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Warren Beatty: The Rolling Stone Interview

Legendary for acting and flirting, the movie star reveals his true talent for being cagey

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Warren Beatty during Press Conference For 'Dick Tracy' at Disney World in Orlando, June 14th, 1990.

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

He is a ghost. He is human ectoplasm. He is here, and then he is gone, and then you aren’t sure he was ever here to begin with. He has had sex with everyone, or at least tried. He has had sex with someone you know or someone who knows someone you know or someone you wish you knew, or at least tried. He is famous for sex, he is famous for having sex with the famous, he is famous. He makes mostly good films when he makes films, which is mostly not often. He has had sex with most of his leading ladies. He befriends all women and many politicians and whispers advice to them on the telephone in the dead of night. Or else he does not speak at all to anyone ever, except to those who know him best, if anyone can really know him. He is an adamant enigma, elusive for the sake of elusiveness, which makes him desirable, although for what, no one completely understands. He is much smarter than you drink but perhaps not as smart as he thinks, if only because he thinks too much about being smart. He admits to none of this. He admits to nothing much. He denies little. And so his legend grows.

You hear Warren Beatty stories. They get around as he gets around. What you hear is carnal lore, possibly embellished, certainly superfluous. Warren Beatty, you hear, is gentle and respectful and never pushy, but he would not mind having sex right now, right this very microsecond. He loves women profoundly. Unsolicited, women tell me this and men corroborate. When Warren first meets a woman, he says [befuddled], “Now, I forget your name.” Or [bedazzled], “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve met who’s not an actress or model.” Or [beholden], “Your grandmother — she was one of the sexiest women I ever knew.” (One of his old opening lines — “What’s new, pussycat?” — later became a movie written by Woody Allen, who once said he wished to be reincarnated as Warren Beatty’s fingertips.)

Warren says many things, always chivalrously; he gives books to women as gifts; he offers to carry their camera equipment if they are film students. One very famous director remembers having a conversation with him during which Warren, the director says, “had his hand up a woman! She didn’t seem to mind, and he acted as though it seemed a perfectly natural thing to do.” Another scenario: Warren calls an actress late on a Saturday night. Her husband answers the phone. She gets on the line, and Warren invites her up to his house right away to read for a movie role widely reported as already cast. She puts him off but takes his home number anyway. Next to the number, her husband notices, she mistakenly writes, “Warren Beauty.” Many note pads have likely known this error.

Madonna has his number. She may have his number like others have not. He told someone at lunch last year, “Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I’m with Madonna!’ ” He is reborn in love, restored to public persona. For we only see Warren when he loves deeply (we only hear about him when he prowls). From the Sixties onward, we saw him most clearly (but never too well) with Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, Leslie Caron, Michelle Phillips, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Isabelle Adjani. Madonna is more famous than any of them; she is more famous than he is; she is more famous than everyone, more or less. By loving him, she makes him more famous than he was before. Theirs is a sort of vampire love: She needs his credibility; he needs her youth. He is fifty-three, and she is thirty-one, and they are evenly matched legends; hers is louder, his is longer. It works out.

When I first see him, I see him with her.

Warren is breathless, winded. Madonna wears a big hat and smokes. They have come, the satyr and the siren, some forty minutes late to see a rough cut of Without You I’m Nothing, the performance film by their friend Sandra Bernhard. They have sped down from their respective hilltop dwellings to this tiny Burbank, California, screening room, where Bernhard and a dozen or so people fidget, waiting for them. Madonna enters, proffers no excuses and jabbers. Warren parks the car, then scurries in, flustered, ashamed, apologetic. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he says and collapses into a seat. When the movie begins, they laugh in the same places – most fitfully at a saucy monologue in which Bernhard conjures a sex romp with a mopey Warren, whom she instructs to don two condoms. “Oh, baby,” she coos onscreen, “it’s no reflection on how much I care about you. We all know you’ve been around.” Postsreening, Madonna curls onto his lap, as is her wont, while Warren soberly discourses on directorial minutiae, as is his wont. They are cozy together in a prickly sort of way. Their pet names for each other are Old Man and Buzzbomb.

It is a comic-strip romance. She is, in this regard, Breathless Mahoney, the torchy moll who leads his Dick Tracy into temptation in Dick Tracy, the new Warren Beatty film — his first directing job since Reds nine years ago. (In between, he appeared only in the loopy $40 million stinker epic Ishtar, which he costarred in with Dustin Hoffman and produced.)

Dick Tracy will be his resurrection, his last best hope, his first Disney picture. It is a florid cartoon of a movie (to be released in tandem with a new Roger Rabbit short), blazing with gats and gunsels and deformed villains with names like Pruneface, Flattop and Itchy. Dustin Hoffman is Mumbles. Al Pacino is Big Boy. Bad guys have gooey faces. Madonna wears red and sings Sondheim. Beatty, as Tracy, wears yellow and fights evil. Often he talks to his wristwatch. Whereas Batman brooded, Dick Tracy sparkles — a $26 million Thirties-era thrill ride done in seven Sunday-funny colors. It is nothing like the other Warren Beatty movies, which tend to be bittersweet melancholies about vain bandits (Bonnie and Clyde), oversexed hairdressers (Shampoo), reincarnated quarterbacks (Heaven Can Wait) and dead Communists (Reds). Not that the incongruity of Dick Tracy counts for much; most of the younger, hard-core moviegoers have no idea who Warren Beatty is anyway.

Warren Beatty is paranoid. He is an occluded Hollywood god, one who shuts up and off and imagines himself invisible. Afraid of being misunderstood, he says nothing and is more misunderstood. He likes it that way. Unlike, say, Brando’s silence, Beatty’s silence is showy. Puckish and smooth, he phones up journalists to inform them at length and with sly humor that he doesn’t cooperate with the media. He would rather eat worms. In a dozen years, he has said nothing. Maybe a few hollow words in behalf of Ishtar. Maybe a futile endorsement now and again for his crony — the presidential infidel Gary Hart. It was Warren who nudged him back into the election, post-Donna Rice. Otherwise, Warren has been so mum, he has all but evaporated. Reds did limp business, theory goes, because Warren gave no interviews. If Dick Tracy dies, so too might his career. Posturing has its limitations.

And so he has talked. And talked. For days, I have listened to him talk. I have listened to him listen to himself talk. I have probed and pelted and listened some more. For days. He speaks slowly, fearfully, cautiously, editing every syllable, slicing off personal color and spontaneous wit, steering away from opinion, introspection, humanness. He is mostly evasive. His pauses are elephantine. Broadway musicals could be mounted during his pauses. He works at this. Ultimately, he renders himself blank. In Dick Tracy, he battles a mysterious foe called the Blank. In life, he is the Blank doing battle with himself. It is a fascinating showdown, exhilarating to behold.

To interview Warren Beatty is to want to kill him.

It is also to become fond of him. He seduces anything that is not mineral. He is impossible, but charming. Jack Nicholson, his neighbor on altitudinal Mulholland Drive, calls him the Pro. Meaning Warren knows what he is doing: I am invited one Friday night to watch him score. (See Beatty score! Not unlike seeing Picasso draw, Astaire twirl, DiMaggio swing!) Alas, there are musicians present; he is supervising Tracy‘s musical score on an old MGM orchestra stage in Culver City.

“I told you never to meet me here,” Warren says, meeting me for the first time. (An opening line.) He looks tousled, untucked, an aging boy barely aging, with drooped shirttails and sweet comportment. He is at once good and bad and will do anything to make up for it. He fusses — dithers, really — eager to get me a chair, to get me liquids and solids, to get me. He settles onto a milk crate — “It makes me feel puritanical and worthy,” he says — and chitchats. He appraises his young publicist in her long skirt and says approvingly, “You look like … the president of Vassar.” He feigns horror to hear Vassar is now coed. “No! ” he says, stricken. The orchestra has been laying music behind a scene in which Mahoney puts the make on Tracy; on a screen high above us, she glimmers in freeze frame, propped on all fours, crawling across his desk. Warren studies this contortion for a moment. “I think I knew someone who had a coffee table that looked like that,” he says. “The only thing missing is the glass on top.”

One week later, on the night of his fifty-third birthday, the interrogations begin. Feeling celebratory, he orders in Big Macs and El Pollo Loco chicken (“Hang the expense!”). There is much for him to avoid discussing. We hole up for the first session in a Hollywood sound-mixing studio, where he’s been toiling on Tracy. Further conversations take place in his home, that bestilled sanctuary on his private Olympus, and on the phone, his instrument of choice. Because what he doesn’t say is often more revealing than what he does, this interview will frequently pause (as will Warren), so that necessary detail, commentary and homicidal impulses can be noted.

Let’s get to what everyone wants to know: Do you lambada? It’s the forbidden dance, you know.
Lambada. At the moment, I don’t, but I rule out nothing.

Do you vogue? [Note: This is, of course, a veiled attempt to broach the subject of his relationship with Madonna — “Vogue” being her current pop hit — a subject his publicists warned me against raising.]
I neither lambada nor vogue. I certainly think vogue. As a matter of fact, I also think lambada.

Okay, you and Madonna — the truth!
Art is truth.

That’s all? You want to go with that?
[Grins] Okay by me.

Describe the qualities she possesses that convinced you to cast her as the sexpot temptress Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy. How does she qualify?
Madonna is [21-second pause] simultaneously touching and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. [11 seconds] She’s funny, and she’s [21 seconds] gifted in so many areas and has the kind of energy as a performer that can’t help but make you engaged.

You mean sexual energy?
[47-second pause] Um, she has it all.

What’s the sexiest thing she does onscreen?
She’s funny. She’s a wonderful comedienne. Is that sexy? Oh, I dunno. Everybody has their own criteria.

You two sing a duet, “I’m Following You” on her new album. How did you avoid upstaging her?
Upstaging her? I do as I’m told.

Warren, I would learn, has a habit of going off the record, and when he is off the record, he is almost like a person. At these times, one gets a greater sense of his playfulness. The lines blur occasionally. At one point, when we are neither on nor off the record, just sort of pacing around, he suggests that we depants his publicist, the Vassar president. He thinks it might ease tension. It is during his off-the-record spates, however, that the answer to the Big Question (Is It Over With You and Madonna?) fuzzily emerges: Apparently not. They are just tremendously busy people — what with her preparing a world tour and him polishing off Tracy — and so what if he went to the Oscars with Jack Nicholson as his date? So what if he dined a few times with old flame Isabelle Adjani? The night after his birthday, Madonna tosses Warren a tiny party at his house, someone tells me. The following week, Warren attends the final run-through of her Blond Ambition stage show and gives me a rhapsodic review. “Oh, I wish you could have seen it!” he gushes (for attribution). “I really defy anyone not to succumb to it. Nonstop energy! It fulfills my name for her.” Buzzbomb? “Buzzbomb.”

Do you think that your reluctance to give interviews has inflated your personal mythology?

I can’t accept your flattering premise of me. To do so is unattractive or self-serving. It’s hard to misquote someone who doesn’t say anything. There’s almost nothing that hasn’t been said about me. But there’s an awful lot that I haven’t said. I don’t talk about private things.

You don’t talk about anything. Not even your movies, really. That’s just bad business, isn’t it?
I don’t think it’s helpful, in general, to get out there in front of a film. By attracting attention to yourself, you distract people from the movie. Ideally, you like a movie to speak for itself. You don’t describe a song before you sing it or tell about a painting before you show it. You don’t reveal the recipe before you serve the dish. You taste it. That’s why I stopped doing [interviews]. I didn’t see any particular gain in personal publicity.

What’s the most ridiculous rumor you’ve read about you?
Really an adroit question, because if I repeat a ridiculous rumor here, it gives fifty-percent credence to the rumor, whatever it is. [Ponders, 57-second pause] If I tell you I saw an item that said I was actually born on Pluto, fifty percent of the people will say, “I wonder….” It’s a sin, you know, starting a rumor. You’ll notice I picked a really outlandish one. I had to think for a minute.

All things considered, it could be true.
[Smiles] You know I wasn’t born on Pluto. I’d get much more attention had I been.

Why do you think there are so many rumors about you?
I could say something self-serving here, so I won’t.

Maybe it’s because you don’t say they’re not true.
Yeah, but if I say I do not beat my wife, I’ve lost on two counts.

Wife? Wait, is there something we don’t know about?
No. But there is something in the spirit of [the rumormongering] that seems to be an unfortunate manifestation of the egalitarianism of our society: If I read that you are not so fine, I might feel a little bit better about myself. It cuts you down to my size. So I’ll buy that. I’ve experienced more than my fair share of egalitarianism lately. So it’s probably better to go ahead and talk a little bit here and I’m sure be … um, boring.

But isn’t there a germ of truth in every tabloid story?
This germ theory is bullshit, I can tell you. I had a little research done on it, insofar as I’m concerned. What I found is that eight or nine out of ten things printed are not true. Out of those eight or nine untrue things, four or five might even be positive or flattering. Half make you look bad, half make you look good. All of them aren’t true.

Even when they take pictures?
Well, two out of ten are true. I’m not saying it’s all lies.

Fuck and suck” is Beatty’s pet term for scurrilous articles written about his sexual profile. He asks me if I know about any such pieces that may be currently in the works. The prospect seems to neither disgust nor please him. He is resigned to his reputation. He has never sued for libel and, moreover, feels there should be no libel laws: “Since the public is vaguely aware that there is some recourse in court, they figure what is printed about you must be sort of true.” For instance, there is a tony British catalog of celebrity sex partners called Who’s Had Who, in which Beatty’s long section is billed thusly: Fasten Your Seat Belts, and Hold Your Hats — This is the Big One!!! Among the alleged conquests listed: Britt Ekland, Goldie Hawn, Kate Jackson, Bri-gitte Bardot, Diana Ross, Liv Ullmann, Candice Bergen, Carly Simon. (Diane Sawyer is one notable omission.)

Also quoted in the book is his sister, reincarnated actress Shirley MacLaine, who says she wishes she could do a love scene with Warren. “Then,” she states, “I could see what all the shouting was about.”

Your friend Jack Nicholson always looks like he enjoys fame. I wonder if you do.
[34 seconds] Well, I can’t speak for other people. I don’t know whether they do or they don’t. Dustin used to say that I’ve been famous longer than I’ve been a person. His theory being you’re a person in the years when you’re not famous. Because I got lucky with the first picture I made [Splendor in the Grass, in 1961], I had something like a ten-year jump on Jack and Dustin. So I haven’t really dealt with being well known as if I had an alternative to it. Although I guess there is. I could go someplace where nobody knew me at all.

So you think you’re eccentric?
Anybody who becomes a movie star when they’re twenty-two, or whatever I was, is going to be eccentric. It’s an eccentric situation. You become rich and famous out of proportion to that which is anticipated. Quite a candy store there.

Anything you want, within reason.
More without reason. Within reason, you’re just another guy. The task is to stay within reason. I’ve tried. If I’ve been able to save myself, it has to do with my interest in art and politics, not in wealth.

You make movies slowly. You speak slowly. What do you do fast?
Prevaricate. [Note: defined by Webster’s as “to evade the truth . . . to lie.”]

What else?
I can dial a telephone number faster than anybody you know. [He demonstrates — his hand falls on a touch-tone panel, his fingers perform instant symphony, he passes me the receiver, an operator answers at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where he kept a suite for many years. Dialing time: exactly 1 second.] Want me to do it again? [He dials once more, full of swagger.] That was quick, wasn’t it?

That was breathtaking.
Thank you.

Do you drive fast?
I’ve been trying to drive at a sane speed. The other day I was driving along Mulholland and thinking about how sedately I was driving. Then around the turn came two cars side by side, and it’s a two-lane road. On my right side was a cliff, a steep drop. Straight ahead I faced a head-on collision. I didn’t have time to fear for my life. It was a moment of realizing that there’s going to be a very serious choice to make. So I tried to split the difference. Fortunately, the guy on the left slowed down,a nd the car passing him swerved and hit [my car] just behind my head.

This put me into a temporary state of manic elation. I got out of my car, and this kid who had hit me leapt out of his car and started to berate himself. I put my arm around him and said, “Don’t worry, nobody’s hurt.” Then the people in the other cars came over, and they were all from Italy and Switzerland. They all had portable phones, and when they saw me, they called their mothers in Switzerland and whatever. So they put on the phone with these lovely women, who were fans of mine. I stood there making transatlantic calls — how did I get into this?

If there is moral here, it is this: Not only does Warren Beatty know how to cheat death, he gets to talk on the phone afterward with Swiss women. The telephone, of course, is Warren’s second most legendary appendage. Rarely is he phoneless. It is said that he will make and take calls even while engaged in animal rapture. His mind swirls with phone numbers, memorized for ages. His phone voice is a mellifluous purr, instantly conspiratorial. He is at home in the ear. He has been inside all the best ears. On Easter, I call and ask, among other things, if he has been hunting eggs. “Just laying them,” he replies, a bit luridly.

What’s wrong with the film industry?
Nothing. It’s making a lot of money. However, out attention span has become progressively curtailed. I like jokes that I get fast. But I like other things, too. We’ve placed too many restrictions on ourselves: A movie has to have a happy ending and be two hours or less in length. You’ve got to understand the premise from the top, so it’s too often obvious. And that’s too bad. Movies must be quickly understood and quickly assimilated. So that when you make a three-and-a-half-hour movie, as I did with Reds, some people tell you that it’s long. “It’s long,” they say. “Yes,” you say, “it is long. Three and a half hours long, yes. Long.”

In the spirit of speed, how would you pitch ‘Reds’ as a high concept, in one sentence?
It would have been a pretty low high concept: A three-and-a-half-hour movie about a Communist who dies at the end, not having been happy.

After he wormed his way through the script, Charlie Bluhdorn, who ran Paramount [which bankrolled Reds], said, “I don’t understand why you’re doing this.” Then he said, “Do me a favor. Take $25 million. Go to Mexico, go to Peru. Spend $1 million on the movie. Keep $24 million for yourself. Just don’t make this movie!” I said, “Well, I’m sorry, Charlie. I really am gonna have to do this. It’s worthwhile.” There was something very moving in the idealism of the American left from 1915 to 1920 — particularly poignant in the life of John Reed [the journalist in the forefront]. Plus I don’t believe anybody ever made an American movie with a Communist hero before.

How did you interpret your switch from John Reed to Dick Tracy? You’re obviously going for easy assimilation this time.
Well, there’s something about Dick Tracy that gives me permission to be outlandishly heroic and clear-cut in dealing with good and evil, with love versus duty, with the wish for family. Tracy is completely good. What give me the right to say this? The match of his yellow hat and yellow raincoat. The bright, twinkling stars you see behind his head. And the moon. The music tells me he’s good. It affords me the chance to be naive in a way that somehow doesn’t embarrass me.

Where’s Tracy’s famous pointy nose and chin? How come you make the actors who play criminals wear doughy makeup and yet you’ve done nothing to alter your face?
See, it was the literal interpretation of the Tracy face that kept me from playing the part for a while. But when I began to realize that no one has that face, I felt I would be as good as anybody else. Even so I tried prosthetics and makeup to approximate the nose and chin. I didn’t look like Tracy. And you know what? Nobody does. I just looked silly. I would be afraid of offending various nationalities if I said what I thought I looked like.

How do you imagine Tracy’s sex life?
Let’s jsut say very direct. Very straightforward. Unimaginably straightforward. I try not to think about it.

What does he do with his free time?
Oh, he might read military history.

What about Tracy merchandizing? Is this the first time you’ve been made into a doll?
I think I’ve been made into dolls, but they had pins in them. That was not a kick.

Do you own Dick Tracy handcuffs?
[Ponders] Let’s see. Are my handcuffs Dick Tracy? Hmmm . . .

Warren’s fact file — here are some things Warren won’t discuss: Himself (in emotional terms). Where he keeps his Oscar (Best Director for Reds). How to successfully date an actress. The most fun he can have with his clothes on. Misconceptions about himself. (“I can’t talk about public perception of me. I have no idea how to focus on that.”) The irony of his having produced The Pick-Up Artist (dreadful Robert Downey Jr. film). Warren Beatty jokes. Accomplishments of, attractions to, relationships (of any sort) with other human beings. For instance, on fatherhood (as in, would he like to have done it? Would he want kids?), he says, “Um, to address this subject, by implication, I might be talking about some other people that I’ve known who may not want to be talked about.” On what he sees when he looks in the mirror: “Why don’t you get a little tougher, rather than ask me this open-ended kind of stuff, which I really can’t do. I’m not gonna be the kind of guy who rambles on, particularly in these areas where the subject of the interview is left to muster up and exhibit a high level of personal narcissism.”

It was Warren’s wish, incidentally, to do this interview in the question-answer format. He felt it would protect him from misquotation. “Getting tougher,” for Warren, involves asking him questions whenever possible that can be answered with yes or no. “If it’s not entertaining,” he says, “we can do some more later.”

Can you hear the word ‘Ishtar’ without feeling physically ill?
Well, sure. Ishtar is kind of a funny little movie. But it cost too much. It was an ironic situation, because when Dustin and I realized what it was going to cost [$40 million], we went to the studio and suggested that we not take any money, that we’d take it on the other end. Columbia refused, based on a cable deal. We said, “Well, this is an inappropriate price for this film, and when people seem so obsessed with the cost of the thing, it’ll make it hard to laugh.” They said they’d be sure to keep the cost very quiet. Then they were replaced by new management, who seemed to want to make an example of Ishtar‘s high cost. Just in a business sense, it didn’t seem the most fiscally responsible way for them to behave.

You’ve said that every movie you make feels like a comeback. What takes so long?
I’ve never seen the point of just dishing it out there. I don’t know that I take such a long time to make movies. I take a long time to decide to do one. I take much too long. And I think that’s self-indulgent on my part, and I ought to try to get over it. Sometimes I think that I put off making movies just long enough so that I can’t put it off any longer, for various reasons. Then I make the movie.

Maybe you just don’t like making movies.
No, I actually like making movies. I just don’t like to make them all the time. There’s so much inertia to overcome to make a really good movie. I felt that if I made a lot of movies, I wouldn’t make the ones that were really tough, like Shampoo or Reds. Others are different from me.

Robert Towne, with whom you wrote ‘Shampoo,’ says you “are a man who is deeply embarrassed by acting.” True?
[Puzzled] He said that about me? I’m very embarrassed by my own bad acting.

Could you, at this point, still act in other people’s movies?
Oh, sure. I would prefer to be directed by someone else. It’s almost impossible to act and direct at the same time. We pretend to do it. But in fact, when you’re acting, you ideally are out of control. In control of being out of control. And when you are directing, you should be in control. Somewhat out of control of being in control. But in control. And if you’re trying to be out of control and somewhat in control of being out of control but out of control and, at the same time, in control but somewhat out of control of being in control but still in control, it makes you crazy [beams stupidly].

Well, then. Let’s talk politics. You pushed your friend Gary Hart back into the presidential race after he dropped out over his entanglement with Donna Rice. Why? How did you expect the public to respond?
[Pauses 26 seconds] I felt that he should not have gotten out. And I felt that if there was any way to combat this preoccupation people have with trivia and irrelevant matters — or let’s say less relevant matters in government — that it should be done. I get very irritated with people who are so condescending about political candidates. Gary Hart is a sensitive man with a high level of love and concern for his family. He didn’t want them to be subjected to any more of that kind of humiliation, and it [27 second] was a tragic event for the country. It was not only a terrible thing to happen to him, but it deprived the country of its leading conceptualist presidential candidate at a time when that kind of detailed thinking was urgent. And I felt that if he and his family could take any more of it, that [getting back in] was the right thing to do.

You were a key member of his brain trust. What exactly did you do for him? I heard you actually wrote speeches for him.
Well, here’s the way I participate in politics: I respect politics. And I respect the privacy of the people in politics with whom I am involved. I don’t kiss and tell.

Didn’t Ronald Reagan tell you that he wished ‘Reds’ had a happier ending after you showed him the film at the White House?
[Startled] Where did you hear that? I wouldn’t want to . . . um, well, you know he has a great sense of humor. He’s a funny guy. [Pauses 21 seconds] I guess I have a lot of feelings about Reagan that I am not articulating. He is an actor and a very, very likable man. But I guess you know I’m not a conservative Republican.  

Reagan did, in fact, wish for a happy ending. Warren tells many colorful Reagan stories, none of them for attribution. My favorite has to do with the former president lecturing him about the marble of meat, but I can reveal no more. Warren will, however, talk hard-core politics until eyelids calcify and plummet. Much of it he will say for the record and with great insight and invective. In fact, he would prefer we spoke of nothing else in this interview. But Warren is, with all due respect, an actor, and an actor filibustering on politics is a little like a plumber dispensing Buddhist dogma. Noble, to be sure; but who really cares?

Instead, I will describe his house: It is stark and Bauhausian, sprawling and all white, with no pictures on the walls of the main rooms, just lots of windows peering down on the basins of Los Angeles. His floors are polished oak, which give the sanctum its echo. On tables: big flower arrangements and piles of books about communism and comic strips. Very tidy: Toilet paper is always folded to a point. Piano (he can play quite decently) in the living room. Unseen, down a long corridor, is the Bedroom, where he frequently retreats to take lengthy calls. He mostly holds forth in an electronically glassed-in room, just off the pool, where the sun bears down. Here, a young British fellow appears every fifteen minutes with phone messages. Handsome meals are impeccably served by the young woman who is paid to prepare them. Warren will occasionally lope into the kitchen, foraging for custards. One day an actor friend of Warren’s named Marshall Bell emerges from the gym downstairs, and mildly lascivious chatter erupts. It is only then that one gets the irrefutable impression that this is, indeed, the home of the right Warren Beatty.

How old do you feel?

How so?
I guess I’m not fond of schedules, and I don’t see any point in keeping to some fictitious schedule of [life].

Have you had a midlife crisis yet?
Many, I’m sure. They started when I was about eighteen. Ultimately, I learned that the secret to overcoming them is to not see them as crises. But I suppose the real answer to your question is, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Has your sister, Shirley MacLaine, ever suggested how you might have spent former lives?
I don’t remember her doing that, but she might have. No, I don’t think she has. Shirley’s not really pushy with me about that. I do think reincarnation is maybe the most appealing thing in life. It’s just hard for me to rationally and scientifically deal with the subject. I wish it well.

Did you see her call David Letterman an asshole on his show?
Yes, I was curious and got a tape of it. I thought it was a standoff [between her and Letterman]. And I felt that it’s best not to have a standoff with a person in his own constituency.

How often has she called you an asshole?

How did your father’s death a few years ago affect you? What kind of man was he?
Death always makes you aware of the limits of time and causes you to cherish relationships. My mother and father each come into my consciousness at least once a day. And I can always count on thinking of my father at the same time each day: when I shave. He recommended a new shaving cream to me before he died, and he turned out to be right. We had a chance to get closer before he died. He seemed pleased with what I’d accomplished in life. My father was a very reasonable man. Cerebral. A teacher. Sentimental. Outwardly jovial much of the time, in a way that concealed a basic Baptist puritanism. Let’s just say he wasn’t overconfident. Or materialistic. [Ponders a while] He was married once.

What does your mother think of you?
She has boundless faith in me. If I told her I was going to move Cleveland to a small island in the Bahamas, she would simply say, “I’m sure you can do that and try not to lose too much of it in the ocean.” She thinks I’m okay. I keep in touch with her all the time.

What does she want for you? Marriage?
Well, not just for the sake of being married. Marriage is a worthy thing to aspire to.

Do you aspire to marriage?
I have never bristled at the notion.

Would you have limitations as a husband?
No. I haven’t been in a bubble. I’ve had very close relationships with people that have lasted longer than my friends’ marriages that existed at the same time.

What’s the most important thing to know about women?
[Pauses 21 seconds] That they’re not very different from men.

What do you mean?
That’s eight pages.

Eight classic pages. What do you mean?
[Pauses 14 seconds] Well, I’m lucky that I grew up in an atmosphere in which I was taught to treat women as respectfully as I would treat men. I don’t differentiate. Sometimes people don’t treat themselves very seriously, but that might happen more often when this business of sexual attraction rears its head and we all get a little giddy.

Are you a better friend to women than you are to men?
I hope not. I’m probably guilty of giving more women the benefit of the doubt than men. And I think there are probably more women that give me the benefit of the doubt than men do. But I’m not even sure of that.

Describe what love feels like to you.
Do unto others.

Romantic love.
Define romantic love.

When you’re in love.
Well, as soon as you use the word romantic, then the word fiction begins to peep around the corner, or the word bullshit begins to lurk in the shadow. But if you say sexual love, which I think is not bullshit and not fictitious, that’s something else. But I think there’s a certain amount of do unto others even in that.

How do you know you’re in love? What incites your love?
I don’t know if you ever figure that out. If you’re smart, you don’t figure it out. Of course, you always try to figure it out. But if you’re smart, you know you can’t. I take great pride in my stupidity in this area. I have no clear way of being able to define at what point [21 seconds] passion for loyalty has overcome me.

Has your heart been broken?

How many times?
[Laughs richly, then 17-second pause] I’m sure I’ve reached my quota. I’m not at liberty to disclose my quota. But then you’d have to define break and heart.

How do you mend yours? Give advice.
To the lovelorn? There is no away. Nobody goes away. Except the Big Away, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you really love someone [17 seconds] and they’re healthy and happy … you ought to be able to live with that.

Can you always be that philosophical?
[24 seconds] Pretty close.

A musical question. As per legend: “You’re So Vain” — did you think the song was about you?
[Laughs, 15-second pause] Who wrote that?

Helicopter attack! Right over Warren’s glass room, right when he is trying to avoid the subject of Carly Simon’s pop wrath, a helicopter divebombs us! “Press!” Warren announces, both panicked and thrilled. This is a game he’s played before. He runs for cover, ducking into the living room. “Let’s see if they’re taking pictures,” he hollers above the prop wash and moves intrepidly from window to window, his gaze arched skyward. The British assistant runs up from his office below and watches with us. “I don’t think it’s press,” the assistant says after a while. Warren is uncertain but says, “I don’t see a guy hanging out of the helicopter with a camera. That’s usually the tip-off.” “No,” says the Brit, “it must be something else.” Both seem a tad disappointed. They conclude that it’s probably some local law-enforcement mission. Perhaps to cheer himself, Warren then performs for me his impersonation of Walter Lippmann, the great political journalist, reacting to being interviewed by Warren himself (while doing Reds research). Warren leans forward and pushes his face very close to mine. “Ask me a question,” he says. “Can you cook?” I ask. He simply grins a reproachful grin. And stares into my eyes. And keeps grinning. And says nothing. Which is Warren’s canny way of saying that he knows the feeling. He knows.

Do you think you’re shy?
Shyness is really a form of vanity.

Describe the perfect woman for you.
[24 seconds] I’m thinking of three or four punch lines, none that I’ll share.

What’s sexier: smell or sound?

Long skirt or short skirt?

Long hair or short hair?

Kneecaps or ankles?

Mathis or Sinatra?
In all deference to both gentlemen, Peggy Lee. And Mabel Mercer.

Here’s something Robert Downey Jr. said about you: “Beatty is really knowledgeable in a lot of areas, especially fucking.” Did you have any idea people talk about you in this manner?
[Smiles] Yes.

How do you feel about that?

How would you characterize yourself?
As someone who would prefer not to characterize himself.

What’s the most paranoid thing you do?
Did I say I was paranoid? Hmmm. Gore Vidal said something like, “A man without paranoia is a man not in full possession of the facts.” That seems reasonable enough to me.

What do you suspect we’ve accomplished?
To tell you the truth, I feel as though we are just beginning. 

In This Article: Coverwall, Diane Keaton, Warren Beatty


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