Thursday, January 06, 2011

Book review – “Star” by Peter Biskind

Biskind leapt to international prominence with ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, a terrifically entertaining combination of scholarship and gossip about Hollywood of the late 60s and 70s. ‘Down and Dirty Pictures’ wasn’t as good, partly because the personalities he was writing about weren’t as interesting as in the earlier book, partly because he became too obsessed with Harvey Weinstein and what Ethan Hawke thought about it all. This bio of Warren Beatty sees him return to the period of ‘Easy Riders’ – indeed, a lot of the material will be familiar from that book, particularly the making of Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo.

This was a half-successful book. Biskind writes in a lively, gossipy style that is very easy to read, Beatty certainly deserves a biography, and a real three-dimensional picture of the man emerges here: compulsive about everything (women, retakes, phone calls – its why he avoids alcohol and drugs, he wouldn’t be able to trust himself around them); secretive; seductive with women and men, particularly studio executives (far more attracted to Beatty than the general public, who’ve only liked him in a couple of movies); very intelligent; very much a wanker.

Few people have managed to stay a star as long as Beatty and be in as many flops as him: a splash debut in Splendor in the Grass was followed by All Fall Down, The Roman Spring of Miss Stone, Kaleidescope, Mickey One, Lilith, Promise Her Anything, etc. Then along came Bonnie and Clyde which – even allowing for the fact that makers of hit films tend to hype the struggle involved in getting that film made – was a genuine triumph for it’s star producer. Not only did he manage to extract money from Warners, get a director despite great opposition, have the script re-worked, etc, he got the film re-released and helped turn it into a phenomenon. After that, who could blame Beatty for being convinced he knew The Secret?

He certainly didn’t know the secret when it came to picking popular vehicles as an actor, turning down Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice, The Way We Were and The Great Gatsby, in favour of The Only Game in Town, Dollars, The Fortune, McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Parallax View (the last two are actually among the best films Beatty ever made, but both flopped). But then he produced again, with Shampoo, and his stock shot up – and went further after Heaven Can Wait. Which, despite Biskind’s claim for it, is just a stock fish out of water comedy. Then there was Reds, which I’ve never seen but I’ll take people’s word for it that it’s a good movie – although Biskind’s account of making it will leave you exhausted (it goes on and on).

Beatty took a few years off, then came back with Ishtar. I was into movies by then and I remember the name Warren Beatty meant nothing to kids my age; the film was a big flop, and even though it isn’t that bad, part of the reason was Beatty. He was too old to be funny. He came back commercially with Dick Tracy, but honestly any star could have played that role. Then there was Bugsy, which was good, Love Affair, which wasn’t, Bullworth, which Biskind seems to think is a gusty satire instead of the half-baked whine it is (people on the left love it when their heroes get assassinated, it gives them this great excuse to fail), then Town and Country, which killed his career as a leading man and probably a producer, too – he was offered Kill Bill, which could have brought him back, but he turned it down.

My admiration for Beatty grew less and less as the book went on. For all his undoubted intelligence and skill as a producer, he tends to give the same performance as an actor – hesitant, a bit shy, stumbling over words – and his presence on movies became more and more destructive. For all his “gee, it isn’t my fault”, disaster seemed to follow him around. Yes, he made a couple of great films and banged a lot of hot chicks, but he made a lot of stinkers too.

Biskind makes some odd choices in this book. He can be overly lip-smacking (did we really need to know Jane Fonda had an excellent reputation for giving head? I mean, I did find it interesting, but it was a bit off). He skips pretty much all about Beatty growing up and his family, etc, starting with his romance with Joan Collins – now, the growing up stuff is often the most boring bits of a bio, but the craft requires you go into it more than in a cursory way. He devotes pages to things like setting up the deal for Shampoo and bagging Pauline Kael and Robert Towne, but doesn't touch on Beatty's kid's sexual identity – it’s a very long book. Interesting, but flawed and obsessed with sex – like Beatty himself, really.

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