Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Films of Warren Beatty: "The Only Game in Town," starring Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor, directed by George Stevens (1970)

Warren Beatty became a full-fledged movie star after producing and starring in "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1967. The movie helped usher in the "New Hollywood" era of films, and it also made Warren Beatty a very rich man. Warner Brothers had such little faith in "Bonnie and Clyde," thinking that it would merely be a "B" movie, that they gave Beatty 40% of the profits. According to, "Bonnie and Clyde" cost $2.5 million to make, and grossed about $50 million in the US alone. Good job, Warren. So, what movie did Beatty choose as his follow-up? Typically for Beatty, he waited and waited, and turned down a classic movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Beatty then accepted the offer to replace Frank Sinatra in director George Stevens' last movie, "The Only Game in Town," where he would co-star with Liz Taylor. Beatty was a huge admirer of Stevens's work, and basically said yes to the movie just so he could work with him. Stevens directed many great movies like "Gunga Din," "A Place in the Sun," with Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift, "Shane," and "Giant," with Liz, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. Unfortunately, "The Only Game in Town" is not one of his great movies. Ever polite, Beatty defended his decision, saying, "I always thought that it was probably one of the most sensible decisions I had made because I got the chance to work with George...ultimately it was more rewarding to me to have made a sort of an unsuccessful picture with him." Beatty soaked up everything from Stevens, who was a perfectionist with a tendency to over-shoot. (Just like Beatty would be as a director.) Beatty was amazed by Stevens's calm demeanor, and remarked that he never once heard Stevens raise his voice on the set. Beatty tried to handle himself the same way as a director.

"The Only Game in Town" is set in Las Vegas, but it was mostly filmed in Paris. Why, you might well ask. Well, because Richard Burton was a tax exile from England and could only spend a small number of days a year in the UK. So Burton's latest movie, "Staircase," though set in London, was being filmed in Paris. (In "Staircase" Burton and Rex Harrison play gay hairdressers. Really.) And Liz wanted to be in the same city as Richard. Therefore, extremely expensive facsimiles of Vegas casinos were built in Paris to accommodate Liz. Ah, show-biz!

"The Only Game in Town" was actually a play before it was a movie, running on Broadway for 16 performances in 1968. Frank D. Gilroy, the playwright, must have clicked his heels for joy when 20th Century Fox bought the film rights for $500,000 before the play even opened! It's basically a two-person character study, as the film focuses on chorus girl Fran meeting cocktail bar piano player Joe. Fran has been in Las Vegas for five years, and Joe is planning to leave for New York City as soon as he can save $5,000. Joe soon hits a lucky streak and wins $8,000 at the casinos. He tells Fran he wants to have one more nice night on the town before he leaves the next day. In an excruciating scene, we watch as Joe gambles away all $8,000. Which explains why he's been in Las Vegas for 5 years trying to save $5,000. Just as Joe is waiting for the perfect time to leave Vegas, which may never come, Fran is waiting for her lover, married and living in San Fransisco, to finally divorce his wife and marry her. In the meantime, Fran invites Joe to move in with her. No strings attached, free to leave whenever either one pleases. Eventually Fran's lover comes back with what seems to be the perfect news: he's gotten a divorce, and now they can get married. He's booked them tickets for a honeymoon starting that night. But after saying goodbye to Joe on the phone, Fran realizes that she is in love with Joe, and doesn't leave with her lover. (In a very un-Liz Taylor like moment, Fran even gives him back the ginormous ring he bought her!) So, what happens at the end? Well, I won't spoil that for you.

"The Only Game in Town" is actually a pretty good movie, it's certainly better than I thought it would be, and better than it's reputation would suggest. It was a flop when it was released in January 1970. The movie cost about $10 million to make, took a very long 5 months to shoot, and only grossed $1.5 million in the US. But it's an interesting story, and it features a very good performance from Beatty. Like many other Beatty characters, Joe is a charmer who is very adept at reading people and getting his way. His dreams are less grandiose than most of Beatty's characters, as his only real goal seems to be making it to New York. Joe is actually a well-written character, in part because he is very sarcastic and ironic, which makes his character seem much more modern. You could give Joe's lines to a character in a contemporary romantic comedy with no trouble at all. Sinatra actually would have been quite good for this part, the only problem is that he was about 20 years too old for it. (A piano player in his early 50's who is trying to make $5,000 to get to New York? Um, no.)

Liz is good, but her voice drives me nuts sometimes, as she has a tendency to screech her lines when she yells. She can sound so shrill and harsh. And whoever designed the wardrobe for Liz should have been fired. It's obvious from the way Liz is dressed that she must have gained some weight around the middle, as all of her clothes are really big and baggy on her, which just makes her look larger than she really was. She was only 36 when the movie was filmed, and still had a gorgeous figure, but you'd never know it from this movie.

And how did Richard Burton feel about his wife making a movie with Hollywood's new Don Juan? According to his journals he was a bit jealous. (Personally, Richard Burton and Warren Beatty would both be on my list of guys I would not want my wife to make a movie with.) Burton was on the set when Liz and Beatty filmed their love scene, and he played some George and Martha-like mind games, saying to them, "I say Elizabeth, don't you think you should be a bit closer to your lover? And Warren, you look a touch bashful. Is my presence making you nervous?" According to everything I've read, nothing happened between Liz and Beatty. I would think that Beatty would have tried to do everything he could to impress Burton, as the young Beatty had a pattern of seeking out friendships with older men who were more established in their careers, but I can't find any evidence of this from biographies of Burton or Beatty.

"The Only Game in Town" is certainly a curio, and it's not good enough for me to recommend it without reservations. It's not available on DVD, but I caught it on the Fox movie channel. But if you like old movies that are somewhat talky, or if you want to see two amazingly pretty people go gambling, or if you want to see Warren Beatty be incredibly snarky, this is the movie for you.

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