I never really thought about Warren Beatty as a great movie maker. My introduction to him as a kid was the movie Heaven Can Wait, a comedy that cemented in my mind a particular image of the famous actor. It was a view that later viewings of his older work, like Shampoo, or Bugsy, or even the seminal Bonnie and Clyde, which made Beatty a bona fide star, couldn’t shake. So I was more than pleasantly surprised last night to see him make me believe in the character of John Reed, a journalist, Communist sympathizer and political activist from the early twentieth century whose life is examined in the movie Reds.
When I was younger I was an avid reader of movie reviews, partly because I hated wasting money on movie tickets for terrible films. But channels like HBO, Showtime and Cinemax, which charge a flat monthly fee to view a variety of dramas, comedies, and period pieces , have made it fairly easily to bail out of a bad movie soon after the beginning if it doesn’t float your boat. Which is where I was around midnight last night when I saw that Reds was about to air. I’d heard so many bad things about the production back when the film originally came out, from criticism of the movie’s length to the autocratic way Beatty supposedly battled the studio over the details, that it never made my list of “must see” releases.
I’d never read more than a few sentences about Reed prior to watching the movie, but by the end of the three and a half hour version of the biopic, I felt as if in some ways I had watched his entire life. There is something about a movie, when the director isn’t in a rush to get to the end, that adds a sense of grandeur to the individual scenes. Sitting in the dark in a basement in Georgia as I watched the film, there were moments when I felt Beatty had levitated my body to the Russian capital. I had a similar feeling during Martin Scorcese’s Casino, another three hour plus film that followed the rise and fall of a controversial organized crime figure.
The movie wasn’t perfect. Beatty as an actor is a lot like Paul Newman, who seemed to bring the same mannerisms and sense of outrage to every role he played, so it took awhile to stop seeing Beatty and start seeing the character. Jack Nicholson seemed all wrong for the part of Eugene O’Neill, playing him as if he were Ernest Hemingway instead of the famed playwright. Diane Keaton didn’t feel quite right as Louise Bryant, Reed’s lover and later his wife, not until the second half of the film. And since Reed was a writer, I probably was so taken with the idea of a writer as the central figure in the story that I was more forgiving than usual to other aspects of the performances.
But its length allowed the director’s indulgences with extended monologues and full-fledged protest speeches to help more fully develop the narrative. The most poignant parts of the movie were the testimonial vignettes interspersed throughout of the elderly people who actually knew Reed and Bryant when they were alive. Until I read a few of the old reviews from the '80's afterwards, I had no idea that these were the some of the most celebrated literati of the time, including one of my favorite authors, Mr. Henry Miller himself, who remained as ebullient and profane in old age as he had been in his youth.The unscripted commentary of these witnesses fleshed out the historical timeline in a way that lended an enormous amount of authenticity to the work.
With actor/director/producer Clint Eastwood still cranking out movies, it is hard to say whether or not Beatty will try to top the herculean achievement of Reds. If I were him, I'd call it a day and let this film stand as the monument to my career, warts and all.