PRO­JECT­ING POWER

In his first film in nearly 20 years, Warren Beatty of­fers a light­hearted take on the Howard Hughes phe­nom­e­non, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

Warren Beatty play­ing Howard Hughes. It’s a tan­talis­ing prospect, and a long-awaited one. Rules Don’t Ap­ply, writ­ten and di­rected by and star­ring Beatty, is his first film in almost 20 years, and he has had a Hughes project in the works for decades.

Yet this isn’t how he would de­scribe the film he has made, Beatty says. He rarely gives in­ter­views, but he is mak­ing an ex­cep­tion for the re­lease of his new movie. Rules Don’t Ap­ply, he sug­gests, is not a Hughes film, although Hughes is a cen­tral char­ac­ter: it’s some­thing quite dif­fer­ent. “What I wanted to do for a long time is to make what I would call a ro­man­tic com­edy of that pe­riod when I went to Hol­ly­wood.”

It’s been almost 60 years since Beatty, 79, went to Los An­ge­les, fresh off a Broad­way hit and a Tony nom­i­na­tion, to star op­po­site Natalie Wood in Elia Kazan’s Splen­dor in the Grass and be­gin a cre­ative life of highs, lows, el­lipses and ab­sences, a ca­reer that con­tin­ues to con­found and di­vert.

Most re­cently, at this year’s Academy Awards, he was caught up in a disas­ter for the ages when he and co-pre­sen­ter Faye Du­n­away were handed the wrong en­ve­lope and end­ing up an­nounc­ing the wrong win­ner of the best pic­ture award. It’s not the way you’d want to be re­mem­bered.

The pair had been cho­sen for the role be­cause this year marks the 50th an­niver­sary of Bon­nie and Clyde, the movie widely re­garded as a sym­bol of the rise of the New Hol­ly­wood in the 1960s; Beatty was its star and pro­ducer, and the film shook up the in­dus­try and launched ca­reers — in­clud­ing the New Yorker ten­ure of one of its sup­port­ers, critic Pauline Kael. But it didn’t win best pic­ture at the 1967 awards. That Os­car went to In the Heat of the Night.

Beatty’s for­tunes at the Academy Awards have been mixed. He has been nom­i­nated for 14 Os­cars in five cat­e­gories, but has won only once, when he took out best di­rec­tor for Reds (1981), the story of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and so­cial­ist ac­tivist John Reed, which he pro­duced, wrote, di­rected and starred in.

He men­tions, at var­i­ous times, his rep­u­ta­tion for not mak­ing movies — for tak­ing years to get around to a film, for tin­ker­ing, pro­cras­ti­nat­ing and pass­ing on pro­jects.

The story he tells in Rules Don’t Ap­ply is not re­ally about the movie busi­ness, he says, de­spite its set­ting. Beatty has a care­ful, cir­cum­lo­cu­tory way of talk­ing, of qual­i­fy­ing what he has to say; for him, the movie is “a ro­mance be­tween th­ese two re­li­gious kids who come to Hol­ly­wood and have the for­tune, or mis­for­tune, how­ever you want to see it, to be work­ing for some­one who rep­re­sents what Howard Hughes rep­re­sents.”

And what does he rep­re­sent for Beatty? “Well, he didn’t have to obey any rules.” This is what Joan Did­ion’s evokes in her essay about the hold that Hughes ex­erts on the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion. She writes: “That we have made a hero out of Howard Hughes tells us some­thing in­ter­est­ing about our­selves ... that the se­cret point of money and power in Amer­ica is nei­ther the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake … but ab­so­lute per­sonal free­dom, mo­bil­ity, pri­vacy. It is the in­stinct which drove Amer­ica to the Pa­cific, all through the 19th cen­tury, the de­sire to be able to find a restau­rant open in case you want a sand­wich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.”

This is what Beatty is get­ting at, as it turns out, although he says he doesn’t want to sound too se­ri­ous about it: this caveat is a reg­u­lar re­frain. Hughes could im­pose rules on other peo­ple, surely? “That is cor­rect,” Beatty says. “And if you want to get on a very se­ri­ous level you would in­voke Marx. And I don’t mean Grou­cho.”

Beatty’s Hughes does not re­sem­ble the tor­mented fig­ure we see at the end of Martin Scors­ese’s biopic The Avi­a­tor, an over­reach­ing and over­heated ac­count of the Hughes enigma.

“I didn’t see him as a ter­ri­bly threat­en­ing fig­ure. I saw him as some­one who had the for­tune and the mis­for­tune of in­her­ited wealth — in­her­ited wealth can be a bur­den. I wanted to make a movie about two young peo­ple who

I DIDN’T SEE HIM AS A TER­RI­BLY THREAT­EN­ING FIG­URE

WARREN BEATTY

come to Hol­ly­wood and are very in­flu­enced by some­one like Howard Hughes. Or let’s put it a dif­fer­ent way, some­one who had the eco­nomic where­withal to do what they did not have the eco­nomic where­withal to do.”

Beatty met many of Hol­ly­wood’s legends, but not Hughes, whose role as a pro­ducer was all but over by the late 1950s. The clos­est Beatty got was in cir­cum­stances that turned out to be the germ of Rules Don’t Ap­ply. It was a few years after he had ar­rived in Hol­ly­wood and he was a well-known fig­ure whose ro­man­tic exploits were the stuff of gos­sip. One day, while vis­it­ing some­one in the Bev­erly Hills Ho­tel, he be­came con­vinced that he was be­ing fol­lowed by peo­ple work­ing for a tabloid news­pa­per, but they turned out to be se­cu­rity for Hughes.

When he dis­cov­ered this, he asked a man­ager at the ho­tel if Hughes was stay­ing in the next suite to the one he was vis­it­ing. “And they said, ‘Well, we don’t know, he has eight suites. Con­fi­den­tially, he also has five bun­ga­lows.’

“And I thought, eight suites and five bun­ga­lows at the Bev­erly Hills Ho­tel. Some­where, there is a com­edy.”

Rules Don’t Ap­ply takes a few lib­er­ties with dates and the de­tails of Hughes life and ca­reer. Beatty’s Hughes, an elu­sive res­i­dent of the Bev­erly Hills Ho­tel, is phys­i­cally and men­tally frail, but still adept at the art of ma­nip­u­la­tion in in­creas­ingly ab­surd ways. It’s a light­hearted por­trait of frailty, se­crecy and the ar­bi­trary ex­er­cise of power. “His sit­u­a­tion has al­ways struck me on a comedic level — his fears and his at­tempts to con­trol things that re­ally can’t be con­trolled,” Beatty says.

The young cou­ple un­der the sway of Hughes are a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers in his or­bit. Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) has a place at col­lege and a movie con­tract with Hughes (a neb­u­lous oc­cu­pa­tion, at best). Frank Forbes (Alden Ehren­re­ich) is a driver chauf­feur­ing Hughes’s pro­tegees — young women main­tained on con­tracts for movies that no one seems to be mak­ing.

Both ac­tors have al­ready had his­toric Hol­ly­wood roles in their CVs. Collins (daugh­ter of Phil Collins), who played San­dra Bullock’s daugh­ter in The Blind Side, was Celia Brady, daugh­ter of a movie pro­ducer, in a TV adap­ta­tion of F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s tale of 1930s Tinseltown, The Last Ty­coon. Ehren­re­ich — cast as the young Han Solo in an up­com­ing Star Wars movie — has al­ready made his mark in a movie about 50s Hol­ly­wood, in his hi­lar­i­ous turn as a cow­boy ac­tor cast in a draw­ing room com­edy in the Coen broth­ers’ Hail, Cae­sar!

From left, Alden Ehren­re­ich, Warren Beatty and Martin Sheen in Rules Don’t Ap­ply

Faye Du­n­away and Beatty in the 1967 film Bon­nie and Clyde

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