A consummate film artist, Warren Beatty has left his distinctive mark on American film during nearly a half-century of acting, producing, directing and writing. In an era that saw the redefinition of the studio system, the rise of independents and the dawning of the digital age, Warren Beatty has created a body of work that transcends trends and remains timeless.
His screen acting career began with a love story. The movie was SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS and Beatty, as tortured high school jock Bud Stamper, made an indelible impression in his film acting debut. “He produced a heat haze atmosphere of erotic frustration,” remembers journalist David Thomson. “No film had been so infused with the adolescent’s urgency about sex. You came out of it in a stupor of rapture and guilt. With one film, Beatty was established as a male sex symbol.” Co-star Natalie Wood may have walked away with an Academy Award nomination for her role as Deanie, but Beatty won the role of movie star at the tender age of 24 — a role he has worn with panache ever since.
“He was awkward in a way that was attractive,” said director Elia Kazan who took a chance on the actor on the recommendation of writer William Inge. “He was very, very ambitious. He had a lot of hunger, as all the stars do when they are young.”
From the beginning, the handsome Virginia-born son of educators had an appetite to master the complexities of making movies. He learned by studying directors like Kazan, Arthur Penn, Alan J. Pakula and Hal Ashby, collaborators on his early films and by absorbing lessons from legendary producers like Sam Goldwyn, Sam Spiegel and mentor Charles K. Feldman. “Once I had acted in my first movie and it was successful,” explained Beatty on receiving the Producers Guild of America’s Career Milestone Award in 2004, “it seemed apparent to me that the enjoyment would be in putting a movie together.”
He brought enormous drive and intelligence to the task of putting together that first movie. The result, BONNIE AND CLYDE, is a landmark, marking the advent of an iconoclastic, independent American cinema. Here was a gangster picture that mixed romance, adventure, glamour, comedy and violence in a way never before seen. The critics may not have known what to do with it, but the audiences knew. They went wild. The stories about the making of BONNIE AND CLYDE are Hollywood lore and the Beatty producing style is legendary. Known for his painstaking attention to detail and tireless work ethic, Beatty bought the rights to the story after Francois Truffaut passed. Beatty directed rewrites, negotiated with Jack Warner, raised the financing, collaborated with director Arthur Penn to select a cast and crew remarkable for its energy and excellence, starred in it and then fought to have the movie re-released.
“They went into the desert and created a masterpiece,” summed up Roger Ebert in his 1967 review. Its influence was felt in fashion, music and pop culture around the world — and as a filmmaking phenomenon it is still being analyzed today. Twice it has been honored by AFI among the 100 greatest American films of all time.
With the power that accrued from that success, Beatty went on to choose his projects with care, enriching his skills as an actor and becoming a writer and director in the process. His memorable roles have ranged from the reluctant western hero in Robert Altman’s McCABE & MRS. MILLER to a US Senator who has a revelation and raps the truth in BULWORTH. In his screenplays he has shaped characters like hairdresser George Roundy in SHAMPOO and journalist John Reed in REDS, who charm the audience while illuminating deeper political currents in society — as well as lighter-than-air quarterback Joe Pendleton in HEAVEN CAN WAIT.
If his reputation as a director is that of a perfectionist, his collaborators have nothing but praise — for his taste, his devotion to craft and the energy that surrounds his productions. “He gets the best people and he lets them do what they do,” explains longtime collaborator production designer Richard Sylbert.
Beatty has been nominated 15 times for an Academy Award, over four categories and six films. He won Best Director for REDS and has been recognized by the Academy with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for “a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”
Alongside his motion picture career, Beatty has devoted prodigious energy to politics — a tradition in his Virginia family and a personal passion. Active in the Democratic Party since the late sixties when he campaigned for Robert Kennedy, Beatty spent a year working on George McGovern’s presidential race, helping to transform the link between Hollywood and Washington. He has defied box office pressures and woven political themes into his work — with the epic story of the Russian Revolution in REDS and in the contemporary political satire BULWORTH.
Warren Beatty helped reshape Hollywood when it was time for a change. With his restless energy, he stretched the definition of actor to become one of the first multi-hyphenates: a magnetic movie star, a brilliant producer, a driven director and a writer who aspires to reflect the times in which we live.
And finally, after all that hard work, he found an even greater spotlight as husband to Annette Bening and a proud father of four.
AFI salutes Warren Beatty — visionary film artist and American original.