Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Films of Warren Beatty: The Parallax View, starring Warren Beatty, directed by Alan J. Pakula (1974)

Poster for The Parallax View, 1974.
Warren Beatty volunteering for George McGovern's Presidential campaign in 1972.
Lobby card for The Parallax View, with Warren Beatty and Hume Cronyn, 1974.

Warren Beatty, with the best 1970's hair, in The Parallax View, 1974.

Director Alan J. Pakula and star Warren Beatty on the set of The Parallax View, 1974.

Whenever I think of classic Warren Beatty, I always imagine him from the 1970’s. Despite all of his successes throughout other decades, the image that springs to my mind is always the shaggy-haired Beatty from Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait. Maybe it’s because those were the first two movies of his that I saw, besides seeing Dick Tracy numerous times when I was 9 years old. I’ve long thought that the 1970’s look suited Beatty extremely well. He was always a strikingly handsome man in his movies from the 1960’s, but I think he got even better looking in the 1970’s. Beatty always had a fantastic head of hair, and the changing fashions of the 1970’s allowed to him to wear it longer, which worked well for him.

The Parallax View, a conspiracy thriller from 1974, shows Beatty in his full 1970’s glory. When The Parallax View was released in June of 1974, it was Beatty’s first movie since the confusingly titled $, also known as Dollars, was released two and a half years earlier at the end of 1971. In the interim, Beatty had spent 1972 volunteering for George McGovern’s Presidential campaign. Beatty had also turned down many hit movies during this time. According to Peter Biskind, Beatty turned down roles in The Godfather, The Way We Were, The Sting, and The Great Gatsby. (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p.166) Personally, I think Beatty would have made a fantastic Jay Gatsby. He would have brought the right amount of charm and unease to the part.

George McGovern said of Beatty’s work for him in the 1972 campaign, “He was one of the three or four most important people in the campaign. And he never sought credit.” (Biskind, p.174) It was during the McGovern campaign that Beatty first met Gary Hart, future Senator and Presidential candidate. Hart was McGovern’s campaign manager, and was instrumental in helping McGovern secure the Democratic nomination for President. Hart and Beatty quickly became good friends, and Beatty was a key supporter when Hart ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988. 

Politics has been one of Warren Beatty’s key interests outside of the movies throughout his life. Beatty once said about politics, “You’ve gotta have a life. You’ve gotta relate to people. Otherwise, you’ll make movies about movies and it just won’t be very interesting. So you’ve gotta make movies about life, and my avenue into life, my way of getting to know people, has been political.” (Biskind, p.174-5) There has been occasional speculation throughout his career about Beatty running for office. According to Suzanne Finstad’s biography of Beatty, he thought briefly about running for Governor of California in 1974 after a poll named him as the favorite candidate to replace outgoing Governor Ronald Reagan. (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.412) 

The Parallax View was directed by Alan J. Pakula, who had previously directed Klute, and would go on to direct the superb All the President’s Men in 1976. The Parallax View was based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Loren Singer. The word parallax means “the apparent difference in direction of an object as seen from two different points not on a straight line with the object.” (Thanks Merriam-Webster’s phone app!) Parallax basically means how things change, or appear to change, depending on which angle we look at it from. 

In The Parallax View, Warren Beatty stars as newspaper reporter Joe Frady, who begins investigating suspicious deaths of witnesses to the assassination of a Senator, and ends up discovering a shadowy company, the Parallax Corporation, that recruits potential assassins. The Parallax View is an excellent film, and it reflects very well the troubled tenor of the time in which it was made. Released on June 14, 1974, less than two months before Richard Nixon resigned, The Parallax View was released into an America that had suffered from many traumas during the previous eleven years. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King had shocked the country. During the same period, it became obvious during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that the United States government was systematically lying to the country. People’s trust in institutions was shattered. The Parallax View combines both of these threads, as the mysterious Parallax Corporation trains future assassins to kill whoever it views as enemies, and the government is shown lying to the American people through the commissions that investigate the assassinations in the movie. The Parallax View was a perfect movie for the paranoid atmosphere of 1974. 

The title is very clever, as by changing the way we look at Joe Frady, the newspaper reporter that Warren Beatty plays, we can see him as either a potential assassin or a hero. Ultimately, Frady is killed by the Parallax Corporation and framed as the lone assassin of Senator George Hammond. He’s shown in the movie to be something of a loner, a misfit. It’s not too much of a stretch for him to apply to the Parallax Corporation and pretend to be an anti-social loner. By looking at him one way, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the government commission does at the end of the movie, “He was dangerous.” As viewers of the movie, we know the truth, which is that Frady was not an assassin, so we can say, “He was not dangerous.” If you look at Frady’s life assuming that he was the killer of Senator Hammond, you’ll see all the red flags and disregard anything that doesn’t fit the theory that he was a killer. You’ll see him through the lens of a killer. But if you look at Frady’s life as we saw it in the movie, you’ll come to the conclusion that he wasn’t a killer, and see him as a hero who prevented the bombing of an airplane. Just as the parallax view changes how we see objects relative to one another, how we see Joe Frady changes as we view him through different lenses. 

Warren Beatty gives an excellent performance in The Parallax View, and it shows what he was capable of when given a good script and a good director to work with. It sounds as though Beatty and Pakula got along well together, and it’s too bad they didn’t collaborate again. Craig Baxley, Beatty’s stunt double on The Parallax View said, “I’d be very surprised if any director that worked with Warren on a film wouldn’t say that Warren was as responsible for that film as that director was. Warren was a true collaborator and he did it in such a way that it was such a positive experience.” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.412)

The supporting cast of The Parallax View is excellent, as Hume Cronyn, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels, and Walter McGinn all give terrific performances. Look for Kenneth Mars, best known as Franz Liebkind, the Nazi playwright who is the author of Springtime for Hitler in Mel Brooks’ The Producers as the retired FBI agent who meets Frady at the park, where they ride a kiddie train.

I watched The Parallax View right after watching Mickey One, and it’s amazing to see the difference in Beatty’s acting between 1965 and 1974. He has so much more confidence in The Parallax View, and he delivers a much better performance. Gone are all the little method mannerisms, the James Dean tics. Beatty seems to finally trust himself as an actor. 

Odd Warren Beatty fact: His character’s name is Joe Frady, which is just one letter different from the character he played in The Only Game in Town, Joe Grady. Beatty also played characters named Joe in Dollars, and Heaven Can Wait. He’s played characters with a first name starting with the letter J in 7 of his 22 movies.

The opening credits are very unusual, in that Beatty is the only credited actor. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in a movie that isn’t just a one-person show. 

The Parallax View is a terrific conspiracy thriller, and it’s a classic example of great 1970’s moviemaking. The cinematography is by Gordon Willis, who worked on all three Godfather movies, plus Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan. There are many images from The Parallax View that will stick with you long after the movie is over.

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