Times change, and while it's a stretch to say Warren Beatty has changed with them, the writer, producer, director and star — who upended Hollywood with "Bonnie and Clyde" 49 years ago and hasn't directed a movie since "Bulworth" in 1998 — is giving it a shot.
The 79-year-old Beatty came through Chicago recently ("I'm pumpin' a movie!" he reminds me, with a grin) as part of a promotional tour, the likes of which Beatty might've sneered at years ago. He is Old Hollywood enough to remember when Hollywood was an utterly different business; when moviegoing came in a single basic shape, size and experience; and when an eccentric, medium-budget picture without bankable stars wasn't a rare bird.
Beatty produced, wrote, directed and co-stars in "Rules Don't Apply." Inspired by his own memories of arriving in Hollywood in the late 1950s, the film is the Howard Hughes biopic Beatty has been noodling for decades. But he's the first to point out that it's not really a Hughes biopic, even though Hughes (whom he plays) is the dominant presence and narrative string-puller.
The fictional central couple is played by Alden Ehrenreich and Lily Collins. Ehrenreich's character, Frank Forbes of Fresno, Calif., has been hired by the reclusive Hughes as a chauffeur; Collins, portraying Marla Mabrey, a virginal small-town Virginia Baptist with starry aspirations, is a fresh LA arrival, one in a stable of RKO studio contract hopefuls under Hughes' obsessive control.
Stardom knocked on the Virginia-born Baptist Beatty's door early, with his feature film debut in director Elia Kazan's feverish 1961 drama of adolescent sexual angst, "Splendor in the Grass." Much of "Rules Don't Apply" takes place in and around the rooms and bungalows of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and there's a story there.
"I never met him," Beatty tells me in between bites of fresh fruit, "but I like to say I feel like I met everyone who ever met him. People did not dislike him, but they had kind of ridiculous difficulties with all kinds of things, like scheduling, or his need to … hide, let's say, which was better described as his need to control how he was seen. Which I would compare to Greta Garbo. Whom I also never met."
So there's Beatty, in Hollywood, hot off "Splendor in the Grass."
"I was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I got lucky early. First movie I made with Kazan was a hit, so I didn't have to do movie after movie, and I had a tendency then to sit back and experience this little thing we call life." Many dates with many women, among other pursuits. "And I had what I think was a sensible paranoia about the tabloids. I felt the tabloids were following me, spying on me, at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
"So I called the desk and I said, 'I just wanted to say how disappointed I am that you allow the tabloids to spy on me.' And the man on the phone says: 'Could you hold on a second?' He comes back and says: 'Mr. Beatty, could we ask you to keep something in confidence?' I said yes. 'Those people are not with the tabloids. They are with Mr. Hughes.' You mean Howard Hughes? Are you telling me Howard Hughes is in the next suite? 'Well, we don't know.' What are you telling me? 'Well … he has seven suites.' Seven suites? 'And confidentially, please, he also has five bungalows.'
"And I thought, well, there's a movie in that."
Aviator, movie mogul, pathetic hermit with a Baskin-Robbins fetish in his later years, Hughes was a deeply improbable American figure. "So many stories were told about him," Beatty says. "And at the time, when I was new in Hollywood, stories were being told about me that had nothing to do with the truth. In my own particular brand of narcissism, I probably wanted to control how I was seen." The parallels are there for the picking, though Beatty seems unlikely to enter a pathetic hermit phase. He has a lot in his life beyond his latest movie, chiefly his marriage to actress Annette Bening (who's in "Rules Don't Apply") and their children.
I ask him about movie stars he fell for when he was a kid. "Paulette Goddard," he says after a "Reds"-length pause, dreamily. "I had a difficult time getting over her. Katharine Hepburn, I remained in love with her from the time I was a boy until she made her last picture, with me and Annette ("Love Affair"). I was very enthusiastic about Abbott and Costello. Also the Marx Brothers."
A different generation of Americans saw "Bonnie and Clyde" at an impressionable age. It opened in August 1967 to wildly mixed reviews. "It was panned viciously by certain older critics, and then something interesting happened. Joe Morgenstern at Newsweek, who'd panned the hell out of it, the following week he took it back and said it was really good. I called him, and I said: 'May I ask you what happened?' And he said: "My wife, (the actress) Piper Laurie, said I was wrong. She said it was a good movie, and that I should see it again.' September, October, November 1967, the movie becomes widely popular in Europe, particularly in the UK, and by December Time magazine put it on the cover, and said that it had changed moviemaking. And then the picture made most of its money in January and February 1968, when it came back to the same theaters it originally did OK in."
Such a timeline no longer is possible in theatrical exhibition. "Now we're dealing with these," he says, pointing to his iPhone, parked on the table next to the fruit. "We can have what we want, when we want it, and we can have it at home. My kids, for instance. I'll say: 'Let's go out to a great restaurant! You'll love it!' And their response is: 'Dad, couldn't we just order in? Pizza?' Having to go out to see a movie …" Here Beatty pauses again. "You want to know what you're going to get when you go out, I guess. With all areas of life. Movies, food, everything. You want to go back to that place you liked."
So where does that leave a movie like "Rules Don't Apply"?
Beatty answers that one by not quite answering it. "It's always been difficult to get something new made. The midpriced picture now is a gamble. And the studios think of themselves more as distributors than financiers. So putting together the finance can be a lot of work. It almost always is. If you're doing an independent movie, it's probably not a sequel, it's not a tentpole. It's an unknown."
"Rules Don't Apply" opens Wednesday.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.