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Warren Beatty's 'Star' qualities and other Hollywood biographies

April 25, 2010 |  2:30 pm


What's so fascinating about Warren Beatty? 

"I’ve always been a fan of Beatty’s films,” said Peter Biskind, who penned the biography “Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America.” The two met in 1989 while Biskind was working at Premiere magazine and Beatty was making the film "Dick Tracy." Biskind found him to be smart and a good storyteller. “Hanging around with Beatty is a real trip,” he said.

Biskind was a panelist with Leo Braudy (“The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History”) and Steven J. Ross (professor and chairman of USC's history department) in the "Biography: Hollywood Legends" session Sunday morning at the Festival of Books. (Panelist David Thompson had a family emergency and was unable to attend.)

Ross asked what attracted the panelists to their particular high-profile subjects. “One of the reasons I chose Beatty is because I feel he’s a serious person,” Biskind said.

Leo Braudy doesn’t write about living figures. His book opens with Alexander the Great and ends with Hitler and Judy Garland. His upcoming book focuses on the Hollywood sign, one of Tinseltown's biggest non-living stars. The balance of a biography is difficult, both panelists agreed, but trying to include a little bit of everything is the goal. When asked by an audience member seeking advice about writing a biography, Braudy suggested using chronology as an organizing thread.

One of the recurring subjects was finding a balance of seriousness versus gossip when writing about famous people or subjects. Braudy brought up its importance as a kind of “common coin” of connection between people.

A misconception about “Star” is that it is an authorized Warren Beatty biography, but Biskind said it was never considered an “authorized” work because that would mean that Beatty would have had the right of approval and read the manuscript before publication. It was, however, written with cooperation from Beatty.

The inclusion of “the number” in the book was mentioned, to which Biskind said, “Inquiring minds want to know.” The notorious figure he cited of nearly 13,000 women Beatty bedded before his marriage to Annette Bening got the book a lot of media attention but also trivialized "Star," according to Biskind. In the end,  Beatty didn’t like the final product, but Biskind didn’t mind, “I didn’t write it for him” he said. Rather, it was written for the readers, some with “Star” in hand, who filled the audience.

— Leslie Anne Wiggins

Photo: From left, Steven J. Ross, USC professor and chairman of the history department, and authors Peter Biskind and Leo Braudy at the "Biography: Hollywood Legends" session Sunday at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. Credit: Leslie Anne Wiggins