Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Films of Warren Beatty: Mickey One starring Warren Beatty and Alexandra Stewart, directed by Arthur Penn (1965)

Poster for Mickey One, starring Warren Beatty, 1965.

Warren Beatty and Alexandra Stewart on the set of Mickey One.

Warren Beatty as Mickey One, a paranoid stand-up comedian.
In Mickey One, Warren Beatty plays a stand-up comedian who goes on the run from the Mob and ends up in Chicago. Does that sound like an interesting premise for a movie? Sure. Unfortunately, Mickey One is pretentious, self-consciously artistic, and needlessly opaque.

Director Arthur Penn was heavily influenced by the French New Wave films of the time, and Mickey One comes off as paint by numbers surrealism. Is there a mysterious mute character? Check. Are there tons of close ups of ugly people to get across your contempt for humanity? Check.

The audience is never invested enough in Mickey’s story to really care what happens to him. Perhaps the most successful part of the movie is the opening credit sequence, which introduces us to Beatty’s character, a high-living nightclub comedian who suddenly has to split town when he owes the Mob a lot of money over a gambling debt. He ends up in Chicago and steals a Social Security card. The name on the card is Mickey, and when a worker can’t pronounce the last name, he dubs Beatty “Mickey One,” which is how he’s known for the rest of the movie. Mickey starts working as a comedian again, and he meets Jenny, (the gorgeous Alexandra Stewart) a sweet girl who accepts his many eccentricities. Given the chance to play a classier nightclub owned by Ed Castle (Hurd Hatfield) Mickey must overcome his paranoia and embrace life again.

Part of the problem with Mickey One is that we never know if Mickey is crazy or not. Is he really in danger? Are there really people out to get him? We never really find out. While I understand that the ambiguity in this matter was deliberate, I don’t think it’s the best choice for involving viewers in the narrative. If you want me to care about Mickey, you need to do one of two things. If he is really in danger, you need to demonstrate that so that I will care about Mickey’s survival. If he isn’t in danger and is really just slowly going insane, then you need to show his mental deterioration in a more clear way, so that I will care about Mickey’s survival. But Penn decided to leave it up to the viewers to decide which interpretation is correct, which leads to a movie without much tension.

Part of the problem with Mickey One is the script, and the character of Mickey. As played by Beatty, he’s another callow jerk, just like every other character Beatty had played to this point, with the exception of Bud Stamper in Splendor in the Grass. Mickey is unlikeable and unrelatable, and his stand-up jokes aren’t funny at all. That might be part of the point, I suppose. Mickey is a jerk to Jenny when he first meets her, and he’s very lucky that she talks to him at all. With the rage that Mickey quickly displays, most women wouldn’t have given him the time of day.

Beatty doesn’t give a good performance as Mickey. He isn’t acting, he’s “acting.” He sometimes lapses into a sort of “tough guy” voice that isn’t his real voice. He’s still hung up on his James Dean mannerisms, and he hasn’t yet developed his own style of film acting. That would come later, when he played Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Also, Beatty was hamstrung by the fact that nearly all of his early characters lack any humor or charm. Two of the things that Warren Beatty does best on screen are humor and charm, and when he’s asked to play someone without those qualities, his performance suffers. 

The supporting cast does as good a job as they can. Alexandra Stewart is beautiful and sexy in that mid-1960’s art movie way, with her long straight hair and perfectly chiseled cheekbones. Stewart’s performance is low-key, but effective, and she is the rock that the neurotic Mickey leans on. Hurd Hatfield gives an excellent performance as nightclub owner Ed Castle, who eats only organic food. I don’t know if the audience is supposed to think that Castle is gay or not, but Hatfield gives him just enough insistent charm to make us wonder why he likes Mickey so much. Franchot Tone, most well-known for starring in Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935, has a small role as Ruby Lapp, who tells Mickey in the beginning of the movie that the Mob is after him. Fun fact, Tone was married to Joan Crawford from 1935-39. And on the poster for Mickey One Tone gets the coveted “and” billing, plus he also gets his name in a box. If you’re name isn’t above the title, the next best thing is to have your name in a box. Japanese actor Kamatari Fujiwara, a favorite actor of Akira Kurosawa’s, plays the mute character known only as “The Artist,” who keeps showing up and wordlessly beckoning Mickey to join him. “The Artist” also creates a self-destructive sculpture that is a reference to Jean Tinguely’s famous sculpture, “Homage to New York,” which partially self-destructed in the garden outside of MOMA in 1960. In real life, as in the movie, the fire department had to come to extinguish the blaze created by the sculpture. The scene where Mickey and Jenny watch the sculpture self-destruct was filmed in the skating rink at the then brand-new Marina City apartment complex. Since Mickey One was filmed in 1964, the year that Marina City was completed, it must have been the first movie to make use of these Chicago icons. 

Behind the scenes, Mickey One was a difficult shoot. Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty did not see eye to eye. In a 1972 interview Beatty said, “We had a lot of trouble on that film because I didn’t know what the hell Arthur was trying to do. I didn’t know what Penn wanted…I’m not sure that he knew himself.” (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p.69) In a 1967 article in Cahiers du Cinema, Penn said, “Warren did not want to play the role the way I wanted him to play it.” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.317) Penn also later said of Beatty, “At that stage in the game, I don’t think Warren was as adept an actor as he later became.” (Biskind, p.69) During filming Penn forced Beatty to perform multiple takes of numerous scenes, which ironically enough, would later become Beatty’s preferred way of working as a director. In what must have been a highlight for Penn, both Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the heavy hitters of the French New Wave, visited the set of Mickey One.

To the surprise of no one, Mickey One was a commercial and critical flop when it was released in September 1965. Warren Beatty later humorously told author Mark Harris, “The morning after Mickey One opened, I called the studio and said, how did it do? They said, it did thirteen dollars. I said, is that good?” (Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris, p.137) Beatty also said of the movie, “It was a very good picture, but nobody understood it.” (Finstad, p.347)

Associate producer Harrison Starr said of Mickey One, “I thought we should have looked hard and found an extraordinarily eccentric guy who had still a sufficient charisma to hold the center of the film. Warren was almost too big for the film.” (Finstad, p.314) Even Peter Biskind, who really, really likes Warren Beatty, writes in his biography of Beatty: “This was one of the worst performances of Beatty’s career.” (Biskind, p.69)

1964 was a difficult year for Warren Beatty. He needed to come up with another hit movie, and he had hired Woody Allen to write the screenplay that would eventually become What’s New, Pussycat? Beatty had high hopes for the screenplay, but was annoyed when his part started getting smaller and Allen’s part kept getting bigger. When Beatty objected to producer Charles Feldman casting his girlfriend Capucine in a large role in the film, he dropped out. Beatty thought that they couldn’t do the movie without him, and that Feldman would woo him back and give Beatty what he wanted. No dice, as Beatty was replaced with Peter O’Toole, who was a much bigger star than Beatty in 1964. Of course, much to Beatty’s chagrin, What’s New, Pussycat? went on to become the huge hit that he so sorely needed. Incidentally, the film’s title comes from Beatty’s preferred way of starting a conversation with members of the opposite sex. The What’s New, Pussycat? debacle had taught Beatty one thing: that in order to get what he wanted, he would have to become a producer.

Beatty suffered through lots of bad publicity in 1964, as he was named as a corespondent in the divorce of Leslie Caron and her husband, British theater director Peter Hall. Beatty had met Caron just before rehearsals for Mickey One started. They quickly began a relationship, and she visited him on the Chicago set of Mickey One. (The Chicago studios where Mickey One was filmed eventually became Oprah’s studios.) Caron’s marriage to Peter Hall was pretty much over before Beatty came into the picture, but Beatty took the blame for breaking them up. A nasty custody fight over Hall and Caron’s two children followed, and Beatty temporarily took up residence in England with Caron while the legal battle played out. Caron’s divorce was the reason that Beatty’s next movie, Promise Her Anything, in which he co-starred with Caron, was filmed in England, even though it was set in New York City. 

Even though Mickey One was not a successful film, there was still something good that came out of it. The best thing that Mickey One did was to bring Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn together, as they would collaborate again on a much more brilliant film that would play a significant part in altering 20th century cinema: 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.

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