Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Bugsy" & Warren Beatty

I'm back, dear readers! Where was I? Well, nowhere in particular, just busy with schoolwork and not especially motivated to blog. I've been to some good concerts, like Chris Isaak, Rufus Wainwright, and Nick Lowe, and I would think, "I should write about this," but somehow it just didn't happen.

What topic am I about to tackle now? Well, Warren Beatty and his 1991 movie "Bugsy." (Okay, so Beatty didn't direct it, so it technically isn't "his" movie, but he produced and starred in it, and it sounds like he basically takes over every movie he makes, so I think it's fair enough to call it "his"movie.) Beatty is a fascinating man, he's an actor I've been aware of for a long time, ever since the summer of 1990 when 9-year-old me saw Beatty's movie "Dick Tracy." I was swept up in Tracy fever, and I was thrilled that someone made a movie out of the comic strip. I know that I saw it at least twice in the theater. The movie also got a lot of attention in the Twin Cities because Charlie Korsmo, who played the kid that Tracy adopts, was from the Twin Cities. And of course Beatty's romance with Madonna was big stuff at the time too. One thing I remember about watching the movie was seeing a close up of Beatty's hand and thinking, "That hand looks really old." I didn't really think Beatty was old, because I was 9 and had no concept of adult age. All I knew was that Beatty was older than me but younger than my grandmother. But I thought his hands looked old.

In high school I finally saw Beatty's iconic 70's movies "Shampoo" and "Heaven Can Wait." I was impressed. For whatever reason at that time I never saw "Bonnie and Clyde," I'm not sure why. I remember once it was going to be on a double bill at a revival movie theater with "Badlands," but the print of B&C didn't arrive. And by the time I was in college Beatty was off the movie scene, more often seen escorting Annette Bening to awards shows than making movies of his own. I've followed the Beatty biographies that have come out over the last ten years and I've watched him get awards like the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Golden Globes lifetime achievement award. I've often thought, he made so few films, it would be relatively easy to follow his whole career trajectory, and now I'm finally making the time to see those films.

Benjamin "don't call me 'Bugsy'" Siegel has many similarities with other characters Beatty has played. Like Clyde Barrow, Bugsy is a charming psycho. Like Clyde, Bugsy is an astute judge of people, he is able to size them up quickly and get them on his side. (This is also a trait that Beatty would seem to share as well.) Like John McCabe in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," Siegel becomes obsessed with building a place of entertainment in a remote location. For McCabe, that means building a brothel in the Old West. For Siegel, that means building a casino, the Flamingo, in 1940's Las Vegas. I watched "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" a week or so before "Bugsy," and I was struck by the parallels between the two movies. Both McCabe and Siegel are visionaries, dreamers who most people consider a bit obsessive. They both anger people who have a great deal of power, and both pay for their independence with their lives. Obsessive might also be a good word to describe Warren Beatty. He is obviously a perfectionist when it comes to making movies, which is one explanation for his relatively small filmography. As Beatty once said about filmmaking:

"It is all detail, detail, detail. When...the person you are working with has to go home and return a call to his press agent, and lunch is being served, and the head of the union says, 'Well, you have to stay out there for another 10 minutes because they have to have coffee,' and then the camera breaks down, and there is noise, a plane flying over, and this wasn't the location you wanted...are you going to have the energy to devote to the detail of saying, 'That license plate is the wrong year'? That's where the stamina, the real fight comes in."

Wow. That's focused. Beatty is well-known for shooting numerous takes of scenes. Buck Henry, Beatty's co-director on 1978's "Heaven Can Wait," once said, "Ideally, Warren would never, ever, ever finish anything, because there's always got to be a better way to do something-the shot, the edit, or the scene, or the line, something." One of the hardest parts in the act of creating is knowing when the act is finished, when to step back from it and say, "It's done." Can something always get better the more time you spend on it, the more takes you shoot? Beatty seems to think so. Billy Scharf, an assistant editor on Beatty's "Reds" had this to say about Beatty's methods:

"A lot of people say Warren overshoots. I know that not to be true. Directors who come back with insufficient material are doing a disservice to the opportunity. They get intimidated by stars. Warren does not. In the movie, when Reed wants to leave Russia and go back to America, Zinoviev tells him, 'You will never be at this place, at this time, again.' Warren felt that way when he shot. He believed that that was the time, and that was the place, and he had to exploit the opportunity to the hilt. He had the resources, and he wanted to use them, because he knew he would never get another chance."

All that Scharf says is true, you really only have one chance to capture what you need for a film. You have to do a certain scene on a certain day, and you have to nail it that day, that's your one chance to get that scene done perfectly. (Of course, you can always re-shoot, which of course Beatty is known to do.) But while you're shooting, no matter how many days or how many takes you do, you have to catch that lightning in a bottle, that magic that makes film such an amazing and powerful medium. It's a big responsibility. And if you're directing a big-budget Hollywood production, every shooting day costs a lot of money. Beatty's reputation as a perfectionist actor/director/producer might also carry over into his personal life. Dustin Hoffman related this story from the set of "Ishtar."

Hoffman asked Beatty, "Theoretically, is there any woman on the planet that you would not make love to? If you had the chance?"
Beatty: "That's an interesting question: Is there any woman on the planet that I wouldn't make love to? Any woman at all?" Beatty pondered the question a moment and finally said, "No, there isn't."
Hoffman asked, "You're serious?"
"Because you never know."

And that, in essence, sums up Warren Beatty. Why shoot another take after you've shot 25 or 30 takes? Because you never know, the next one might be the perfect one. Why sleep with another woman when you've slept with so many already? Because you never know, the next one might be the perfect one.

So this post has turned into more of an exploration of Warren Beatty than the movie "Bugsy," but to return to the movie for a moment, there's another clear parallel between Beatty and Siegel. As Siegel builds the Flamingo in Las Vegas, he keeps going over budget and missing deadlines. Similar in many ways to a Warren Beatty movie. Siegel is a controlling perfectionist, just like the man who plays him on screen. Maybe the best scene in the movie is the one where Siegel, in a chef's hat, alternates between keeping his daughter's birthday party going and selling his mobster friends on his vision of Las Vegas as the new American paradise. The scene is funny, and it presents Beatty's charm at its best.

"Bugsy" is also a very significant movie in Beatty's life, as it was on the set of "Bugsy" that he met his wife, Annette Bening, who gives a great performance as Virginia Hill, Bugsy's girlfriend. It's a great movie, and it's definitely one of Beatty's best performances. So, even though I will never be at this time and place again, I'll end this post now. I'm going to step back and say, "It's done."