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 a n 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.