Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America

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9780743246583: Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America

Famously a playboy, Warren Beatty has also been one of the most ambitious and successful stars in Hollywood. Several Beatty films have passed the test of time, from Bonnie and Clyde (which confirmed for him the importance of controlling the projects he was involved in) to Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds (for which he won the best director Oscar), Bugsy, and Bulworth. Few filmgoers realize that along with Orson Welles, Beatty is the only person ever nominated for four Academy Awards for a single film---and unlike Welles, Beatty did it twice, with Heaven Can Wait and Reds. Peter Biskind shows how Beatty used star power, commercial success, savvy, and charm to bend Hollywood moguls to his will, establishing an unprecedented level of independence while still working within the studio system.

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About the Author:

Peter Biskind is the author of five previous books, including Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. He is a contributor to Vanity Fair and was formerly the executive editor of Premiere magazine. He lives with his family in Columbia County, New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
A STAR IS BORN

How Warren Beatty shined in Splendor in the Grass, but watched his star plunge when he followed it with two flops in a row, and became better known for his romances than his performances, seducing and abandoning Joan Collins and Natalie Wood.

“He was insatiable. Three, four, five times a day, every day, was not unusual for him. I felt like an oyster in a slot machine.”

—Joan Collins

ON A HOT summer night, in 1959, Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda were having dinner at La Scala, on Little Santa Monica in Beverly Hills, when Beatty spied Joan Collins at a nearby table. Collins, a striking brunette, was a younger, svelter, later-model Elizabeth Taylor, with a British accent to boot. She had been dubbed “the British Open,” for her parade of well-heeled boyfriends. But Collins was no bimbo—she had a biting wit, which she would occasionally exercise at Beatty’s expense, as she would prove nineteen years later in her autobiography, Past Imperfect. Then twenty-six, she was four years his senior, and had been in Hollywood for five years, having appeared in a number of low-rent pictures, including Land of the Pharaohs, a sword and sandal epic wherein she lay recumbent while cradling a diamond (paste, of course) in her navel. At the time, she was training with Candy Barr to play a stripper in Seven Thieves, and hoping to wrest the lead in Cleopatra away from Taylor.

As Collins tells it, she was brooding about her lengthy and increasingly unhappy affair with a handsome producer, George Englund, then married to Cloris Leachman, and forking cannelloni into her mouth (she was always a big eater and had to fight her weight), when she noticed the indecently pretty young man boldly eyeing her from a nearby table. He was twenty-two at the time, but he looked like he was barely old enough to drive.

Although he was precocious—dating senior girls when he was a freshman at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia—sexually speaking, Beatty was a late bloomer. Born in Richmond, the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and raised a Baptist among Baptists, he had been a virgin until he was 19 and ten months, and had had only one or two relationships he considered “serious.” Since he dropped out of Northwestern University in 1956, he hadn’t had any. But he had discovered in himself a raging lust for women. He realized, too, that women were drawn to him. It was as if he heard them calling out to him where other men were deaf, the way canines respond to whistles inaudible to humans. Says writer Peter Feibleman, who would help polish some of his scripts in coming years, “Hollywood was candy land for him. I once asked him, ‘Why is it that every time I put my weenie in something, yours has already been there?’ He just had a tremendous appetite.” A few years off, when his career was prospering and his horizons broader, no female would be beneath his notice—stars, starlets, and models, of course, but also TV newscasters, studio executives, journalists, hatcheck girls, waitresses, dental hygienists, even daughters of friends—any woman, in other words, who crossed his path, and many who didn’t, the innocent bystanders grazing the stacks in a library, stopped at a traffic light in the next car, pulling bread off a shelf in a supermarket, or sitting, like Collins, at a nearby table. As Clint Eastwood is reputed to have said, “No matter how hot a girl is, there’s always someone who’s tired of fucking her,” and that person always seemed to be named Warren on-to-the-next Beatty.

What accounted for this passion, outside of motive, means, and opportunity, is hard to say. To hear him tell it, his juvenile immersion in a sea of estrogen was formative. “My childhood was very strongly and very positively affected by women,” he said. “My mother, my sister, my aunts, my great-aunts, cousins, all of whom were women—and I was fortunately not smothered by them.” Indeed, with Beatty, it wasn’t just lust. He had a romantic streak; he wanted to make a connection, wanted to fall in love. Collins was ground zero, as it were, for his seduction of the whole town, the women, of course, but the men as well, figuratively speaking. No shrinking violet herself, she returned his gaze with equal boldness. He raised a glass and smiled. Her dinner partner remarked, “That boy who’s looking at you is Shirley MacLaine’s brother, Warren something or other.” She took a second look. He was wearing a blue Brooks Brothers shirt and a tweed jacket. She was struck by his clean-cut, Clark Kent good looks, Kirk Douglas dimple, and sensual mouth, which would be remarked upon shortly by no less an authority than Kenneth Tynan. There was nothing wrong with that picture but the “spots” (British for acne) that marred his face, and Fonda, his date, who was giving him her full attention.

Beatty had met Fonda earlier that year in February, when director Joshua Logan had asked him to test with her and a few other actors in New York for Parrish, a tortured teen picture set on a tobacco plantation in Connecticut. “I really thought I was hot shit and I had in fact turned down a couple of movies,” says Beatty. “I was broke of course. But I thought, I really don’t want to do something until I do something that’s good.” Working for Logan would have been an excellent start. A giant of the theater, Logan had won a Pulitzer Prize for co-writing South Pacific, and directed a number of hit plays.

The director had wanted Beatty to smother Fonda with passionate kisses, but the young actor merely pecked discreetly at her cheek. “I thought he was gay,” Fonda recalled. “He was so cute, and all his men friends were gay, and brilliant. And he liked to play piano in a piano bar—I mean, what were the odds he was straight? Shows you how dumb I was.” Underwhelmed by Beatty’s tepid approach, Logan said, “Look, are you afraid of Jane or something? Grab her, boy, grab her. Don’t be shy.” Beatty leapt upon Fonda, kissing her with such ferocity that Logan had to yell, “Cut! Stop! Hey, Warren, we’re all out of film. That’s enough!” Recalls the actor, “Oh my God. We kissed until we had practically eaten each other’s heads off.” Later, Beatty would reportedly say that she gave the best blow job in L.A., due to her ability to virtually unhinge her lower jaw, like a python that swallows prey much larger than itself. Coming from him, for whom blow jobs were routine as breathing, this was high praise indeed.

Collins next ran into Beatty at a Saturday night party given by Tyrone Power’s widow in the flats of Beverly Hills. He was playing the piano, doing impressions of Erroll Garner, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, catnip to women, who gathered around to watch him finger the ivories. They exchanged smiles, but he appeared engrossed in the music, and she went home.

The following day, Collins went to the beach to work on her tan, knowing she would have ample opportunity to show it off later when she zipped herself into a too small black faille dress for a party that evening. Her date was Gardner McKay, the six-foot-four heartthrob starring in TV’s Adventures in Paradise, who, in the considered opinion of Life magazine, was the handsomest man in America. She arrived home to find six messages from Beatty, instructing her to call him at the Chateau Marmont, where he was staying. When Beatty went after a woman, “nothing would stop him,” as production designer Dick Sylbert, who would become a colleague and close friend, put it. Before she had a chance to oblige, the phone rang. A boyish voice said, “Hi, did you get my messages?” She was impressed by the fact that although they hadn’t spoken so much as one word to each other, he had found her phone number and was so self-assured that he didn’t bother to identify himself. He invited her to dinner that night. She accepted, which meant blowing off McKay. Beatty instructed her to meet him at a place on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills at eight, adding, “I can hardly wait.”

After the party, Collins rushed back to her Shoreham Drive home, wriggled out of her dress into jeans and a shirt. She knew Beatty was a few years her junior, so she removed some of her makeup, hopped into her rented yellow Ford—he was driving a rented Chevy—and met him at the Casa Escobar for Mexican food and margaritas. She was pleased that he was an Aries, a sign compatible with her Gemini. He was pleased that she was—Joan Collins. They admired each other till well past midnight. He drove her to her car, said he would follow her home to make sure she arrived safely. As she entered her parking garage, with him right behind her, she weighed the pros and cons of asking him up for a nightcap. He got out of his car, and short-circuited her should-I-or-shouldn’t-I? interior dialogue by saying, “I’m coming up for coffee.”

This was the beginning of an intense, nearly year-and-a-half affair, during which he took over her life, evincing a need for control that would characterize his behavior in future relationships. He urged her to stop smoking and take vitamins as he did. He called her repeatedly, at her count eighteen times a day. And it wasn’t just her. He lived on the phone, making two, three dozen calls between the time his eyes opened in the morning and the time he closed them at night. He had remarkably good recall and committed many of his most frequently dialed numbers to memory after hearing or seeing them just once. (Ten years after they would break up, she ran into him at a party, and he still remembered her number on Shoreham Drive.)

Once Beatty and Collins connected, they were always together. He haunted the set where she wa...

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