Warren Beatty is legendary for possessing both a politician’s promiscuity and a politician’s wariness of genuine commitment. People are lured into developing projects with him for years at a time until–unable to decide whether to go ahead or not–he stops returning their phone calls. When Beatty does commit, his insecurities present formidable obstacles. It’s said that one director was driven nearly to homicide after being forced to spend six hours lighting each shot (and, allegedly, to employ a technician whose sole job it was to hold a cardboard triangle next to a light so that the star’s jowls would be covered by a shadow).
Professional wishy-washiness has had unhappy consequences for Beatty himself, most recently in Love Affair (1994), the best-forgotten remake of An Affair to Remember–a listless vanity production with the impact of something viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Beatty’s politics might be those of a hipster, but his aesthetics since Shampoo (1975) have been those of a fuddy-duddy.
I recount Beatty’s history in this gossipy way to suggest why his latest movie, Bulworth, has been praised as such a radical departure for its star-director and why, in some ways, it is. A screwball political satire about a senator (played by Beatty) who loses his senses and begins to babble the truth on the stump, the film has a kamikaze comic spirit that’s spectacularly disarming, particularly coming from its hitherto overcautious auteur–not to mention a major studio owned by right-of-Attila Rupert Murdoch. Puffy features on Beatty in various (non-Murdoch) magazines and newspapers have suggested that Fox, which was contractually obligated to make and release Bulworth, has tried to bury the picture, thus ensuring its status as a cause célèbre among pundits who’d love to stick it to Rupert, even if that means enriching his company. (Right on, Warren! Give it to the Man!) And while Wag the Dog and Primary Colors have taken disrespect for American politicians to levels undreamed of since the nose-thumbing days of the counterculture, political satire is still a rare enough bird in this country for a sighting to be cause for joy.
I don’t want to rain too hard on Bulworth’s parade–only drizzle a little. The film is fun, but it’s also thin, repetitive, and intoxicated with its own outrageousness, and it’s as familiar in its leftist-paranoid way as an Oliver Stone picture. Beatty doesn’t spend much time setting up the premise–or making it psychologically plausible–and the opening plays like choppy notes for what follows: Sen. Bulworth, a California Democrat up for re-election, is weary of the mealy-mouthed speeches and fund raising. Sleepless and depressed and in a loveless marriage, he takes out a contract on his own life.
B eing aware of his imminent assassination makes Bulworth politically reckless. Before an African-American congregation in South Central Los Angeles, he discards his feel-good paean to the new millennium and tells his stunned audience that he hasn’t returned to their neighborhood since the riots because the photo op has passed and that no Democrat will ever pay attention to them because they don’t give any money to campaigns. Charged up by the rhythms of the crowd, his newfound candor, and the sight of a dishy, dreadlocked young woman (Halle Berry), Bulworth embarks on a hallucinatory odyssey that includes a stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken; a fund-raiser at a mogul’s mansion, at which he lectures the appalled “big Jews” on their greed and the lousiness of their movies; and a visit to the bowels of the inner city, where he placates gun-toting black juveniles by buying them ice cream and standing up to the white cops who stop to harass them. Along the way, he dons hip-hop garb and employs rabidly populist raps to say the sort of things that … well, you just don’t say if you want people (and PACs) to give you money to run for office. This being a satire, Bulworth’s campaign is reborn–and suddenly he’s not so eager to be shot.
T he years of Clinton double talk have primed us all for Bulworth, but Beatty is peddling his own less flagrant brand of bull. He has used this template in the past. The actor is enamored with martyrdom–with the fantasy of reclaiming his potency, seducing the unseducible, and getting blown away at the height of his prowess by an intolerant society. Variations can be found in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Parallax View (1974), Reds (1981), and Bugsy (1991), but the real precursor to Bulworth is Heaven Can Wait (1978), in which the soul of a young buck enters the body of a square old white guy, who wins over skeptics and then is cruelly cut down. This time, the square old white guy becomes the White Negro and a champion for the homies, who stare at him in amazement and nod their heads as if to say: “Yes, this man is a brother. This man gets it.” The fantasy comes within an inch of seeming pathetic, but Beatty (who co-wrote the script with Jeremy Pikser) is savvy enough to give Bulworth a coked-up campaign manager (the brilliant Oliver Platt) whose jittery attempts at black slang throw the senator’s more soulful conversion into relief. Bulworth might be white, but at heart he’s supposed to be a real nigger. The movie’s satirical vision never extends to its hero.
Beatty pounds us over and over with his one joke and with slapsticky cuts to Bulworth’s would-be assassin, until the movie arrives at a bad, pretentiously mystical ending. What’s striking, though, is how superbly he maintains the movie’s comic momentum even when he runs out of ideas. The normally tentative filmmaker clearly draws strength from his character’s go-for-broke mindset. His camera becomes increasingly energized, and Bulworth’s gung-ho tastelessness takes on an exhilarating life of its own. “Everybody’s gotta fuck everybody until we’re all the same color!” he rants. Beatty might be making up for Reds, where, out of fear of alienating his Reagan-era audience, he kept John Reed’s Communist ideology under wraps.
Watching Bulworth, you can see what turns Beatty on about campaigning. You get a glimpse of the star who taught Gary Hart to talk politics out of one side of his mouth and pick up babes out of the other. (Beatty was to politicians what Keith Richards was to rock stars–those who tried to imitate him ended up OD’ing.) Beatty’s glee in seducing us with language overrides the movie’s shaky construction and embarrassing hero worship. If you didn’t know better–and I hope you do!--you’d be tempted to give him your vote.