Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind (2010)

Paperback cover of Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, 2010.

Author Peter Biskind.

Actor. Writer. Producer. Director. Sex symbol. Family man. Warren Beatty is all of these things and more, as Peter Biskind shows in his 2010 biography of Beatty, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America. Biskind examines the full scope of Beatty’s life and career, and Star features interviews with numerous people who know Beatty or have worked with him. Biskind is obviously an admirer of Beatty’s talent, but he doesn’t turn a blind eye to Beatty’s faults.

Star is not an authorized biography of Beatty, but Biskind was able to interview Beatty for the book. In the introduction Biskind spells out his relationship with Beatty, and one of the ground rules that Biskind set out for himself was that he would not dig into Beatty’s personal life during his marriage to Annette Bening. I can understand Biskind setting this rule, as he knew that he needed to keep his access to Beatty. But it weakens the book, because that’s the part of Beatty’s story that’s missing. How is it that Hollywood’s most famous ladies’ man for thirty years suddenly became a steady and stable family man? That’s a very interesting change, and I wish there was more about it in the book. 

Jeremy Pikser, who wrote the screenplay for Bulworth with Beatty, gave his own theory as to how Beatty went from bachelor to family man: “I don’t think there was a great sea change in Warren, other than it was time. He never gave up the idea of having a family, and being a movie star he was able to delay that much longer than a normal person could. If somebody said to me, ‘You can fuck as many beautiful women you want until the age of fifty, and then you can get a beautiful thirty-year-old woman to marry you, and have children with you’- who’s gonna turn that down? Annette was the perfect person, with a strong family background of her own, who was relatively stable, not a nut job, and a good actress.” (p.463)

If you want dirt on Beatty’s serial womanizing before he met Bening, you’ll get plenty on that in Star. Well known for his many high profile relationships, Beatty dated actresses Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Leslie Caron, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, and Isabelle Adjani. He also had relationships with singers Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, and Madonna. 

Perhaps the most ridiculous paragraph in the book is the one in which Biskind attempts to calculate how many women Warren Beatty has slept with. There’s a quote from Beatty in which he supposedly said he couldn’t go to sleep without having sex. Biskind takes Beatty literally, and so he arrives at the figure of 12,775 women. (p.160) Contrary to what Biskind says in the book, that figure does not account for time that Beatty was in a relationship and having sex with the same woman night after night. Biskind simply took 35 years, from 1956 until Beatty met Annette Bening in 1991, and multiplied 35 times 365 days a year. I find it pretty unlikely that Beatty actually slept with a different woman every single night for 35 years. That would tire out anyone. 

Beatty’s reputation as a ladies’ man, and the attending attention his love life has received from the press, has threatened to overshadow his reputation as an actor and a filmmaker. It’s ironic that Beatty’s private life has drawn such attention, because Beatty actually is a very private man, who only gives interviews with great reluctance, and goes to great lengths to avoid actually saying anything in those interviews. But if Beatty didn’t want so much attention to be focused on his private life, he shouldn’t have dated so many famous actresses. 

One of the best stories in the book comes from Dustin Hoffman, who co-starred with Beatty in the ill-fated 1987 comedy Ishtar. Hoffman and Beatty were on location in Morocco, and Hoffman noticed that Beatty’s attention suddenly drifted to a woman who was walking on a sand dune hundreds of yards away. Hoffman asked Beatty, “Theoretically, is there any woman on the planet that you would not fuck? If you had the chance?”
“That’s an interesting question…Is there any woman that I wouldn’t fuck? No, there isn’t.”
“Theoretically, you would fuck any and every woman…”
“You’re serious.”
“Because…you never know.”
Hoffman said, “I thought that was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard a man say, because he was talking about spirits uniting.” (p.357-8) It’s a great anecdote that goes a long way towards explaining the mindset of Warren Beatty. Why sleep with another woman when you've slept with so many already? Because you never know, the next one might be the perfect one. Why shoot another take after you've shot 25 or 30 takes? Because you never know, the next one might be the perfect one.

Beatty is well-known for being a perfectionist on the set of his movies, a trait that can drive some people nuts. Buck Henry, who co-directed Heaven Can Wait with Beatty, had this to say about working with him: “Except for actors, everybody {who works with him} ends up so bitter that they have a skewed vision of what actually takes place, and you never can quite piece it together.” (p.234-5) Biskind has interviewed many people who have worked with Beatty on various movies, and they offer valuable insights into Beatty’s working habits and his complicated personality. However, as Buck Henry’s quote above shows, their stories need to be taken with a grain of salt. There are a lot of stories from people who have worked with Beatty who basically say, “He’s a perfectionist, he’s annoying,” and eventually it becomes quite repetitive. 

 Beatty’s chronic indecisiveness and his perfectionism have hampered his ability to finish film projects, and Beatty’s filmography is quite small. Beatty has made just 22 movies since his screen debut in 1961. Fortunately for Beatty, among those 22 movies are some truly great ones, like Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, and Bugsy. Beatty has long been a favorite at the Academy Awards, and he is the only person to be nominated for four Oscars for a single film more than once, for his films Heaven Can Wait and Reds. Beatty won the Oscar Best Director for Reds in 1981. 

Biskind has a lot of material in his book on Beatty’s successes like Heaven Can Wait and Reds, and also a lot on Beatty’s disasters like Ishtar, Love Affair, and 2001’s Town and Country, which remains Beatty’s most recent movie. (Beatty has apparently finished filming his long-gestating movie about Howard Hughes, but there’s no release date yet.) If you’re looking for stories about Warren Beatty being a perfectionist, there are many of those in this book. 

Star is an excellent book, and it will probably stand as the definitive biography of Warren Beatty, unless a future biographer gains Beatty’s full cooperation and access to his personal archives.

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