Beatty Goes Bonkers

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, May 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

Beatty Goes Bonkers


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


The screen legend's a rapper. If that's not crazy enough, he's trying to sell a movie that matters. Meet 'Bulworth.'

With CARLA POWER and ALLISON SAMUELS0

BOUNDING UP THE LONG flight of stairs at Moomba, New York's downtown clubOf the moment, Warren Beatty is living his contradictions. One of his old flames, Madonna, is on the way over, as well as Leonardo DiCaprio, looking for some career advice. But friendly chats with other stars won't bring to Beatty's eyes the same ironic twinkle as the man waiting at the top of the stairs.

"Ron Perelman's here," Beatty explains. "Old friend. Not exactly a communist." Over a drink, the billionaire tells the movie star he can't wait to see "Bulworth," the subversive, hilarious and important new Molotov cocktail that Beatty is set to explode at 1,800 theaters by Memorial Day. Perelman doesn't know what he's in for. The film eviscerates plutocrats like him, not to mention complacent blacks, violent white cops, craven political operatives, schlocky Jewish movie moguls, corporate lackey reporters, vile insurance companies and gluttonous media conglomerates like the one owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose studio Beatty essentially tricked into making the movie.

Later that late April night, another well-wisher thanks Beatty for "everything you've done for the Democratic Party," referring to his years of campaigning for the Kennedys, George McGovern, Gary Hart and many others. The fan is unaware of everything Beatty does to the party (especially Clinton Democrats) in the film, which represents the breaching of a long relationship with elective politics. But Beatty still moves easily in that world. The following weekend, making the rounds in Washington, he warmly greets Henry Kissinger, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, John McLaughlin and the other big wheels of the American political-media-industrial complex. After they see "Bulworth," of course, many powerful people will tell Beatty they loved it. They're either lying or perversely pleased by the celluloid shiv he has shoved deep into the heart of their status quo.

"Bulworth" is Beatty's baby, and he says it's really made for the three babies he produced with his wife, Annette Bening, 6-year-old Kathlyn, 3-year-oldBen and 1-year-old Isabel. "I wanted to do something that would mean something to them in the future," he says. The language is so vulgar and the racial politics so raw that Beatty, now 61, will be well into his 70s before his kids are old enough to hear their father's message about the disparities of wealth and opportunity in American life. Those Disparities--and the way politicians have sold out to big-money interests-are "the real obscenities," he says, both on screen and off.

Beatty has always been a risk-taker. As the old studio system collapsed in the late 1960s, he revived the idea of actor as auteur, with his own money on the line. But "Bulworth," a story about a senator who goes honkers and ends up in hip-hop clothes wooing a black girl less than half his age (Halle Berry), is a gamble of a different magnitude. Instead of trying to restore some of his luster as a screen icon, Beatty exposes himself as never before - to ridicule, racial recriminations and the all-too-real odds of failure at the box office. The man about whom Carly Simon supposedly wrote "You're So Vain" admits his age and spends most of the film in a shirt soiled with cocktail sauce. And he raps. About campaign-finance reform.

The film is already an event in media circles. Norman Mailer calls his friend's film a "transcendent farce-the funniest movie I've seen in 10 years." More telling will be the reaction of blacks. Cornel West of Harvard says, "Brother Warren has done something courageous." Michael Eric Dyson, who has just published a book about gangsta rap, says he was tremendously impressed with the film's feel for hip-hop culture. But there will be plenty of dissent. A few black actors and directors are already saying privately that it's presumptuous and even stereotypical. …

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