the author of five previous books, including Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. He is a contributor to Vanity Fair and was formerly the executive editor of Premiere magazine. He lives with his family in Columbia County, New York.
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this was a good one- I recomend it!
This is one boring book and as long as the Movie "REDS," which tells me nothing about Beatty but about his ego, masculinity, perversions and attitude. I know nothing more about him than when I picked up the book except I skimmed so much because I was bored. I hated the movie Reds too...long and boring....much like this book.
No punches pulled. Still left with many questions about the enigmatic Beatty. Would certainly prefer to read about the well-known former lothario than date him.
I have the nook & I'd love to read this in an eBook format ... will it be available?