Interview: Warren Beatty

When you're interviewing the last movie star, it's not what he says that matters but how he doesn't say it

Warren Beatty in 1992 Credit: Ron Galella/WireImage

There are nights I dream of him, and it is still horrible. We are sitting there, and he says nothing. He begins to say something, and then he stops. He pauses that pause of his: the Pause! Like eternity is the Pause. I feel my hair fall out in clumps. I feel my teeth rot. At once I have aged — what? — forty, fifty years. Waiting for him to finish. To say something. But what can he say? We have both forgotten the question. He tries to respond, anyway. Blinking at me, smiling, shrugging, ageless in hesitation. There is no sound, nothing, just him, knowing what he knows and keeping it to himself. Somewhere a clock ticks as the Pause expands....

Then I awaken and remember that it was all true — it really happened! — except for the hair-and-teeth part, that is. I remember those Pauses the way other men remember mortar fire. And yet, because survival has a way of breeding nostalgia, I often find myself missing the Reticent One.

Warren Beatty is the Reticent One. It is art, the way he withholds! To this day, I remember everything he never told me. Many people read our published conversations and summarily proclaimed Warren Beatty to be the ultimate Impossible Interview. I pity those people. They missed everything. They were ill equipped to marvel at his wry ellipses. They could not grasp the eloquence of his vast silences. After all, it is not what Warren Beatty says but how he doesn't say it.

This was Warren's first serious print interview in twelve years, and he had stored up a wealth of topics not to speak about. He had last spoken somewhat in Time in 1978, and before that he had publicly said not much of anything after having said too much to Rex Reed in a famous 1967 Esquire piece called "Will the Real Warren Beatty Please Shut Up?" (He obeyed, forcing journalists to thereafter pay for the sins of Rex Reed, which as you can imagine is an indignity of no small proportion.) In 1982, Warren appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone as the subject of a memorable profile by Aaron Latham, to whom Warren never spoke. That piece, executed in the witness style of the just-released film Reds (which Warren triumphantly produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in), deftly interwove the voices of many people who knew Warren well enough to have heard him say things. For eight years after Reds, however, Warren all but disappeared from public view, except for costarring with Dustin Hoffman in the legendary bomb Ishtar. During that period, he was quoted as saying, "I'd rather ride down the street on a camel nude... in a snowstorm...backwards than give what is sometimes called an in-depth interview." But this was to change in the spring of 1990. Perhaps fearing that a new generation of filmgoers had no idea who he was, Warren agreed to end his silence as best he could. He would sit for interviews on behalf of his forthcoming auteur project, Dick Tracy, in which he was to star opposite his new love, Madonna.

As is customary, a tremendous fight erupted over which magazine would get Warren's first definitive interview. I am told that many people lost their lives in that battle, and certain publicists were forced to enter witness-relocation programs. But what matters is that Warren chose Rolling Stone to be his forum, a decision that may have forever altered the course of his life.

NOW LET ME SAY THIS: ACTORS ARE FOR the most part not terribly interesting. They are paid to not be themselves, which would limit any of us, if you think about it. But most actors are not Warren Beatty. Warren has seen everything and done everything, especially with actresses. More than just a fabled Lothario, he is a Movie Star in a time when there are no more Movie Stars. He is a repository of Hollywood history, an icon who knew the icons that came before him. (He played cards with Marilyn Monroe the night before she died.) His knowledge of women, all by itself, must be encyclopedic. He would seem to be a fellow who could tell you a thing or two. Someone who could bend your ear and give you something to think about.

To Warren, however, such matters are trifling, and of course, he is right. More impressive than any knowledge are his skills as a brilliant diplomat, and I would eventually learn that few things equal the sheer entertainment value of listening to a diplomat circumvent truth. Our sessions, therefore, fairly rollicked with clever deflections and escapes. To ensure that none of his nuance would be misrepresented in print, Warren always had a tape recorder of his own running next to mine. While this could be construed as a sign of paranoia — Jerry Lewis has, after all, long made it his practice — I now believe Warren did it because he cared. He assured me: "It's for your safety." I returned this gesture of friendship by often letting him "borrow" my extra blank tapes. Sometimes we would both run out of tape simultaneously, and those, I think, were some of our best times together.

Warren did share my concern about the seemingly futile quality of our conversations. I remember how we would pace around his swimming pool, fretting together. "Let's keep moving around from subject to subject," he said, "and maybe I'll not be boring on something." Often I would try to engage him by sharing tidbits from my personal life: I told him how an actress had recently wreaked havoc on my heart. He asked her name, then said, by way of consolation, "I never dated her." Whereupon he imparted staggering wisdom on the perils of dating actors and actresses, but this was during an off-the-record break. I asked him to repeat himself when the tape was going, but all he said after a long silence was "I don't know what you're talking about." That always struck me as one of his finest moments.

Now, about those Pauses: Never had I encountered silence to match the breadth and scope of Warren's silences. Historically, silence, like odorlessness, is difficult to portray in print, which is understandable, since there is not a lot you can really say about it Still, I could not cheat readers out of Warren's astonishing silences. You needed to experience them to fully appreciate their richness. But how to communicate this? A solution came to me on a flight to Chicago. Upon deplaning, I called my transcription service back in Burbank, where a team of typists was about to begin work on the interview tapes. "Time them," I said. "Time what?" said the chief transcriber. "The Pauses," I said. And so a roomful of women in headphones set about clicking stopwatches on and off, measuring one man's reluctance.

It is no secret that, as a result, Warren's Pauses became something of an international sensation. Because modesty had always prevented Warren from bragging about the length of his Pauses, I seized the opportunity to help. I took the hard numbers and salted them throughout the published article. Readers could endure Warren as authentically as I did, by simply consulting the second hand of any timepiece. Hubbub ensued. USA Today reported that Warren's longest Pause was fifty-seven seconds. (There were, in fact, longer ones, but they preceded responses so bland they were unpublishable.) VJ Martha Quinn did dramatic readings from the piece on MTV. When Madonna was handed the magazine in a limousine, she reportedly recited the story aloud, repeating favorite comic passages over and over. She then included a tribute to Warren s Pauses in at least one of her Blond Ambition concerts. (She would ask a leering question of a dancer dressed as Dick Tracy, then turn to the audience and announce, "Pause, twenty-seven seconds.") Several weeks later she expressed her glee over the piece by giving me the high five at a party. Clearly, she was grateful that I had shown readers the Warren she knew so well. But when I asked her where he was that night, she said, a tad bitterly, "Who knows?" Such is love's mercurial way.

As for Warren, I was told he read the piece on a flight to New York and pretended to be unmoved. "I don't hate it," he told his travel companion, "and I don't like it." (Always the diplomat!) Still, I am certain that impact was made. After all, there comes a time in every man's life when being cagey gets dull. Confronted with his own excellent Pauses, Warren could only reassess his dedication to Avoidance. Soon thereafter, he began work on another film, the splendid Bugsy, and fell in love with his costar Annette Bening, herself a woman of great reticence. Next, news came that she was expecting Warren's baby. There was talk of marriage. When it was time to promote Bugsy, a different Warren emerged in interviews, a Warren who actually spoke sentences of merit and color, of self-revelation and candor. He hardly even Paused! Then his daughter, Kathlyn, was born, and he got awards for Bugsy. Warren had stopped running away from truth, and suddenly he had much to show for it.

It is not my nature to take credit, but I have lately placed many calls and sent several faxes to his home, in order to congratulate him on the new openness in his life. His assistant assures me that Warren has gotten all of my messages. I'm sure I will be hearing from him.