Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Films of Warren Beatty: "Promise Her Anything," starring Warren Beatty, Leslie Caron, and Bob Cummings (1965)

Lobby card for "Promise Her Anything."
Warren Beatty’s first attempt at film comedy was the dreadful “Promise Her Anything,” from 1965, which co-starred his then-girlfriend Leslie Caron. Beatty’s attempts to star in “What’s New, Pussycat?” had failed, and Peter O’Toole ended up playing the part that Beatty had wanted. (“What’s New, Pussycat?” would have been a much better first comedy for Beatty than “Promise Her Anything.”) Perhaps the sting of not getting “What’s New, Pussycat?” inspired Beatty to seek out another comedy project. Unfortunately, the only thing the two movies have in common is that Tom Jones sings the theme songs for both movies.

“Promise Her Anything” may have been doomed from the start. Right before the film was shot, Caron’s husband, British theater director Peter Hall, filed for divorce from her, naming Caron’s affair with Beatty as one of the reasons the marriage failed. The case brought a lot of negative publicity to Caron’s romance with Beatty, and it turned into an ugly custody battle over Caron’s children with Hall. Because Caron’s divorce was happening in the British courts, “Promise Her Anything” was filmed in England, even though it was entirely set in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Like most movies not filmed where they’re set, you can tell it’s not New York City. 

The plot of the movie is rather ridiculous, as Caron plays a young widow with a small toddler who moves into the apartment building that Beatty lives in. Beatty plays a filmmaker who makes “girlie movies,” schlocky films of girls stripping or dancing in very little clothing. But he has more serious aspirations as a moviemaker. Like all of Beatty’s characters, he is a dreamer. In an interesting reference to the real world of 1965, it’s obliquely referenced that Caron’s late husband died in Vietnam. There’s a picture of him in a military uniform, and Caron says something about him “just being an advisor,” which was the term used for military personnel in Vietnam before Lyndon Johnson expanded the war in 1964-65. Beatty’s character is very interested in Caron, and he offers his services as a babysitter to her. Of course, Caron doesn’t know what kind of movies Beatty makes-which will make things awkward later on in the movie. Caron works for Bob Cummings, a famous child psychologist who doesn’t have any children of his own. Cummings is the best thing in the movie by far, as he was a great comedic actor, and this material is right in his wheelhouse. Because Cummings doesn’t actually like children, Caron has kept her own son a secret from Cummings, as she wants to date him, but fears that he will be put off by the fact that she has a child. This is just one of the many ways in which Caron’s character behaves like a typical annoying character in a romantic comedy. You have a son; he’s going to find out that you have a son sooner or later. If he finds out later, he will probably be very upset that you lied to him about a pretty basic fact. The lies keep increasing as Beatty brings Caron’s son to Cummings for observation-and still Caron doesn’t tell Cummings that it’s her son! It occurred to me while watching the movie that Cummings’s character might be gay. He’s never been married, he still lives with his mother-albeit in a very fancy New York high-rise, and he doesn’t make out with Caron when he visits her apartment and she greets him wearing sleepwear that is basically just a bikini. After all the predictable outrage when it’s discovered that Beatty makes girlie movies, and that the toddler is actually Caron’s son, Caron eventually chooses Beatty over Cummings because of Beatty’s bravery in saving the toddler when he climbs onto a crane-which leads to some very obvious fake shots of Beatty and the kid on the crane. Oh, and by the end of the film Beatty’s producer (the great Keenan Wynn) has set him up with a deal to make an artsy movie in Italy. So Beatty and Caron get married and go off, cue reprise of Tom Jones theme song. 

And that’s pretty much the movie. Beatty does as good a job as he can with the material, and he is his usual charming self, but there’s only so much he can do. It’s obvious even from such a crummy movie that Beatty has a gift for comedy. It was wise of him to try and branch out into comedy, as at this point in his career he had only been in dramas. And while Beatty and Caron make a very photogenic couple, it’s Cummings who gets all the laughs. If you see “Promise Her Anything,” look for a very young Donald Sutherland as a father who gets his books signed by Cummings after a lecture. Behind the scenes there’s not too much interesting to report. Beatty said in an interview on the set that “I’ve not had a quiet romantic life and I feel embarrassed about it.” (Quote from “Warren Beatty: A Private Man,” by Suzanne Finstad, p. 340.) Whatever embarrassment Beatty felt about his private life being too public in 1965 certainly didn’t stop him from continuing to lead a very public romantic life for the next 25 years! By 1965, he had already had very public romances with Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, and now Leslie Caron. Beatty was getting a reputation as a male home wrecker, as he was widely seen as having broken up Wood’s first marriage to Robert Wagner and Caron’s marriage to Peter Hall. Caron and Beatty broke up shortly after “Promise Her Anything,” and Caron eventually said that Beatty had asked her to marry him, “but he was a difficult customer. I couldn’t have survived.” (Finstad, p. 340.) “Promise Her Anything” failed to set the box office on fire, and the film’s failure further instilled a need in Beatty to come up with a hit movie, as his career seemed to be in a downward spiral.

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