Warren Beatty

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Aug. 20 1999 3:30 AM

Warren Beatty

He doesn't really want to be president. He wants to be campaign manager.

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Since Arianna Huffington floated the idea of a Warren Beatty presidential campaign last week, the actor's ambitions have been the summer's most delectable political story. The jokes abound: what Warren would do on the Oval Office carpet, whom President Beatty would hire as his intern, etc. The 62-year-old Beatty has stayed virtually silent, but his friends are encouraging speculation: "Warren has been consulting with Democratic and Reform Party activists," they say. "Warren is taking this very seriously." (Click here for Jacob Weisberg's revelation that Jesse Ventura may be courting Beatty for the Reform Party nomination.) Wife Annette Bening, they report, is enthusiastic.

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The right thinks Beatty is a ridiculous, preening glory hound who would preach limousine-liberal ideas. The left thinks he can illuminate a grand populist vision with pure charisma. Both sides mistakenly assume that because Beatty is an actor, he, like Ronald Reagan, could flatter, seduce, and inspire voters. He charmed the panties off Natalie Wood, Madonna, Faye Dunaway, Julie Christie, Isabelle Adjani, Diane Keaton, et al. Surely he could charm the pants off a few million disaffected Democrats. (And even if the only people who vote for Beatty are women who slept with him, he could make a strong showing in the California primary.)

But Beatty has always been, in the words of film critic David Thomson, "a very uneasy actor." Beatty is too cool and distant to be great on screen. He has made his mark on Hollywood more as a producer and director, and it is this that explains his political ambition. The media snicker at the actor-politician, who presumes to speak on the day's great issues. But consider Beatty as a self-made businessman. Beatty sympathizers such as Huffington rightly ask why Steve Forbes, who inherited his millions, is a serious candidate, while Beatty is a joke. Beatty has shown a ruthless, brilliant talent for manipulating the politics of his industry. In Hollywood, where no one gets his way all the time, Warren Beatty has got his way forever.

In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind chronicles how Beatty parlayed the heartthrob status he'd won from 1961's Splendor in the Grass into a controlling position as a producer. He almost single-handedly brought Bonnie and Clyde to the screen in 1967 and made his fortune off it by negotiating a contract for 40 percent of the gross. In the '70s, he bullied screenwriters and directors into making Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait his way. In 1981, during the height of the Cold War, he persuaded Gulf & Western to pony up $25 million for Reds, a movie sympathetic to communism. A few years later, he got Columbia to spend the then-preposterous figure of $40 million on Ishtar. It flopped, but Beatty walked away unscathed. Most recently, he compelled Rupert Murdoch's 20th Century Fox to put up $35 million for Bulworth and to give him absolute creative control over the film, even though 1) it was a political movie and hence a lousy investment, and 2) it propounded ideas Murdoch detests. There are endless stories about how Beatty charmed or threatened or kneecapped this director or that executive into doing what he wanted.

Beatty brought those same skills to his second career as an activist. Ron Brownstein, who chronicled Beatty's politicking in The Power and the Glitter, notes that Beatty may be the only star in Hollywood history who preferred to participate in politics from behind the scenes. Beatty doesn't need the ego gratification of public politics. He has been famous his entire adult life. In 1972, Beatty gave speeches on George McGovern's behalf, but he disliked the high-profile role. He was an awkward, embarrassed speaker. "He understood why the public is skeptical of a guy who makes $10 million a year talking about the class struggle," Brownstein says.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

But Beatty excels at the backroom nitty-gritty. In 1972, he aided McGovern most by organizing fund-raisers, even persuading Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to reunite for a McGovern benefit. (If that isn't great politics, nothing is.) When he advised Gary Hart in 1984 and 1988, Beatty remained in the shadows, planning media and campaign strategies. "Political pros in that campaign thought he was a positive force," Brownstein says. Of the few public statements Beatty has made about his potential campaign, the most revealing is this: "There has to be someone better [than me]." This is not modesty--Beatty has no modesty. It is his cool and honest pragmatism. He recognizes that he'd be a better operator than candidate.

Though he's supposed to be a liberal icon, Beatty lacks the crystallizing vision of a Reagan. His politics are a muddle. It's not happenstance that he is backed by such an odd assortment of people, ranging from Republican populist Huffington to earnest liberal Bill Moyers. Beatty is not cynical: He desperately believes the political system is broken and needs fixing. He just seems unable to explain how it's broken and how it should be fixed.

In interviews, Beatty repeatedly chokes when asked for specific political ideas. He seems vaguely to believe that there is too much money in politics, corporations are too powerful, welfare reform was wrong, and race is a big problem. He says he wants to conjure up the spirit of Robert F. Kennedy and 1968. Bulworth, the closest thing to a Beatty political platform, is a mess as political science--an incoherent, condescending slop about the evils of lobbyists and the innate decency of black folk.

Bulworth is fabulous on day-to-day campaign tactics. This is Beatty's curse: His political principles tell him to deplore gamesmanship, but gamesmanship may be what he understands best. Similarly, Beatty spends a lot of time savaging Washington corruption, yet he cultivates friendships with folks such as Henry Kissinger, Larry King, and John McLaughlin, Washington incarnate.

B eatty is meticulous, even anal. As an actor, he is famous for demanding take after take till he's sure it's right. (Click to see how his general caution contrasts with his brazen womanizing.) Movie stars can control their images. Beatty can forbid interviews, decline to answer questions, and refuse to appear in public. He didn't speak to reporters from the late '70s till the early '90s.

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