I don’t think my generation has the proper appreciation of Warren Beatty’s career and contribution to cinema—speaking for myself, he has never been a major figure in my relationship to film, with the landmark Bonnie and Clyde being the notable exception. Given his reputation, he hasn’t been incredibly prolific, with only 32 acting credits and almost complete inactivity following Bulworth in 1998.
Another reason why he may not be properly championed is because his crowning achievement, this week’s film Reds, for one reason or another, has seen its acclaim soften over the decades. The film took home three Academy Awards, including Warren Beatty winning Best Director, besting, among others, Steven Spielberg for Raiders of the Lost Ark—a film ripe with nostalgic love by those who haven’t remembered Reds. Of course, comparing Reds and Raiders of the Lost Ark directly isn’t exactly fair as the intended audiences for each is quite different.
Reds showcases the writer and director’s filmmaking and narrative style that can be seen throughout his career. His camerawork isn’t fancy but the cinematography is beautifully classic with a hazy look. Thematically, politics are important even when the films aren’t overtly political, with Reds obviously among his most political work. Narratively, at the center of most of his films is a sweet romance that harkens back to the classic era of Hollywood. Whether or not Beatty is part of the romance, he is always able to generate great chemistry between the stars.
Watching most of his work for the first time to put together this Filmography was a very fun experience. While I still wouldn’t consider Warren Beatty one of the great American auteurs, seeing his diverse body of work together really helped his pet themes gel.
Shampoo [Hal Ashby, 1975]
Beatty’s first screenwriting credit came in veteran auteur Hal Ashby’s sophomore film, the slapstick sex comedy Shampoo. By 1975, Beatty was already a known commodity as an actor, with Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Parallax View making him one of the major faces of the New Hollywood era and as I previously mentioned, Beatty had extensive work behind the camera as a producer, but a screenwriting credit for someone most notable in front of the camera is always noteworthy. I don’t know the extent of Beatty’s work on Shampoo’s screenplay, though he was co-credited with longtime collaborator Robert Towne, as the film feels so much in line with Ashby’s style. If I wasn’t familiar with Hal Ashby I wouldn’t have known what to expect and probably wouldn’t have had much interest, but Shampoo definitely fits in with his brand of odd, almost indescribable comedic sense. Shampoo is a fairly rambling film, one that doesn’t necessarily feel dialogue heavy despite being all character and situation. That said, there are certainly elements of Beatty here, too, especially the film’s political backdrop that adds an interesting but not intrusive layer to an otherwise non-political sex comedy. As a first script, Shampoo is just fine, but I’d give a lot more of the credit to Ashby’s direction and Beatty’s strong central performance.
Heaven Can Wait 
Warren Beatty made his directorial debut with writer [of The Graduate, among others] and comedian Buck Henry in a pretty simple transition behind the camera. Heaven Can Wait is an adaptation of a popular play of the same name and film remake [of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, not the other Heaven Can Wait, confusingly] that stars Beatty as an NFL quarterback who, after being hit by a car, is prematurely taken by a novice angel [played by Henry] to the afterlife. In order to rectify the mistake, he is given the opportunity to take the body of another poor soul who is in the transition to death. And, of course, hilarity ensues. As a first feature, Beatty doesn’t bring much verve to the filmmaking but Heaven Can Wait is an incredibly enjoyable comedy. Similarly to Shampoo, I’m probably never going to associate the film as being directed by Warren Beatty, instead the film’s sharp screenplay [co-written by Beatty and Elaine May] and an incredible cast of comedic performers like Jack Warden, Charles Grodin, and Beatty’s sweet doofus lead. The film isn’t as bawdy as contemporary comedies like Shampoo, The Bad News Bears, and the like, but it has that carefree 70s quality and complete confidence in its comedy and crazy premise. The film was incredibly popular, the recipient of nine Academy Award nominations and a box office success—a necessity for Beatty to raise money and get distribution for his passion project, a certain 3-hour epic drama about the Russian Revolution and creation of the American Communist political party.
Dick Tracy 
For his first film after the disastrous Ishtar, Beatty may not have had a lot of personal freedom to choose his next project. Perhaps Ishtar kept Beatty aware from making his next true Reds-level passion project but a fun and distinctive genre film turned out to be a fine consolation. Of all his work, Dick Tracy definitely and immediately seems like the outlier. Known for its cartoonish character designs meant to match the popular comic strip noir, the most cynical viewer would point to the film as little more than a cash grab on the coattails of the expressionistic noir comic book film Batman, released the previous year. So, what did Beatty see in Dick Tracy to make his first film in a dozen years, and more importantly, what did he bring to it? Most clearly, Beatty has always been interested in period genre, with Bonnie and Clyde, Reds, and Rules Don’t Apply all recreating the past with a classic style of filmmaking. Dick Tracy is certainly more heightened than those other films, but Beatty plays it with the same dramatic sincerity. Perhaps I’ve just become used to comic book film genre where each new entry has to become the biggest possible film ever made, but Dick Tracy is satisfyingly small, with more attention paid to character and relationships than spectacle. Sure, the film is defined by over-the-top make-up and performance [Al Pacino as baddie Big Boy Caprice is the most Al Pacino possible] and still it is a character like Tess Trueheart [Glenne Headly], the quietest character in the film, who is the most memorable. Warren Beatty's script and direction definitely is a major reason for that.
Love Affair [Glenn Gordon Caron, 1994]
For Beatty’s second screenwriting venture on a film he didn’t direct, he chose to adapt classic romantic melodrama Love Affair for a modern audience. He plays a sensitive ex-quarterback [probably not the same character from Heaven Can Wait though perhaps this is part of a larger Warren Beatty-verse] stuck in a gossip rag relationship who falls in love with a woman during a disastrous vacation—real life wife Annette Bening plays his counterpart. Love Affair’s pacing and construction is the antithesis of Beatty’s first screenplay, a light drama taking its time opposing the scattered hijinks of Shampoo. I haven’t seen Leo McCarey’s 1939 version of the film [that’s something I have to rectify], so I don’t know how much work Beatty put into adapting the story, though it seems like a broad and classic plot that is more interested in character and chemistry. Not surprisingly, as one of Hollywood’s brightest pairs, Beatty and Bening are absolutely stunning together and their comfort with each other propels an otherwise slow plot.
Oh boy, where to start with this movie? If you’re unaware of Bulworth, Beatty plays a Senator from California who on his re-election campaign trial experiences a mental breakdown. He pays a hitman to kill him and begins speaking his mind about race relations, police brutality, campaign finance, the influence of multinational corporations and the like, all topics that are still as important today as they were in 1998. Oh yeah, he also starts freestyle rapping his new platform. Bulworth is a fascinating mix of corny and politically prescient. To say that Beatty gives it his all is an understatement—it is often embarrassingly difficult to see the character spiral out of control while knowing that these actions were made, words were said by an actual human being, let alone one of Beatty’s stature. Stranger still, but to the benefit of the film, there is absolutely no reason given to why the character begins acting this way, no indication of what the man and politician was really like before the film begins. Bulworth is filled with righteous anger over how our political system has completely rotted because of the control of special interests. Coming from a longstanding member of the Democratic party, Beatty’s frustrations are genuine and will likely ring with many people with differing ideological beliefs who share the same frustrations with the system. On the other hand, though, Beatty’s portrayal of a white, wealthy, middle-aged man who takes on African American slang and style is a tough look. Comically, you can see where he is going with it and the political intentions make sense. But there are definitely moments where the aesthetic is pretty rough. Still, when you cut through the appearance and focus on what Beatty is trying to say, Bulworth is one of the writer and director’s crowning achievements. This is definitely a divisive one, though.
Rules Don't Apply 
Nearly two decades following Bulworth, Beatty returned to his classically styled roots for his most recent film, Rules Don’t Apply. Part Howard Hughes biopic, part Hollywood-set romance, the film feels like something made decades ago. The setting, the look, the tone of the romance all are part of Warren Beatty’s oeuvre even if they feel a bit old fashioned today. Rising Hollywood stars Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins star as a young couple who both become employed by the secretive billionaire and their relationship builds nicely over the course of the film—particular elements of the plot keep them from fully consummating their romantic feelings, but this actually works in the romance’s favor as the young leads simmer together on screen. Beatty’s famous presence also plays well into his appearance as Hughes, who needs to be both a mysterious figure but one we completely understand the genius and importance of. His performance is especially understated, working against the showier elements of the character’s crumbling psyche, which works to give him real humanity. Though it was set up with a release to garner awards acclaim, Rules Don’t Apply came and went quickly and without too much buzz. It did find a following among a handful of critics who have sung its praises, though, and hopefully it can build a larger appreciation over time—of course you can say this of Beatty’s masterpiece, Reds, too. If Rules Don’t Apply ends up being Warren Beatty’s final film as a director it would be a fine encapsulation of his work, true to his filmmaking style and interests, even if it isn’t his best or most accomplished film.