Warren Beatty is an important Hollywood figure. His ambitions and contradictions are typical of many in his generation, and his work is a good indication of what that community believes in its heart of hearts.
Beatty began his career more than 35 years ago as a handsome leading man — the Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio of his day. His many off-screen romances were hot gossip-column items, but in 1968, with the ultra-violent outlaw classic, Bonnie and Clyde, he established himself as a creative heavyweight. He took control of the films in which he appeared to make sure it reflected his point of view.
Like many in his age group, the superstar was deeply influenced by the civil-rights struggle and the anti-war movement, and to counter his reputation as Hollywood's best-known hedonist, he took up left- wing politics as a second career. He was one of George McGovern's most powerful backers in the 1972 presidential campaign, helping him meet other celebrities like himself and raise money in tinsel town. Since that time McGovern's new-left agenda has remained his credo even though it was rejected by most of the country both then and now.
In 1981, Beatty produced, directed, and starred in Reds, a valentine to American communist revolutionary John Reed that airbrushed the horrors inflicted on tens of millions of people by Marxist-style socialism. This radical manifesto revealed his continuing commitment to the hard left.
The 1990s have been difficult for Beatty and those in the entertainment business who think as he does. President Clinton's mediagenic personality and amoral lifestyle are appealing to them, but his new Democrat policies are not. Balancing the budget, welfare reform, and the death penalty are reactionary ideas to most of Hollywood's creative community. But what can they do? They'll never become Republicans, and forming a radical left third party isn't a practical option.
Bulworth is Beatty's response. Its mixture of agit-prop, rap music, and farce is an attempt to adapt McGovern-ite new-left ideology to the present day. The basic premise is a good one: An experienced politician is so sickened by the focus-group inspired commercials and the big-money influence on his campaign that he decides to risk defeat and tell the truth. The problem is the truth to Beatty is always to be found out there with Rev. Jesse Jackson or Sen. Ted Kennedy. All other positions on the spectrum are presented as either self-serving or hypocritical.
Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty) is in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Having started his career as a left-wing Democrat, he's been forced to move to the right, like President Clinton, in order to survive. Viewing his latest batch of TV spots in which he mouths popular platitudes like, “I believe in a hand up, not a handout,” makes him feel suicidal, and he hires a hit man to take his life.
Bulworth's first campaign stop is a black church in South-central Los Angeles. Unshaven and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, he suddenly blurts out what he believes to be the truth.
“Put down that malt liquor and those chicken wings and get behind someone other than a running back who stabs his wife,” he proclaims to the stunned congregation. He also tells them that the African-American community will never have any clout until it votes in larger numbers and contributes more money to campaigns.
The candidate next outrages a fund-raiser of wealthy Hollywood supporters by declaring, “My guys always put the big Jews on my schedule.” He also scolds them for being smart people who make stupid movies.
These two scenes are the best in the picture. From there on it's downhill. That evening Bulworth goes to an inner-city club where he smokes marijuana and dances badly to hip-hop music with Nina (Halle Berry), a local African-American beauty. The candidate's brain is so badly scrambled by the experience that he can only speak in the sing-song rhymes of rap. At his next campaign stop he spouts his hard-left version of truth-telling with doggerel like: “Whether you call it single payer or the Canadian way, socialized medicine gonna save the day.”
Nina is impressed by Bulworth's radical message, and a romance blossoms between them even though he's 35 years her senior. This kind of liaison is common enough for Hollywood superstars, but Beatty doesn't seem to realize how ridiculous he looks to people outside his charmed celebrity circle when he chases after someone so much younger. He must imagine he's still the hunk he was three decades ago.
Bulworth's manic rhyming gets him positive national press, and he wins the primary with 71% of the vote. The narrative then bogs down in the machinations of his self-generated assassination plot and ends with a paranoid twist worthy of Oliver Stone. Somewhere in this story is an interesting 10-minute Saturday Night Live skit. But Beatty's vanity and ideological bias overwhelm the material. Even as new-left propaganda, it's flawed. Blacks are presented as the only oppressed people. There are no scenes with poor whites or Latinos, the other key constituencies in a radical coalition.
Bulworth is a white superstar's fantasy that he can get down and be as funky as any soul brother. It mistakenly assumes that this kind of hipness is the key to contemporary political relevance. The movie also contains more profanity and drug-taking than any production in recent memory.
Bulworth does us one big favor. It shows us the types of ideas that are popular with much of Hollywood's creative community. Bits and pieces of them may pop up in other films, usually cleverly disguised.
But in Beatty's self-indulgent stew, they're on full display.
Bulworth is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
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