‘History is a set of lies agreed upon’
‘ What a good set-up for a comedy’.” Spool forward a little over half a century and Beatty, now 80, is in another hotel suite, this time in Claridge’s in London. He’s here to talk about that comedy: called Rules Don’t Apply, it arrives in British cinemas this weekend, 53 years after he first thought of it. Beatty wrote, produced and directed the film, as well as playing Hughes, and while it’s the romantic farce he’d initially imagined, it’s also something less easily definable – an elegy for a bygone world of moviemaking that often itself felt movie-made.
He greets me with a stiff salute and a just-kidding smile, and is unmistakably the same man whose “tousled charm, innocently puckered brow [and] tentatively parted lips” were swooned over by the critic Kenneth Tynan in a 1975 diary entry. More tousled, puckered and tentative now, perhaps – but still very much a presence to be reckoned with.
Beatty has been off our screens for so long that an entire generation knows him best as the quizzically smiling senior who almost-but-didn’t-quite announce this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. (On which, more later.) Before that, he was last seen in 2001 in Town & Country, a romantic comedy only remembered today as a significant box office wreck. The last proper Warren Beatty film – that is, one he directed, produced, starred in and co-wrote – was the madcap political satire Bulworth, way back in 1998.
His absence from the spotlight has been as sustained and absolute as was his one-time command of it. It was Bonnie and Clyde, which he starred in and produced, that in 1967 snuffed out the reign of the studios in a barrage of blood, sex and bullets. After that, Beatty became a kind of one-man studio system – a director, producer, writer and marquee-name star, who just all happened to be the same person.
He’s alone in having twice been nominated for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars for a Best Picture-nominated film: a feat Orson Welles only managed once and Woody Allen once to date. (It happened in 1979, for his Capra-esque comic fantasy Heaven Can Wait, and in 1982, for his radical political epic Reds.) This, it transpires, is why he’s reluctant to sound off about the envelope mix-up in February that led to La La Land being crowned Best Picture for all of 150 seconds – before the award was passed over to the actual winner, Moonlight.
Beatty knew something was up so held back, then looked to his co-presenter and Bonnie and Clyde co-star Faye Dunaway for her view. But she misunderstood and, like a consummate Hollywood pro, smiled and read out what she’d been given.
“There is something comical about it,” he winces. “But the academy has always been very kind to me, so I don’t want to pontificate about it. You know, they’ve always supported … Yeah, you’re probably aware of my …” He stops, sensing trouble. “Well, you say it.” Silence. “Your own illustrious filmmaking career?” I venture.
“Oh, yes!” he says sunnily. Now I know how Faye Dunaway felt.
Beatty’s close encounter with Hughes came three years after his big break in Elia Kazan’s Splendour in the Grass – and three years before Bonnie and Clyde made this self-described “pretty boy” and virtuoso networker a Hollywood player in his own right. He signed a contract to make ke his Howard Hughes film at Warner Bros in the midSeventies, but another other decade passed before efore he broke ground on the script with his then-writing partner Bo Goldman – and two more until he felt ready to cast it. “I couldn’t t avoid it any longer,” he says – as if the film is a professional final reckoning. For his part, Goldman had always seen Rules Don’t Apply as less of a straight Hughes biopic – in the style of, say, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator – than a not-so-thinly veiled film à clef. “Warren Beatty is Howard Hughes,” Goldman said in 2010. “He felt Hughes was the guy who mastered the three Fs – ‘ the film-making, the flying and the f–––ing’, as Warren called it.” Beatty artfully demurs: “I wouldn’t say I identified with Howard H Hughes, but I’m not so suresu at that point Howard Hughes identifie identified with Howard Hughes. Hughes.” He’d rather claim common gr ground with the fil film’s young lovers, c chauffeur Frank F Forbes (Alden E Ehrenreich) and M Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a small-town beauty queen and aspiring actress on the Hughes p payroll. Both a arrive in Los Ang Angeles in 1958, one
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