Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Films of Warren Beatty: Kaleidoscope, starring Warren Beatty and Susannah York (1966)

Warren Beatty and Susannah York in Kaleidoscope, 1966.

French poster for Kaleidoscope, 1966. This was similar to the British and American posters, and makes the movie look much more interesting than it really is.

Another French poster for Kaleidoscope, 1966. That drawing of Beatty and York is fantastic. I also love that this poster shows you the ending of the movie.
Kaleidoscope was Warren Beatty’s seventh movie, and his sixth bad movie. After starting his career with a bang in the terrific Splendor in the Grass, Beatty’s subsequent movies had all proved to be flops at the box office. Kaleidoscope was a typical mod mid-1960’s caper movie, trying to capture some of that James Bond-style magic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. 

Beatty plays Barney Lincoln, a wealthy American playboy living in London. Just for kicks, Barney breaks into the Kaleidoscope playing card factory in Geneva and makes small marks on the presses that print the cards so he can identify which cards his opponent has, and which card he’s about to get. Since Kaleidoscope seems to have a monopoly on supplying all of the European casinos with playing cards, his plan seems pretty fool proof, and he wins a ton of money. Along the way he meets flighty English girl Angel McGinnis, played by Susannah York. Angel tells her father about Barney and his prowess with cards. Her father happens to be is a Scotland Yard inspector, played by Clive Revill. Inspector McGinnis asks Barney to come in for questioning. But it turns out he doesn’t want to arrest Barney, and is willing to drop the charges if Barney can beat businessman and drug dealer Harry Dominion (Eric Porter) at poker and hopefully bankrupt him. Since Dominion is using Kaleidoscope brand playing cards, Barney does very well against him. But then they switch the brand of playing card! Oh no, can Barney still beat Dominion without cheating? Spoiler alert: yes, he can. After Dominion loses he goes back to his castle, and for some odd reason, Angel goes with him. Why does she do this? I don’t know, I think it’s because Dominion looks like Napoleon Bonaparte. No, really. It’s established when Angel first meets Barney that she’s obsessed with Napoleon. (Since I just finished reading two biographies of Napoleon, Angel sounds like my kind of girl.) It’s also established by his awful combed-forward hairstyle that Dominion sort of looks like Napoleon, and he has several portraits of Napoleon in his casino. When Angel first sees him she shouts out, “Vive l’Empereur!” Dominion takes this as a compliment, and begins calling her Josephine. Apparently Angel becomes so besotted with Dominion that she just takes off after him once he loses. He doesn’t kidnap her or anything she just gets in his car. So Barney chases after them, and they almost get killed by Dominion and his henchmen, but thanks to Scotland Yard, Dominion is arrested. 

Ultimately, Kaleidoscope just isn’t a very good movie. As film critic Lawrence Quirk wrote of Kaleidoscope, “Had all this been told with some wit, style, literacy and a correct blend of writing, directorial and photographic skills, Kaleidoscope might have been a smash sleeper of the kind that Beatty desperately needed.” (The Films of Warren Beatty, by Lawrence Quirk, p.126) I was really disappointed that Kaleidoscope didn’t have a groovy theme song, sung by Tom Jones or someone like that. It seems like the kind of movie that would have had a theme song.

Part of the problem is that the supporting actors, Clive Revill and Eric Porter, are much better written than the two leads. Beatty and York simply don’t have much acting work to do. Beatty never breaks a sweat, as he’s playing another glib sarcastic guy. Even when Revill questions him at Scotland Yard, Beatty makes it clear that he’s bored and doesn’t take it seriously. Beatty really doesn’t have much to do other than look good in a tuxedo. Which he succeeds at, by the way. But Revill’s character is fuller, as we can tell from the writing how much he despises Dominion and how badly he wants to see him in jail. Even in that little moment he shows more emotion than Beatty does during the whole movie. Beatty isn’t really miscast, it just that as Barney Lincoln he has nothing to do. York is fine, but her character isn’t so much a full-fledged character as just a collection of quirks. Sandra Dee was originally going to play Angel McGinnis, but Warner Brothers bought her contract out and replaced her with York. That proved to be a good move, because the movie would have been worse with Dee in it. She was not a very good actress, and I’m sure her British accent would not have been good.

Kaleidoscope was not a hit with either the critics or the public. Time magazine got off a funny jab in their review, writing, “Hero Warren Beatty tries so hard to act like Sean Connery that once or twice he almost develops a line in his face.” (Quirk, p.127) 

Behind the scenes, filming seemed to go smoothly. Director Jack Smight said, “I was warned that Warren would be difficult to deal with, both as an actor and as a human being.” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.348) But Smight shut down Beatty’s method tendencies and was able to have a good working relationship with him. Finstad’s biography of Beatty also mentions that Beatty doesn’t like to gamble, which is ironic, given all of the times that he’s played gamblers on screen.

Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers, though that Kaleidoscope would be a major hit for his studio, and he was worried that Beatty’s next picture, Bonnie and Clyde, was going to be a flop. Warner had given Bonnie and Clyde the green light without reading the screenplay, and once he actually read the screenplay he had reservations about its commercial potential. He wrote in a memo: “I don’t understand the whole thinking of Warren Beatty and Penn. We will lose back whatever we happen to make on Kaleidoscope…this era went out with Cagney.” (Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris, p.195) Of course, history proved Warner to be very wrong, as Kaleidoscope didn’t make any money, and Bonnie and Clyde made tons of it. But mostly for Warren Beatty, who got 40% of the profits from it. 

Beatty promoted the film heavily, attending the premiere at Radio City Music Hall on September 22, 1966. Beatty also appeared on What’s My Line, where he’s quite awkward, and on the Today show with Barbara Walters. Walters later wrote of their encounter in her 1970 book, How to Talk with Practically Anybody About Practically Anything:  “He answered me monosyllabically with an expression of extreme boredom bordering on distaste. Finally I resorted to the hackneyed but spoil-proof, ‘Tell me, Mr. Beatty, what is your new picture about?’…after an endless pause he said, ‘Now that’s really a very difficult question.’ I’d had it…I said, ‘Mr. Beatty, you are the most impossible interview I have ever had. Let’s forget the whole thing and I’ll do a commercial.’” (Walters, p.39. The story is also recounted and quoted in both Peter Biskind and Suzanne Finstad’s biographies of Beatty.) 

Peter Biskind opines in his biography of Beatty, “Another picture like Kaleidoscope, and Beatty would have gone the way of Troy Donahue.” (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p.101) While Biskind might be exaggerating, it’s certainly true that Beatty’s career was in very rough shape. Beatty was probably lucky that he was still getting offered leading roles. As Beatty himself said, “It got to the point where I would have to make a good picture or get myself into trouble. That’s when we made Bonnie and Clyde.” (Biskind, p.58) And that’s when Warren Beatty made Hollywood history.

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