Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award, per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.
Warren Beatty has always been reclusive.
His public utterances have been as infrequent as his recent movies. In the past thirty years, there have been only four! Ironically the few he made mirrored his own public image. Reds reflected his liberal politics. Shampoo poked fun at his well-publicized libido, Love Affair was a valentine for his wife Annette Bening, and Rules Don’t Apply, his homage to old Hollywood.
He’s loved them and left them.
That all ended when he made Bugsy. It was his costar Annette Bening who not only tamed him, she married him, and gave him the family he always wanted.
The younger brother of Shirley MacLaine and a promising high school quarterback, he turned down ten football scholarships to follow in his sister’s footsteps, first working as a stagehand at the National Theatre in Washington and eventually moving to New York where he studied with Stella Adler.
He made frequent guest appearances on TV shows and was a semi-regular on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, but it was his performance on Broadway in William Inge’s A Loss of Roses which convinced Elia Kazan to cast him in the lead opposite Natalie Wood in his first movie Splendor in the Grass, for which he won a Golden Globe as New Star of the Year (a discontinued category). Overnight he became a star and has remained one ever since, his name always above the title. No actor in history can boast that distinction.
Not content to be a pretty face – and he was handsome beyond words – he chose anti-hero roles in offbeat movies like Robert Rossen’s Lilith and Arthur Penn’s Mickey One, which earned the disapproval of even discerning critics. But then there were fan favorites like All Fall Down and Promise Her Anything.
Despite a spotty box office record, studios were happy to give him carte blanche, which made Bonnie and Clyde possible, on which he re-teamed with Penn. The film initially struggled for recognition but eventually became the most influential film of the decade and a huge box office hit.
Suddenly everyone wanted a part of him. George Stevens for The Only Game in Town (opposite Elizabeth Taylor), Robert Altman for McCabe and Mrs. Miller (with Julie Christie) Richard Brooks’ for $ (with Goldie Hawn), Alan Pakula for Parallax View, and Mike Nichols disastrously for The Fortune Cookie.
But then he took charge of his career successfully with Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, again with Julie Christie, which he also co-wrote and produced. He followed it with Heaven Can Wait, which he co-directed with Buck Henry, and for which he won Golden Globes as best actor and for best motion picture comedy (producer). The next few years he devoted himself to his major opus, Reds, an ambitious historical epic based on the life of an American communist which only Paramount could bankroll. After numerous reshoots and reedits, the film came in well above budget, and although it received mixed reviews it ended up with 12 Oscar nominations winning three for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography. Beatty also won the Golden Globe as Best Director.
Despite the acclamation, Beatty did not appear in a movie for five years until Ishtar which he made as a favor for his Reds collaborator Elaine May. Despite support from his costar Dustin Hoffman it was an unmitigated failure, following which he again took an extended break. But this time he came back in triumph. Dick Tracy was a critical and box office hit and it received numerous Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, its most notable win a Best Song Oscar for Stephen Sondheim, his only film win.
Three years later he had another hit with Barry Levinson’s Bugsy, which won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama and changed his life. He married his costar and he’s been a dedicated family man ever since. As a valentine to his wife, he produced and starred in Love Affair, a remake of the Irene Dunne - Charles Boyer classic, which turned out to be his least credible work. He made a comeback with a pungent political satire Bulworth, which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. Again, it received numerous Oscar and Golden Globe nominations including ones for Best Picture and Best Actor from the HFPA.
But his follow up movie Town & Country suggested he had run out of steam and he resigned himself to bringing up his three children.
Fifteen years later – in the interim he was honored with a Cecil B. deMille Lifetime Achievement Award – he came back with his most underrated work, Rules Don't Apply, which deserves a second evaluation.
When asked at an HFPA press conference, how he accounts for his longevity, he had a great answer. “I’ve lasted a long time because I didn’t do a lot of acting gigs. I didn’t take all the pictures I was offered. As a result, I managed to stay interested. Also, I started producing movies before actors were doing that, which gave me a little financial security. Actors don’t get a lot of credit for not doing everything that’s sent to them. Some people call that laziness. I don’t. It’s hard to stay interested if you’re just a hired actor and you don’t control everything.”
Would he ever give up acting altogether and just direct? “I don't know, mainly because I don't make a lot of movies. And I like the security of having at least one actor who agrees with me when I direct. But as Cary Grant once said, 'Would I rather go out and trip over cables or would I rather do this other thing?' sometimes the other thing wins out.”
Despite not making many movies, he’s had a magnificent career earning no less than 15 Oscar and 20 Golden Globe nominations. His 4 Golden Globe wins are for Best Actor Comedy in Heaven Can Wait and Best Director for Reds, as well as Best Producer (Motion Picture Drama) for both Bugsy and Reds.
His classic movies? Reds, Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, All Fall Down, Splendor in the Grass. And others too numerous to name.