Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Films of Warren Beatty-"Lilith," starring Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, and Peter Fonda (1964)

Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg in "Lilith," 1964. Could they be any prettier?

This is a totally appropriate patient/mental health assistant relationship. Just some good, wholesome frolicking in the barn. Nothing could go wrong here.

Peter Fonda and Jean Seberg.
Warren Beatty’s fourth movie was the psychological drama Lilith, released in 1964 and co-starring the lovely Jean Seberg in the title role. Once again, Lilith sees Beatty acting in his James Dean-influenced mumbly/confused/sensitive/angry young man mode, which he had now done in 3 of his first 4 movies. (See also, Splendor in the Grass and All Fall Down.) Lilith is another Tennessee Williams-influenced psychodrama with all of the standard elements-heavy Freudian overtones, overheated sexuality, madness, etc. (See also, Splendor in the Grass, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, -which was actually written by Williams, and All Fall Down.

In Lilith, Beatty plays Vincent Bruce, a veteran who goes back to his hometown and doesn’t quite know what to do. It’s implied that he saw combat in the military, but since the movie is set in the present time of 1964 and isn’t a period piece-i.e., set right after World War II or Korea, that must mean that he was a “military advisor” in Vietnam, although it’s never specified where he served. Anyway, Vincent decides to go to Poplar Lodge, a private mental institution, and ask for a job. He interviews with Dr. Brice (Kim Hunter) and gets a job there as an assistant. Vincent quickly becomes a confidant of Stephen, a sensitive young man played by Peter Fonda, in one of his first film roles. Stephen has a crush on Lilith, (Jean Seberg) an attractive young female patient who seldom leaves her room. Vincent is able to gain the trust of Lilith, and she agrees to accompany some of the other patients on a picnic once she learns that Vincent is going along too. Before long, Lilith develops a major crush on Vincent. Which typically might be kind of a problem, except it’s not a problem at Poplar Lodge.

The psychiatrist who runs Poplar Lodge is impressed that Vincent is able to draw Lilith out of her shell, and during a conference about her case asks Vincent, “Do you think she’s trying to seduce you?” Vincent answers, in his mumbly way, “Possibly, but it seems like more than that.” The psychiatrist then asks, “Do you ever feel inclined to accept?” Vincent responds yes. And so, instead of maybe, you know, suggesting that young, fit, super-handsome Vincent possibly spend less time unsupervised with young, stunningly beautiful Lilith, the psychiatrist just lets it go. (“Gee, maybe we should keep Warren Beatty away from the female patients…”) I guess he’s just happy that Lilith is engaging with the world more. Vincent and Lilith go on a bunch of what are basically all-day dates, and Lilith starts engaging with the world a lot more when Vincent makes love with her in a field.
Vincent doesn’t seem to be terribly conflicted about starting a relationship with Lilith, which could be a sign that he’s not in the right job. But they continue to go on a bunch of dates, including one to a proto-Renaissance Festival, complete with jousting contest-won by Vincent, of course. Vincent eventually figures out that Lilith is kind of a nymphomaniac, since she goes off to make out with another female patient in a barn, and says creepy things to little boys she meets when they’re out in public. But that doesn’t seem to change his feelings towards her. 

A couple of times during the movie Vincent sees his ex-girlfriend, Laura, around town. Laura is a very pretty brunette with striking eyes. When I saw her on screen I thought to myself, “Wow, that actress is really attractive, who is she?” Well, as I learned on imdb after watching the movie, Laura was played by Jessica Walter in her first film role. Walter is probably best known for playing abusive matriarch Lucille Bluth on “Arrested Development.” What? Young Lucille Bluth was hot? Yeah, she was. And Laura’s husband is played by a super-young, but still not that young-looking Gene Hackman, also in his first credited movie role. Hackman is terrific in his one scene with Beatty, and he definitely steals the scene from Warren, who is underacting as much as humanly possible. Fortunately, Beatty remembered working with Hackman on Lilith when he was casting Bonnie & Clyde, and cast Hackman in his breakout role as Clyde’s brother. Once Hackman leaves to go to a meeting, Laura says to Vincent, “You know how I told you I’d only really let you make love to me once I was married? Well, I’m married now.” Surprisingly, Vincent just leaves, marking this as one of the only occasions that Warren Beatty turned down sex.

Lilith is an interesting movie, and it’s well-directed by Robert Rossen, who also helmed All the King’s Men, and The Hustler. (One of his lesser films was Alexander the Great, starring Richard Burton wearing a terrible blonde wig, which I reviewed many years ago here.) Jean Seberg, the Iowa-born beauty who became a darling of the French New Wave, thanks to her performance in Breathless, gives a wonderful performance as Lilith, bringing just the right amount of vulnerability and sensuality to the part. Seberg was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in Lilith, losing out to Anne Bancroft for her excellent performance in The Pumpkin Eater. Sadly, the coming years would take a terrible toll on Seberg, as her anti-Vietnam War activism caused her to become a target of the FBI. The FBI set out on a campaign to embarrass Seberg, and they spread the rumor in 1970 that she was carrying the child of a prominent member of the Black Panthers. The rumor was false, but it was repeated in publications like Newsweek, and Seberg went into premature labor and her child died two days later. She sued Newsweek for libel and won. Tragically, Seberg would take her own life, overdosing on pills in 1979 at the age of 40. It was a sad end for a remarkably talented and beautiful actress.

The problem with Lilith, for me, was Warren Beatty. Vincent is a very dull character-if he weren’t played by someone as handsome as Beatty, there’s no way anyone would be interested in him. I think the character of Vincent is left extremely ambiguous-and maybe that’s the point, but for me there was too much ambiguity and not enough clarity. You never really know what Vincent is thinking. Maybe the key to Vincent is that he’s going crazy throughout the course of the movie. But if that’s the key, I think that point could have been made much better.  I think the character was poorly written, and I think Beatty was miscast in the role and didn’t do a good job. Vincent is a tricky role to play, because he’s so ambiguously written, and I think Beatty never decided how he wanted to play it. Vincent is also extremely inarticulate, even without Beatty’s mumbling and pregnant pauses and hesitant speech. Vincent’s inability to articulate anything is a problem, because Warren Beatty is above all a great talker. All of his best roles are charmers who talk a lot-so when he’s stuck with a role like Vincent, he’s wasted in the part.  

Another major problem with the movie for me is how easily Vincent oversteps his professional boundaries and starts a relationship with Lilith. The fact that Vincent tells the psychiatrist that he might have sex with Lilith and no one does anything to prevent this from happening is just wrong. I know it’s an integral part of the movie, but it’s just such a terrible decision both morally and ethically. Vincent is supposedly to be helping Lilith, not having a romantic relationship with her. He’s abusing his power by having a relationship with her.

Behind the scenes, Lilith was a very difficult shoot, and director Rossen was in failing health. Lilith was his last movie, and he died in 1966, just a year and a half after Lilith was released. During pre-production, Rossen and Beatty were on very good terms. As Peter Biskind writes in his Beatty biography, “Rossen welcomed Beatty’s participation on Lilith, treating him more like a friend and collaborator than an actor for hire. He involved him in script revisions and casting.” (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p.60) Natalie Wood, who had just ended her relationship with Beatty, turned down the part of Lilith. Beatty toured Europe trying to find actresses to play Lilith, eventually suggesting Jean Seberg, who was living in Paris. Seberg accepted the part, and later said it was her favorite role of her career. 

In an article written for Cahiers du Cinema in 1967, Jean Seberg wrote of the relationship between Beatty and Rossen: “At the outset, Rossen and he had a relationship which was strangely fraternal, very intimate, very like accomplices, even. Oddly, this relationship of intimacy stopped at the first day of filming, and from then on, it did nothing but deteriorate more and more.” (Biskind, p.60) What caused the relationship to change? No one seems to know for sure. But it seems clear that Beatty’s deliberateness and his habit of asking a million questions on the set annoyed Rossen to no end. Maybe the problem was that Rossen thought that Beatty should know how to play the part once filming began, whereas Beatty was expecting more of a continuing dialogue throughout filming about the part-which is the kind of relationship he had with Elia Kazan. One story from the set is that Beatty asked Rossen the stereotypical actor’s question, “What’s my motivation?” Rossen yelled back, “Your goddamn paycheck!” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.303) Beatty himself said of Rossen, “I saw he wasn’t making a good picture and told him so, which did not endear me to him.” (Finstad, p.303) Well, that would piss anyone off. Beatty also told the film critic Judith Crist that he had tried to quit the production of Lilith, and when the producers wouldn’t allow him to leave the movie; he deliberately stopped trying to act and gave a bad performance. (Finstad, p.304) I tend to believe this story, since Beatty’s performance is so lifeless. It’s a terrible thing for Beatty to have done, and despite thinking that he was getting back at Rossen, he was also wrecking his own career by sabotaging his performance. Jean Seberg wrote to a friend during filming, “Warren Beatty’s behavior is just unbelievable. He’s out to destroy everyone, including himself.” (Biskind, p.61) 

 Lilith opened to lukewarm reviews and an indifferent box office in October, 1964. When filming began in April, 1963, Beatty hadn’t worked on a film in almost a year and a half, and when Lilith was released movie audiences hadn’t seen him since All Fall Down, which had opened 2 ½ years earlier. Beatty had turned down many movies in between All Fall Down and Lilith, including PT 109, the story of President John F. Kennedy’s World War II experiences. Just before agreeing to make Lilith, Beatty was almost set to start filming Youngblood Hawke, but he never signed his contract for the movie and was fired by Jack Warner. Beatty’s next few movies after Lilith were not successful either. His star would continue to dim in Hollywood, and it looked like he might be a one-hit wonder.


Anonymous said...

Great background info I have not seen in many other reviews. However, many others have commented on Beatty's tepid performance. In a strangely fortuitous way, however, it works because it is obvious his character, Vincent Bruce (what a dumb name) is depressed and so, apparently, is Beatty at being trapped in this picture. Rossen must have really been pissed off since he was ill and probably suspected he was dying, and here is his male lead sabotaging his last film.

Mark said...

Thanks for your comment, I'm glad you appreciated the background info! I like the connection you made between Beatty and his character both being depressed. I think you're right about that.

Sybil said...

What a fantastic review enjoyed the review more than the movie thank you

Mark said...

Hi Sybil, thanks for the compliment! Yeah, it's not that great a movie. Beatty's performance in it is really weak. But Jean Seberg does an excellent job.