Monday, December 28, 2015

Kaleidoscope, starring Warren Beatty and Susannah York (1966)

Warren Beatty and Susannah York in Kaleidoscope, 1966.

French poster for Kaleidoscope, 1966. This was similar to the British and American posters, and makes the movie look much more interesting than it really is.

Another French poster for Kaleidoscope, 1966. That drawing of Beatty and York is fantastic. I also love that this poster shows you the ending of the movie.
Kaleidoscope was Warren Beatty’s seventh movie, and his sixth bad movie. After starting his career with a bang in the terrific Splendor in the Grass, Beatty’s subsequent movies had all proved to be flops at the box office. Kaleidoscope was a typical mod mid-1960’s caper movie, trying to capture some of that James Bond-style magic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. 

Beatty plays Barney Lincoln, a wealthy American playboy living in London. Just for kicks, Barney breaks into the Kaleidoscope playing card factory in Geneva and makes small marks on the presses that print the cards so he can identify which cards his opponent has, and which card he’s about to get. Since Kaleidoscope seems to have a monopoly on supplying all of the European casinos with playing cards, his plan seems pretty fool proof, and he wins a ton of money. Along the way he meets flighty English girl Angel McGinnis, played by Susannah York. Angel tells her father about Barney and his prowess with cards. Her father happens to be is a Scotland Yard inspector, played by Clive Revill. Inspector McGinnis asks Barney to come in for questioning. But it turns out he doesn’t want to arrest Barney, and is willing to drop the charges if Barney can beat businessman and drug dealer Harry Dominion (Eric Porter) at poker and hopefully bankrupt him. Since Dominion is using Kaleidoscope brand playing cards, Barney does very well against him. But then they switch the brand of playing card! Oh no, can Barney still beat Dominion without cheating? Spoiler alert: yes, he can. After Dominion loses he goes back to his castle, and for some odd reason, Angel goes with him. Why does she do this? I don’t know, I think it’s because Dominion looks like Napoleon Bonaparte. No, really. It’s established when Angel first meets Barney that she’s obsessed with Napoleon. (Since I just finished reading two biographies of Napoleon, Angel sounds like my kind of girl.) It’s also established by his awful combed-forward hairstyle that Dominion sort of looks like Napoleon, and he has several portraits of Napoleon in his casino. When Angel first sees him she shouts out, “Vive l’Empereur!” Dominion takes this as a compliment, and begins calling her Josephine. Apparently Angel becomes so besotted with Dominion that she just takes off after him once he loses. He doesn’t kidnap her or anything she just gets in his car. So Barney chases after them, and they almost get killed by Dominion and his henchmen, but thanks to Scotland Yard, Dominion is arrested. 

Ultimately, Kaleidoscope just isn’t a very good movie. As film critic Lawrence Quirk wrote of Kaleidoscope, “Had all this been told with some wit, style, literacy and a correct blend of writing, directorial and photographic skills, Kaleidoscope might have been a smash sleeper of the kind that Beatty desperately needed.” (The Films of Warren Beatty, by Lawrence Quirk, p.126) I was really disappointed that Kaleidoscope didn’t have a groovy theme song, sung by Tom Jones or someone like that. It seems like the kind of movie that would have had a theme song.

Part of the problem is that the supporting actors, Clive Revill and Eric Porter, are much better written than the two leads. Beatty and York simply don’t have much acting work to do. Beatty never breaks a sweat, as he’s playing another glib sarcastic guy. Even when Revill questions him at Scotland Yard, Beatty makes it clear that he’s bored and doesn’t take it seriously. Beatty really doesn’t have much to do other than look good in a tuxedo. Which he succeeds at, by the way. But Revill’s character is fuller, as we can tell from the writing how much he despises Dominion and how badly he wants to see him in jail. Even in that little moment he shows more emotion than Beatty does during the whole movie. Beatty isn’t really miscast, it just that as Barney Lincoln he has nothing to do. York is fine, but her character isn’t so much a full-fledged character as just a collection of quirks. Sandra Dee was originally going to play Angel McGinnis, but Warner Brothers bought her contract out and replaced her with York. That proved to be a good move, because the movie would have been worse with Dee in it. She was not a very good actress, and I’m sure her British accent would not have been good.
Kaleidoscope was not a hit with either the critics or the public. Time magazine got off a funny jab in their review, writing, “Hero Warren Beatty tries so hard to act like Sean Connery that once or twice he almost develops a line in his face.” (Quirk, p.127) 

Behind the scenes, filming seemed to go smoothly. Director Jack Smight said, “I was warned that Warren would be difficult to deal with, both as an actor and as a human being.” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.348) But Smight shut down Beatty’s method tendencies and was able to have a good working relationship with him. Finstad’s biography of Beatty also mentions that Beatty doesn’t like to gamble, which is ironic, given all of the times that he’s played gamblers on screen.

Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers, though that Kaleidoscope would be a major hit for his studio, and he was worried that Beatty’s next picture, Bonnie and Clyde, was going to be a flop. Warner had given Bonnie and Clyde the green light without reading the screenplay, and once he actually read the screenplay he had reservations about its commercial potential. He wrote in a memo: “I don’t understand the whole thinking of Warren Beatty and Penn. We will lose back whatever we happen to make on Kaleidoscope…this era went out with Cagney.” (Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris, p.195) Of course, history proved Warner to be very wrong, as Kaleidoscope didn’t make any money, and Bonnie and Clyde made tons of it. But mostly for Warren Beatty, who got 40% of the profits from it. 

Beatty promoted the film heavily, attending the premiere at Radio City Music Hall on September 22, 1966. Beatty also appeared on What’s My Line, where he’s quite awkward, and on the Today show with Barbara Walters. Walters later wrote of their encounter in her 1970 book, How to Talk with Practically Anybody About Practically Anything:  “He answered me monosyllabically with an expression of extreme boredom bordering on distaste. Finally I resorted to the hackneyed but spoil-proof, ‘Tell me, Mr. Beatty, what is your new picture about?’…after an endless pause he said, ‘Now that’s really a very difficult question.’ I’d had it…I said, ‘Mr. Beatty, you are the most impossible interview I have ever had. Let’s forget the whole thing and I’ll do a commercial.’” (Walters, p.39. The story is also recounted and quoted in both Peter Biskind and Suzanne Finstad’s biographies of Beatty.) 

Peter Biskind opines in his biography of Beatty, “Another picture like Kaleidoscope, and Beatty would have gone the way of Troy Donahue.” (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p.101) While Biskind might be exaggerating, it’s certainly true that Beatty’s career was in very rough shape. Beatty was probably lucky that he was still getting offered leading roles. As Beatty himself said, “It got to the point where I would have to make a good picture or get myself into trouble. That’s when we made Bonnie and Clyde.” (Biskind, p.58) And that’s when Warren Beatty made Hollywood history.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Promise Her Anything, starring Warren Beatty, Leslie Caron, and Bob Cummings (1966)

Lobby card for Promise Her Anything, starring Warren Beatty and Leslie Caron, 1966.

Wardrobe test for Leslie Caron and Warren Beatty in Promise Her Anything. They make a cute couple.
Warren Beatty’s first attempt at film comedy was the dreadful Promise Her Anything, which was released in England in late 1965 and in the United States in early 1966. Promise Her Anything co-starred Beatty’s then-girlfriend Leslie Caron. Beatty’s attempts to star in What’s New, Pussycat? had failed, and Peter O’Toole ended up playing the part that Beatty had wanted. (What’s New, Pussycat? would have been a much better first comedy for Beatty than Promise Her Anything.) Perhaps the sting of not getting What’s New, Pussycat? inspired Beatty to seek out another comedy project. Unfortunately, the only thing the two movies have in common is that Tom Jones sings the theme songs for both movies.

Promise Her Anything may have been doomed from the start. Right before the film was shot, Caron’s husband, British theater director Peter Hall, filed for divorce from her, naming Caron’s affair with Beatty as one of the reasons the marriage failed. The case brought a lot of negative publicity to Caron’s romance with Beatty, and it turned into an ugly custody battle over Caron’s children with Hall. Because Caron’s divorce was happening in the British courts, Promise Her Anything was filmed in England, even though it was entirely set in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Like most movies not filmed where they’re set, you can tell it’s not New York City. 

The plot of the movie is rather ridiculous, as Caron plays a young widow with a small toddler who moves into the apartment building that Beatty lives in. Beatty plays a filmmaker who makes “girlie movies,” schlocky films of girls stripping or dancing in very little clothing. But he has more serious aspirations as a moviemaker. Like all of Beatty’s characters, he is a dreamer. In an interesting reference to the real world of 1965, it’s obliquely referenced that Caron’s late husband died in Vietnam. There’s a picture of him in a military uniform, and Caron says something about him “just being an advisor,” which was the term used for military personnel in Vietnam before Lyndon Johnson expanded the war in 1964-65. Beatty’s character is very interested in Caron, and he offers his services as a babysitter to her. Of course, Caron doesn’t know what kind of movies Beatty makes-which will make things awkward later on in the movie. Caron works for Bob Cummings, a famous child psychologist who doesn’t have any children of his own. Cummings is the best thing in the movie by far, as he was a great comedic actor, and this material is right in his wheelhouse. Because Cummings doesn’t actually like children, Caron has kept her own son a secret from Cummings, as she wants to date him, but fears that he will be put off by the fact that she has a child. This is just one of the many ways in which Caron’s character behaves like a typical annoying character in a romantic comedy. You have a son; he’s going to find out that you have a son sooner or later. If he finds out later, he will probably be very upset that you lied to him about a pretty basic fact. The lies keep increasing as Beatty brings Caron’s son to Cummings for observation-and still Caron doesn’t tell Cummings that it’s her son! It occurred to me while watching the movie that Cummings’s character might be gay. He’s never been married, he still lives with his mother-albeit in a very fancy New York high-rise, and he doesn’t make out with Caron when he visits her apartment and she greets him wearing sleepwear that is basically just a bikini. After all the predictable outrage when it’s discovered that Beatty makes girlie movies, and that the toddler is actually Caron’s son, Caron eventually chooses Beatty over Cummings because of Beatty’s bravery in saving the toddler when he climbs onto a crane-which leads to some very obvious fake shots of Beatty and the kid on the crane. Oh, and by the end of the film Beatty’s producer (the great Keenan Wynn) has set him up with a deal to make an artsy movie in Italy. So Beatty and Caron get married and go off, cue reprise of Tom Jones theme song. 

And that’s pretty much the movie. Beatty does as good a job as he can with the material, and he is his usual charming self, but there’s only so much he can do. It’s obvious even from such a crummy movie that Beatty has a gift for comedy. It was wise of him to try and branch out into comedy, as at this point in his career he had only been in dramas. And while Beatty and Caron make a very photogenic couple, it’s Cummings who gets all the laughs. If you see Promise Her Anything, look for a very young Donald Sutherland as a father who gets his books signed by Cummings after a lecture. Behind the scenes there’s not too much interesting to report. Beatty said in an interview on the set that “I’ve not had a quiet romantic life and I feel embarrassed about it.” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p. 340.) Whatever embarrassment Beatty felt about his private life being too public in 1965 certainly didn’t stop him from continuing to lead a very public romantic life for the next 25 years! By 1965, he had already had very public romances with Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, and now Leslie Caron. Beatty was getting a reputation as a male home wrecker, as he was widely seen as having broken up Wood’s first marriage to Robert Wagner and Caron’s marriage to Peter Hall. (Most sources now say that Beatty had nothing to do with the breakup of Wood and Wagner’s first marriage.) Caron and Beatty broke up shortly after they made Promise Her Anything, and Caron eventually said that Beatty had asked her to marry him, “but he was a difficult customer. I couldn’t have survived.” (Finstad, p. 340.) Like most other early Warren Beatty movies, Promise Her Anything failed to set the box office on fire, and the film’s failure further instilled a need in Beatty to come up with a hit movie, as his career seemed to be in a downward spiral.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Mickey One, starring Warren Beatty and Alexandra Stewart, directed by Robert Penn (1965)

Poster for Mickey One, starring Warren Beatty, 1965.

Warren Beatty plays the piano for Alexandra Stewart on the set of Mickey One.

Warren Beatty as Mickey One, a paranoid stand-up comedian.
In Mickey One, Warren Beatty plays a stand-up comedian who goes on the run from the Mob and ends up in Chicago. Does that sound like an interesting premise for a movie? Sure. Unfortunately, Mickey One is pretentious, self-consciously artistic, and needlessly opaque.

Director Arthur Penn was heavily influenced by the French New Wave films of the time, and Mickey One comes off as paint by numbers surrealism. Is there a mysterious mute character? Check. Are there tons of close ups of ugly people to get across your contempt for humanity? Check.

The audience is never invested enough in Mickey’s story to really care what happens to him. Perhaps the most successful part of the movie is the opening credit sequence, which introduces us to Beatty’s character, a high-living nightclub comedian who suddenly has to split town when he owes the Mob a lot of money over a gambling debt. He ends up in Chicago and steals a Social Security card. The name on the card is Mickey, and when a worker can’t pronounce the last name, he dubs Beatty “Mickey One,” which is how he’s known for the rest of the movie. Mickey starts working as a comedian again, and he meets Jenny, (the gorgeous Alexandra Stewart) a sweet girl who accepts his many eccentricities. Given the chance to play a classier nightclub owned by Ed Castle (Hurd Hatfield) Mickey must overcome his paranoia and embrace life again.

Part of the problem with Mickey One is that we never know if Mickey is crazy or not. Is he really in danger? Are there really people out to get him? We never really find out. While I understand that the ambiguity in this matter was deliberate, I don’t think it’s the best choice for involving viewers in the narrative. If you want me to care about Mickey, you need to do one of two things. If he is really in danger, you need to demonstrate that so that I will care about Mickey’s survival. If he isn’t in danger and is really just slowly going insane, then you need to show his mental deterioration in a more clear way, so that I will care about Mickey’s survival. But Penn decided to leave it up to the viewers to decide which interpretation is correct, which leads to a movie without much tension.

Part of the problem with Mickey One is the script, and the character of Mickey. As played by Beatty, he’s another callow jerk, just like every other character Beatty had played to this point, with the exception of Bud Stamper in Splendor in the Grass. Mickey is unlikeable and unrelatable, and his stand-up jokes aren’t funny at all. That might be part of the point, I suppose. Mickey is a jerk to Jenny when he first meets her, and he’s very lucky that she talks to him at all. With the rage that Mickey quickly displays, most women wouldn’t have given him the time of day.

Beatty doesn’t give a good performance as Mickey. He isn’t acting, he’s “acting.” He sometimes lapses into a sort of “tough guy” voice that isn’t his real voice. He’s still hung up on his James Dean mannerisms, and he hasn’t yet developed his own style of film acting. That would come later, when he played Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Also, Beatty was hamstrung by the fact that nearly all of his early characters lack any humor or charm. Two of the things that Warren Beatty does best on screen are humor and charm, and when he’s asked to play someone without those qualities, his performance suffers. 

The supporting cast does as good a job as they can. Alexandra Stewart is beautiful and sexy in that mid-1960’s art movie way, with her long straight hair and perfectly chiseled cheekbones. Stewart’s performance is low-key, but effective, and she is the rock that the neurotic Mickey leans on. Hurd Hatfield gives an excellent performance as nightclub owner Ed Castle, who eats only organic food. I don’t know if the audience is supposed to think that Castle is gay or not, but Hatfield gives him just enough insistent charm to make us wonder why he likes Mickey so much. Franchot Tone, most well-known for starring in Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935, has a small role as Ruby Lapp, who tells Mickey in the beginning of the movie that the Mob is after him. Fun fact, Tone was married to Joan Crawford from 1935-39. And on the poster for Mickey One Tone gets the coveted “and” billing, plus he also gets his name in a box. If you’re name isn’t above the title, the next best thing is to have your name in a box. Japanese actor Kamatari Fujiwara, a favorite actor of Akira Kurosawa’s, plays the mute character known only as “The Artist,” who keeps showing up and wordlessly beckoning Mickey to join him. “The Artist” also creates a self-destructive sculpture that is a reference to Jean Tinguely’s famous sculpture, “Homage to New York,” which partially self-destructed in the garden outside of MOMA in 1960. In real life, as in the movie, the fire department had to come to extinguish the blaze created by the sculpture. The scene where Mickey and Jenny watch the sculpture self-destruct was filmed in the skating rink at the then brand-new Marina City apartment complex. Since Mickey One was filmed in 1964, the year that Marina City was completed, it must have been the first movie to make use of these Chicago icons. 

Behind the scenes, Mickey One was a difficult shoot. Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty did not see eye to eye. In a 1972 interview Beatty said, “We had a lot of trouble on that film because I didn’t know what the hell Arthur was trying to do. I didn’t know what Penn wanted…I’m not sure that he knew himself.” (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p.69) In a 1967 article in Cahiers du Cinema, Penn said, “Warren did not want to play the role the way I wanted him to play it.” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.317) Penn also later said of Beatty, “At that stage in the game, I don’t think Warren was as adept an actor as he later became.” (Biskind, p.69) During filming Penn forced Beatty to perform multiple takes of numerous scenes, which ironically enough, would later become Beatty’s preferred way of working as a director. In what must have been a highlight for Penn, both Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the heavy hitters of the French New Wave, visited the set of Mickey One.

To the surprise of no one, Mickey One was a commercial and critical flop when it was released in September 1965. Warren Beatty later humorously told author Mark Harris, “The morning after Mickey One opened, I called the studio and said, how did it do? They said, it did thirteen dollars. I said, is that good?” (Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris, p.137) Beatty also said of the movie, “It was a very good picture, but nobody understood it.” (Finstad, p.347)

Associate producer Harrison Starr said of Mickey One, “I thought we should have looked hard and found an extraordinarily eccentric guy who had still a sufficient charisma to hold the center of the film. Warren was almost too big for the film.” (Finstad, p.314) Even Peter Biskind, who really, really likes Warren Beatty, writes in his biography of Beatty: “This was one of the worst performances of Beatty’s career.” (Biskind, p.69)

1964 was a difficult year for Warren Beatty. He needed to come up with another hit movie, and he had hired Woody Allen to write the screenplay that would eventually become What’s New, Pussycat? Beatty had high hopes for the screenplay, but was annoyed when his part started getting smaller and Allen’s part kept getting bigger. When Beatty objected to producer Charles Feldman casting his girlfriend Capucine in a large role in the film, he dropped out. Beatty thought that they couldn’t do the movie without him, and that Feldman would woo him back and give Beatty what he wanted. No dice, as Beatty was replaced with Peter O’Toole, who was a much bigger star than Beatty in 1964. Of course, much to Beatty’s chagrin, What’s New, Pussycat? went on to become the huge hit that he so sorely needed. Incidentally, the film’s title comes from Beatty’s preferred way of starting a conversation with members of the opposite sex. The What’s New, Pussycat? debacle had taught Beatty one thing: that in order to get what he wanted, he would have to become a producer.

Beatty suffered through lots of bad publicity in 1964, as he was named as a corespondent in the divorce of Leslie Caron and her husband, British theater director Peter Hall. Beatty had met Caron just before rehearsals for Mickey One started. They quickly began a relationship, and she visited him on the Chicago set of Mickey One. (The Chicago studios where Mickey One was filmed eventually became Oprah’s studios.) Caron’s marriage to Peter Hall was pretty much over before Beatty came into the picture, but Beatty took the blame for breaking them up. A nasty custody fight over Hall and Caron’s two children followed, and Beatty temporarily took up residence in England with Caron while the legal battle played out. Caron’s divorce was the reason that Beatty’s next movie, Promise Her Anything, in which he co-starred with Caron, was filmed in England, even though it was set in New York City. 

Even though Mickey One was not a successful film, there was still something good that came out of it. The best thing that Mickey One did was to bring Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn together, as they would collaborate again on a much more brilliant film that would play a significant part in altering 20th century cinema: 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Lilith, starring Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, and Peter Fonda, directed by Robert Rossen (1964)

Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg in Lilith, 1964. Could they be any prettier?

This is a totally appropriate patient/mental health assistant relationship. Just some good, wholesome frolicking in the barn. Nothing could go wrong here, certainly not between a borderline nympho and Warren Beatty.

Peter Fonda and Jean Seberg in Lilith, 1964.
Warren Beatty’s fourth movie was the psychological drama Lilith, released in 1964 and co-starring the lovely Jean Seberg in the title role. Once again, Lilith sees Beatty acting in his James Dean-influenced mumbly/confused/sensitive/angry young man mode, which he had now done in 3 of his first 4 movies. (See also, Splendor in the Grass and All Fall Down.) Lilith is another Tennessee Williams-influenced psychodrama with all of the standard elements-heavy Freudian overtones, overheated sexuality, madness, etc. (See also, Splendor in the Grass, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, -which was actually written by Williams, and All Fall Down.

In Lilith, Beatty plays Vincent Bruce, a veteran who goes back to his hometown and doesn’t quite know what to do. It’s implied that he saw combat in the military, but since the movie is set in the present time of 1964 and isn’t a period piece-i.e., set right after World War II or Korea, that must mean that he was a “military advisor” in Vietnam, although it’s never specified where he served. Anyway, Vincent decides to go to Poplar Lodge, a private mental institution, and ask for a job. He interviews with Dr. Brice (Kim Hunter) and gets a job there as an assistant. Vincent quickly becomes a confidant of Stephen, a sensitive young man played by Peter Fonda, in one of his first film roles. Stephen has a crush on Lilith, (Jean Seberg) an attractive young female patient who seldom leaves her room. Vincent is able to gain the trust of Lilith, and she agrees to accompany some of the other patients on a picnic once she learns that Vincent is going along too. Before long, Lilith develops a major crush on Vincent. Which typically might be kind of a problem, except it’s not a problem at Poplar Lodge.

The psychiatrist who runs Poplar Lodge is impressed that Vincent is able to draw Lilith out of her shell, and during a conference about her case asks Vincent, “Do you think she’s trying to seduce you?” Vincent answers, in his mumbly way, “Possibly, but it seems like more than that.” The psychiatrist then asks, “Do you ever feel inclined to accept?” Vincent responds yes. And so, instead of maybe, you know, suggesting that young, fit, super-handsome Vincent possibly spend less time unsupervised with young, stunningly beautiful Lilith, the psychiatrist just lets it go. (“Gee, maybe we should keep Warren Beatty away from the female patients…”) I guess he’s just happy that Lilith is engaging with the world more. Vincent and Lilith go on a bunch of what are basically all-day dates, and Lilith starts engaging with the world a lot more when Vincent makes love with her in a field. 

Vincent doesn’t seem to be terribly conflicted about starting a relationship with Lilith, which could be a sign that he’s not in the right job. But they continue to go on a bunch of dates, including one to a proto-Renaissance Festival, complete with jousting contest-won by Vincent, of course. Vincent eventually figures out that Lilith is kind of a nymphomaniac, since she goes off to make out with another female patient in a barn, and says creepy things to little boys she meets when they’re out in public. But that doesn’t seem to change his feelings towards her. 

A couple of times during the movie Vincent sees his ex-girlfriend, Laura, around town. Laura is a very pretty brunette with striking eyes. When I saw her on screen I thought to myself, “Wow, that actress is really attractive, who is she?” Well, as I learned on imdb after watching the movie, Laura was played by Jessica Walter in her first film role. Walter is probably best known for playing abusive matriarch Lucille Bluth on “Arrested Development.” What? Young Lucille Bluth was hot? Yeah, she was. And Laura’s husband is played by a super-young, but still not that young-looking Gene Hackman, also in his first credited movie role. Hackman is terrific in his one scene with Beatty, and he definitely steals the scene from Warren, who is underacting as much as humanly possible. Fortunately, Beatty remembered working with Hackman on Lilith when he was casting Bonnie & Clyde, and cast Hackman in his breakout role as Clyde’s brother. Once Hackman leaves to go to a meeting, Laura says to Vincent, “You know how I told you I’d only really let you make love to me once I was married? Well, I’m married now.” Surprisingly, Vincent just leaves, marking this as one of the only occasions that Warren Beatty turned down sex.

Lilith is an interesting movie, and it’s well-directed by Robert Rossen, who also helmed All the King’s Men, and The Hustler. (One of his lesser films was Alexander the Great, starring Richard Burton wearing a terrible blonde wig, which I reviewed many years ago here.) Jean Seberg, the Iowa-born beauty who became a darling of the French New Wave, thanks to her performance in Breathless, gives a wonderful performance as Lilith, bringing just the right amount of vulnerability and sensuality to the part. Seberg was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in Lilith, losing out to Anne Bancroft for her excellent performance in The Pumpkin Eater. Sadly, the coming years would take a terrible toll on Seberg, as her anti-Vietnam War activism caused her to become a target of the FBI. The FBI set out on a campaign to embarrass Seberg, and they spread the rumor in 1970 that she was carrying the child of a prominent member of the Black Panthers. The rumor was false, but it was repeated in publications like Newsweek, and Seberg went into premature labor and her child died two days later. She sued Newsweek for libel and won. Tragically, Seberg would take her own life, overdosing on pills in 1979 at the age of 40. It was a sad end for a remarkably talented and beautiful actress.

The problem with Lilith, for me, was Warren Beatty. Vincent is a very dull character-if he weren’t played by someone as handsome as Beatty, there’s no way anyone would be interested in him. I think the character of Vincent is left extremely ambiguous-and maybe that’s the point, but for me there was too much ambiguity and not enough clarity. You never really know what Vincent is thinking. Maybe the key to Vincent is that he’s going crazy throughout the course of the movie. But if that’s the key, I think that point could have been made much better.  I think the character was poorly written, and I think Beatty was miscast in the role and didn’t do a good job. Vincent is a tricky role to play, because he’s so ambiguously written, and I think Beatty never decided how he wanted to play it. Vincent is also extremely inarticulate, even without Beatty’s mumbling and pregnant pauses and hesitant speech. Vincent’s inability to articulate anything is a problem, because Warren Beatty is above all a great talker. All of his best roles are charmers who talk a lot-so when he’s stuck with a role like Vincent, he’s wasted in the part.  

Another major problem with the movie for me is how easily Vincent oversteps his professional boundaries and starts a relationship with Lilith. The fact that Vincent tells the psychiatrist that he might have sex with Lilith and no one does anything to prevent this from happening is just wrong. I know it’s an integral part of the movie, but it’s just such a terrible decision both morally and ethically. Vincent is supposedly to be helping Lilith, not having a romantic relationship with her. He’s abusing his power by having a relationship with her.

Behind the scenes, Lilith was a very difficult shoot, and director Rossen was in failing health. Lilith was his last movie, and he died in 1966, just a year and a half after Lilith was released. During pre-production, Rossen and Beatty were on very good terms. As Peter Biskind writes in his Beatty biography, “Rossen welcomed Beatty’s participation on Lilith, treating him more like a friend and collaborator than an actor for hire. He involved him in script revisions and casting.” (Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind, p.60) Natalie Wood, who had just ended her relationship with Beatty, turned down the part of Lilith. Beatty toured Europe trying to find actresses to play Lilith, eventually suggesting Jean Seberg, who was living in Paris. Seberg accepted the part, and later said it was her favorite role of her career. 

In an article written for Cahiers du Cinema in 1967, Jean Seberg wrote of the relationship between Beatty and Rossen: “At the outset, Rossen and he had a relationship which was strangely fraternal, very intimate, very like accomplices, even. Oddly, this relationship of intimacy stopped at the first day of filming, and from then on, it did nothing but deteriorate more and more.” (Biskind, p.60) What caused the relationship to change? No one seems to know for sure. But it seems clear that Beatty’s deliberateness and his habit of asking a million questions on the set annoyed Rossen to no end. Maybe the problem was that Rossen thought that Beatty should know how to play the part once filming began, whereas Beatty was expecting more of a continuing dialogue throughout filming about the part-which is the kind of relationship he had with Elia Kazan. One story from the set is that Beatty asked Rossen the stereotypical actor’s question, “What’s my motivation?” Rossen yelled back, “Your goddamn paycheck!” (Warren Beatty: A Private Man, by Suzanne Finstad, p.303) Beatty himself said of Rossen, “I saw he wasn’t making a good picture and told him so, which did not endear me to him.” (Finstad, p.303) Well, that would piss anyone off. Beatty also told the film critic Judith Crist that he had tried to quit the production of Lilith, and when the producers wouldn’t allow him to leave the movie; he deliberately stopped trying to act and gave a bad performance. (Finstad, p.304) I tend to believe this story, since Beatty’s performance is so lifeless. It’s a terrible thing for Beatty to have done, and despite thinking that he was getting back at Rossen, he was also wrecking his own career by sabotaging his performance. Jean Seberg wrote to a friend during filming, “Warren Beatty’s behavior is just unbelievable. He’s out to destroy everyone, including himself.” (Biskind, p.61) 

 Lilith opened to lukewarm reviews and an indifferent box office in October, 1964. When filming began in April, 1963, Beatty hadn’t worked on a film in almost a year and a half, and when Lilith was released movie audiences hadn’t seen him since All Fall Down, which had opened 2 ½ years earlier. Beatty had turned down many movies in between All Fall Down and Lilith, including PT 109, the story of President John F. Kennedy’s World War II experiences. Just before agreeing to make Lilith, Beatty was almost set to start filming Youngblood Hawke, but he never signed his contract for the movie and was fired by Jack Warner. Beatty’s next few movies after Lilith were not successful either. His star would continue to dim in Hollywood, and it looked like he might be a one-hit wonder.