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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Peter Biskind on Warren Beatty: Was his theme song 'You're So Vain' or 'Just a Gigolo'?

January 11, 2010 |  2:33 pm

Of all the many spellbindingly jaw-droppingly dishy anecdotes in Peter Biskind's new Warren Beatty biography, "Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America," I was found myself especially astounded--in a "what would a therapist make of this" kind of way--by the saga of Beatty's on-again, off-again early '60s affair with Natalie Wood. It was a soulful romance, even if Beatty wasn't exactly faithful, but the strangest events occurred after Beatty had moved on, with Biskind offering an unsettling account of Beatty visiting Wood one night after the affair was over, a visit that reportedly resulted in a Wood wee-hours suicide attempt.

But the strangest coda to the affair, according to Biskind, occurs in the mid-1960s when Beatty begins dating Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi Ballet's prima ballerina who, inconveniently, was already married and didn't speak a word of English. Beatty told his pal Dick Sylbert that it was the most wonderful relationship: "She never understood a thing I said, I never understood a thing she said." However, occasionally Beatty would go on double dates with filmmaker Henry Jaglom, who was then seeing (let your jaw drop) Natalie Wood. As it turns out, Wood's parents were Russian, so Beatty's ex would serve as translator for his verbal nuzzlements to his new paramour. "Beatty would ask [Wood], 'Tell her how you say, 'I love you more than life itself.' "

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Needless to say, these are the kind of eye-popping tales that get people to read books these days, which is why Biskind has been a successful author, with two especially well-read film chronicles under his belt, his bracing 1998 history of '60s Hollywood, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," and "Down and Dirty Pictures," a lively 2004 account of the rise of independent film. Biskind's literary formula, which mixes serious film analysis with loads of racy anecdotes about everyone's personal life, has been emulated in all sorts of other books. In fact, writing in today's New York Times, when Michiko Kakutani describes the new Obama 2008 campaign book "Game Change" as "a spicy smorgasbord of observations, revelations and allegations," she might as well be describing Biskind's new Beatty book too.

It's hard to say that there are any serious new lessons to be learned about Beatty from the book, which recounts his heady triumphs (from "Bonnie and Clyde" to "Shampoo" and "Heaven Can Wait" to "Reds") as well as his disastrous missteps (from "Lilith" and "Mickey One" early on through "Ishtar" and "Love Affair" and "Town and Country"), along with his deep involvement in the George McGovern and Gary Hart presidential campaigns. The 550-page biography is largely well-reported and slyly written, chock-full of marvelous telling detail--with Biskind informing us that Beatty, always willing to put extra time into maintaining his alluring exterior, washed his hair with a six-pack of beer each morning. The Beatty who emerges in the book is as we've always imagined: all-controlling, maddeningly indecisive and completely seductive.

When I talked with Biskind on Friday, I immediately teased him about the fact that Beatty had one day, in a burst of flattery that would be hard to imagine coming from any other modern-day filmmaker or movie star, told him, "I don't why I like you so much--maybe it's because you look like Leon Trotsky." It's all too comically true. Biskind has the bushy mustache and eyebrows, the frizzy Jewish Afro and thick spectacles that you've seen in hundreds of Trotsky photos, presuming of course that you are one of the rare people in Hollywood who've actually seen hundreds of Trotsky photos.

"It was one of Warren's brilliantly seductive remarks," Biskind told me. "He knew I was interested in Russian politics, so he figured I'd get the reference." He laughs. "And I do look a lot like Leon Trotsky, so he was right." When you're Beatty, it doesn't take much to break down someone's defenses. One year, my wife and I sat with Beatty and Annette Bening at a Passover seder. Either because my wife had just given birth or because he couldn't remember her name, Beatty called her "Mom" all night long. Coming from anyone else, it might have gone over like a lead balloon, but no one says "Mom" quite as tantalizingly as Warren Beatty--my wife was happy as a clam all night. 

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According to Biskind, he spent untold years trying to persuade Beatty to cooperate with the biography. A veteran magazine journalist, Biskind had met Beatty in the late 1980s and written about him frequently over the years, both for Premiere magazine and for Vanity Fair. At some point around 2000, Biskind says Beatty phoned him and told him he was ready to participate in a full-scale biography. But that decision, like so many Beatty decisions in his film career, was immediately undone by a new set of hesitations and back-pedaling.

It's possible that Beatty was spooked by the publication of "The Operator," an unflattering Tom King biography of David Geffen that Geffen had initially cooperated with, much to his regret. "Warren was definitely aware of the fallout from that book," Biskind told me. " But he would've been cagey and wary anyway. That's the way he is. What Warren did with me was a lot like what he'd do with the studios. He'd pitch a project, hook you and then when you were hooked, he'd back off and you'd have to sell it to him and beg him to do it, even when in fact he was the one who initiated it. It's very shrewd--it puts you in the position of asking something of him when in fact it began with him asking something of you."

There were times when Beatty was incommunicado, but other times when he was in a wooing mood. "When he'd come to New York, he'd often call me and we'd go out to dinner," Biskind recalls. "When I did a piece for Vanity Fair on 'Reds' in 2007, we talked and talked and I assumed that he knew that everything we talked about would end up in the book. But there was always a lot of procrastination and delay. And some interviews were productive, and some weren't. We'd have a lot of lunches when I'd come to L.A. and sometimes he'd talk and talk and say nothing and sometimes your jaw would drop with the stories he'd tell."

But are all the colorful stories really true? Keep reading:

After a series of titillating excerpts from the book appeared in the New York Post, Beatty's lawyer, Bert Fields, issued a statement attacking the book's accuracy, saying in Fields' inimitable pit-bull style that Biskind's "tedious and boring book ... contains many false assertions and purportedly quotes Mr. Beatty as saying things he never said." Fields also claimed that the biography wasn't authorized, which seemed an odd complaint, since the book--which I've obviously read myself--doesn't make that claim anywhere. Fields also didn't say what Beatty quotes were inaccurate. (My call to Beatty's office today went unreturned.)

Biskind, who says he hasn't heard from either Beatty or Fields, took the attack in stride. " I don't know what set that off," he says, a bit disingenuously, since it's easy to imagine Beatty anxiously phoning his attorney after reading the New York Post excerpts, which are full of explicit accounts of his sexual escapades. "All I can say is that I'd told Warren that the book would have to deal with his sex life." 

In fact, Biskind claims in the book that Beatty had sex with 12,775 women, a figure he calls a "guesstimate." When I pressed him about whether it was actually an invented number, he responded: "Warren did say to someone else that he couldn't get to sleep at night without having sex with someone, so I just added up the days. It didn't seem like an unreasonable figure."

Biskind did interview a large assemblage of Beatty friends and confidantes, including filmmaker James Toback, Buck Henry, Diane Keaton, Dustin Hoffman, Bo Goldman and production designers Dick and Paul Sylbert, who between them worked on a number of Beatty films. Holdouts included Robert Towne (who was still upset over Biskind's portrayal of him in "Easy Riders"), Jack Nicholson, Julie Christie, Leslie Caron and Elaine May, one of Beatty's frequent script collaborators.

"It's one of the many reasons why it's so difficult to write about Warren," says Biskind. "It's not just Warren who's hard to get to talk, but many of his friends too--it seems to be catching. Getting the major women in his life to talk was really hard."

My biggest problem with Biskind's book isn't its frequent salaciousness, as with the anecdote about Beatty asking Douglas MacArthur's widow, then 92, what she called her husband when they were having sex. (The answer: "General.") For me, the book's biggest drawback is its inability to dig more than than skin deep into the Beatty psyche. We are offered a thousand examples of Beatty's all-controlling nature, but are rewarded with precious little insight into where his obsession with control comes from.

Biskind acknowledges that he really isn't sure himself. "I've asked myself that a thousand times," he told me. "I guess I focused on describing Warren's behavior instead of explaining it because some things are just unexplainable." Of course, after I bugged Biskind about it, he actually volunteered an intriguing theory.

"Maybe if you have the power to control everything, then you do it," he says  "It's also possible that Warren started wanted to control things when he saw what happened early in his career when he didn't have control. He had so many movies go wrong and fail that he must've decided that if he didn't control everything, he'd suffer for it. He definitely wasn't in control on 'Town and Country,' and he ceded control to Elaine May on 'Ishtar,' and look what happened. As soon as he wasn't in control, he was in hot water." 

Whether you're a loser or a winner, a saint or a sinner, the one thing you can't control is your legacy. It's been more than a decade since Beatty's last film, the disastrous "Town and Country." It's been two decades since his last hit, 1990's "Dick Tracy," which made $100 million but resulted in so much Sturm und Drang that then-Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg complained in a famous memo that "the amount of anxiety it generated and the amount of dollars that needed to be expended were disproportionate to the amount of success it achieved."

Even though Biskind makes the case for Beatty as a world-class filmmaker-actor-producer, in the same league with the likes of Orson Welles and Francis Coppola, Beatty's legacy is on shaky ground, largely due to the fact that while he has led a fascinating life, his career is tarnished by a long list of unrealized achievements. If Welles' career was undone by his lack of control over his movies, Beatty's career has been stunted by his need to have total control.

Few people under 35 are even familiar with Beatty's body of work, simply because he's done so little in the past two decades, and what he did (with the exception of some nice moments in "Bulworth") was so poorly done. When I told Biskind that many people see Beatty, for all his great work in a few great movies, as a disappointment, he quickly rose to his defense, comparing Beatty to his contemporaries from the golden era of '70s filmmaking.

"What about Coppola?" he countered. "Do you feel disappointed about his career and all the mediocre movies that came after the four or five great ones he made early on? Scorsese has kept working, but his work since 'GoodFellas' has been pretty spotty. Look at Peter Bogdanovich--he's just disappeared. No one thinks about Billy Friedkin. Altman was always up and down. It's hard to sustain greatness over a 40-year career. I think Warren really raised the bar."

Biskind fell silent for a moment. "If you really think about Warren," he said, with a tiny whiff of sadness in his voice,  "he's only disappointing if you expect the world of him." 

Photos: Warren Beatty in "Bonnie and Clyde." Photo credit: Warner Home Video

Peter Biskind: Photo credit: Jennifer S. Altman, Los Angeles Times

PREVIOUSLY: HOW MANY WOMEN DID WARREN BEATTY REALLY SLEEP WITH?    

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