As a biography, this is perhaps a failure - Peter Biskind does not really justify his early claim that Warren Beatty has led 'one of the great 20th Century lives' and getting lots of people to say bad things about the film-maker is not the same as getting under his skin. However, this was not really intended to be a conventional biography anyway. We are told virtually nothing of the star's childhood / family life etc, indeed we get past page 150 before we learn that Warren is not Beatty's first name. As the author says, he can only describe Beatty, not explain him. Instead it is a fascinating appraisal of a brilliant career and an imperfect man, whose boundless ambition and perfectionism (containing within it the fatal flaws of control-freakery and chronic indecisiveness) led him to scale glorious heights but - nearly as often - snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Beginning just before Splendour in the Grass and continuing past the star's most recent film, Town & Country, the book charts the films, the spats, the womanizing and the politicking all in Biskind's characteristically punchy prose. Beatty has co-operated with the book, after a fashion, but is largely on hand to merely correct other people's versions of events, not to offer any self-analysis. Unfortunatley several key people have declined to speak with the author including long-time friends and collaborators Robert Towne and Jack Nicholson. Plenty of people have spoken though and the book is chock-full of stories, good and bad. Unfortunately, a lot of the stories and quotes from the chapters that cover the Seventies already appeared verbatim in Biskind's peerless Easy Riders, Raging Bulls although there are additional anecdotes and of course the earlier book did not cover all of Beatty's movies from the period and nothing from beyond. Also Biskind's analyses of the films themselves are excellent, particularly Bonnie & Clyde and Shampoo.
Beatty emerges from the book as quite a sad figure, a man with extraordinary talents who made some sublime movies but who has squandered his professional reputation and now doesn't get the respect his career deserves, a controlling man who was willing to put any number of colleagues and friends through the wringer striving for greatness and acclaim but was frequently his own worst enemy. When he was on top, his pictures (and himself personally) minted money and were routinely nominated for rafts of oscars but his star diminished dramatically and he is now virtually unemployable.
Beatty's reason for encouraging Biskind's project was apparently so that his kids could read something that gave a sense of his importance as a film-maker. But Easy Riders, Raging Bulls had already set that out amply (although the earlier book didn't go into much detail about his masterpiece Reds - which is perhaps what gnawed at Beatty) and a lot of the extra material here from that golden period is about the star's womanizing and difficult behaviour.
However, it is a brilliant book and it's always a pleasure to read a writer who writes about films as if they matter. The great thing about the author's approach is that he takes glamourous movie idols and humanizes them. Inevitabley this means bringing these gods of the silver screen down to earth - uncomfortable for them, even 'humiliating' perhaps. But ultimately, behind the 'star' Biskind shows us the man.
For a man who looks, as far as the photos would suggest, pretty much perfect, his inner persona seems at odds. Certainly, according to the author, Beatty strives for perfection but yet finds himself incapable of dealing conclusively with his personal relationships. As for the maths, the author calculates that his subject matter has bedded nearly thirteen thousand women over thirty years. Well, where did he find the time to be as good a film star/actor, producer and writer as he appears to be? And these appearances are not deceptive, witness Bonny & Clyde just as one example; fans can and will list all the other films and even if some were hopeless, he still found the time to be in them. So, obviously fatigue has now played its part, as he appears to be wrapped up in domestic bliss; mind you, in his early seventies, it's maybe time he was.
The book is big on only part of Beatty's life and given that it's over 600 pages, it's perhaps as well we've been spared much of the earlier years. However, if you need an insight into a man and his image, this book can do no wrong. The author has certainly done his homework and is obviously a big fan before he wrote the first paragraph. I guess if Dick Tracy and Warren Beatty were interchanged, would we notice the difference? Well, yes, I suppose so. One's an American idol and the other's an....Mmmmm, I see what you mean. If you are a fan, you'll enjoy this book. If not, you can dip in and out, taking snapshots of people, films, the industry, the names and still feel there's unlikely to be anyone quite like Warren Beatty ever again. Ladies, don't all sigh at once.
A comprehensive bio that from the outset delivers what Biskind intended which is to put Beatty on show, not analyse or explain, and what you are left with is a talented individual, narcissistic, procrastinator, who could drive co-writers and editors to a madhouse. For prospective film producers this is a great guide as Beatty was a master at getting the best deal from studios. It is a long read and repeats itself (or Beatty repeats himself) but this just gives greater weight to its subject matter.