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