Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Star, by Peter Biskind

Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Hardcover, $30.00.

Peter Biskind’s plump new book about the life, loves and career of Warren Beatty, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (Simon & Schuster, 2010, 627 pgs., $30.00) has come up with a pretty good reason to dish dirt about all the famous feminine conquests that have made this actor-writer-director-producer-would-be-politician so sought after, envied and infamous: according to Biskind, Beatty’s chasing after pussy so constantly (selecting for public consumption mostly chic, acclaimed, Oscar-nominated beauties) meant that a lot of his luscious lovers (Julie Christie, Leslie Caron, Diane Keaton, not in that order) naturally found themselves in the compromising position of quarrelling with him on the sets of his films, which of course shaped what they became. Without that extraordinary success between the sheets, Biskind sort of argues, pictures like Altman’s rather overrated McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Beatty’s Hal Ashby masterpiece Shampoo (1975) — which turns frantic Don Juanism into a comment about something or other . . . political and class complacency, the way people use relationships as social coin, whatever — would never have been made, leaving ’70s cinema, about which Biskind wrote with such tacky fun in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, much the poorer.

Biskind combines a sharp critical eye for what makes the good and the bad in movies with a hack biographer’s casual attitude toward his medium and the English language, and tops it off with a gossip columnist’s sense of the sordid. His amazing dialogue is always deliciously, salaciously off-color, though his attributions (the “he saids” and “she saids”) used to suture the stuff into his banal expository prose are utterly graceless. In Biskind you won’t find the cool intellectualism of Richard Brody’s recent biography of Godard, Everything is Cinema, or anything as deeply involving as David Weddle’s tome on Peckinpah, If They move . . . Kill ‘Em, or the elegance of Maria Riva’s Marlene Dietrich book, or the formal delicacy of Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles. No sir. Biskind’s book is more like a good pizza with extra cheese. You know it’s going to clog up your arteries, but it just tastes so damn good.

Hence you don’t come away from Star thinking you understand the inner workings of a great artist or even much about Biskind’s own pithy stance toward the freedoms of the New Hollywood. What you feel is that the author is basically confirming your worst/best suspicions about how pampered celebrities really live and what they actually think and say when nobody’s recording them. The smooth politesse one sees on display in interviews with Charlie Rose are utterly shorn away: Biskind gives us stars cussing, fucking, using drugs, wallowing in self-pity, backbiting, and acting like phonies while doling out heaps of self-serving gossip — the whole Proustian bit. What stays with you from Star is not Beatty’s vision (according to Biskind, Beatty never really saw fit to express any vision in terms other than a kind of unexplained perfectionism — actors were apparently forced to do endless takes of things like pouring coffee), but all the terrible squabbling in film after film. Or Beatty’s amusing yet professionally justified vanity: Biskind has him carefully attending to his dark eyelashes before going on camera, or doing dumbbell curls so his muscles will pop out in love scenes or sitting around with cucumbers on his eyes half the day holding up production because he felt his face looked less puffy in the afternoon. Bizarrely, Biskind says, Beatty apparently declined to play what became Burt Reynolds’ career-rejuvenating role in P. T. Anderson’s epic about the world of porn, Boogie Nights (1997), because he wanted, near age sixty, the part that went to Mark Wahlberg, Dirk Diggler. Over and over again Biskind quotes on-set witnesses watching as women of all types — thin, fat, occasionally mustachioed — lined up outside the pretty actor’s trailer in order to succumb to his glamorous charms. Once asked if there were a single woman on earth he wouldn’t have sex with, Beatty supposedly thought about it carefully and said, nope, because you never know where you might find something real. Isn’t that sweet? It was also kind of Beatty to ask one of the technicians on one of his films if he would mind terribly his sleeping with the technician’s girlfriend: wisely the technician told Beatty this was up to the girlfriend.

Marriages break up in the wake of Beatty’s libido, who is shown trying to control everybody around him: women, directors, producers, and especially writers, such as Buck Henry or Robert Towne. Towne (Bonnie and Clyde, China Town, The Parallax View, Heaven Can Wait, Mission Impossible) trafficked on Beatty’s name, borrowed money from him, and then bitched royally about his being used to doctor scripts and come up with cinematic ideas that the actor then took credit for. Beatty also had liberal political aspirations. Hung out with and advised the ill-fated Gary Hart. It’s impossible not to wonder now how exciting it might have been to have this matinee idol do to the country what he had so expertly done to so very, very many women — certainly it would have been a lot more fun than what Reagan did to it.

But alas, even the mighty fall, and so finally he settled down with the incomparable Annette Benning, whom he met and wooed on the set of the sleek if dramatically pale Bugsy (1991), after which he proceeded to have children and assert his family values. Surely it was Madonna who did this to him; doubtless she has had that effect on many men.

Artistically though, what we learn about the actor is mostly negative. While he wanted to do interesting things, he didn’t want to be too arty about it. None of Biskind’s version of the filmmaker’s life provokes much in the way of philosophical or aesthetic questioning, except maybe in the more political period of the ’80s when he did Reds, though even here Biskind’s description of the making of that movie is more remarkable for how overbearing, sweary, and supercilious it makes Diane Keaton seem than for any ideas it offered about how best to arrange society. In other words, read this book, close it up, and let out a nice big belch. For Like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Star is really the thinking person’s piece of crap; it’s all trashy gossip but kind of, sort of about culture.