Warren Beatty never did come face-to-face with eccentric entrepreneur Howard Hughes, whom he plays in his new 1950s Hollywood-set comedy Rules Don’t Apply. But as a Southern transplant in Los Angeles destined for movie stardom circa 1958, he’d heard plenty of wild tales about the reclusive billionaire and studio mogul that he’d later weave into his long-gestating passion project, the first film he’s directed since 1998’s Bulworth.
“That doesn’t make them true,” Beatty smiled on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills, remembering the anecdotes and whispers that always made the notoriously impossible Hughes so entertaining a figure. “And as a person who’s used to having stories made up about him since 1958, that’s a difficulty I understand.”
Beatty was 21 years old when he followed his older sister, Shirley MacLaine, into showbiz. Decades later, he set Rules Don’t Apply in 1958, the same year he came to Hollywood, envisioning a drawn-out romance between Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) and Marla (Lily Collins), two wide-eyed young dreamers who come to Los Angeles to work for Hughes—he as a chauffeur, and she as one of RKO’s contract starlets.
But as the late 1950s give way to the early 1960s, Frank and Marla see their dreams transform drastically, tangled up on the periphery of Hughes’ erratic flights of fancy. The pair is also strictly forbidden from giving into temptation by both their boss and their respective religious faiths. The film is less about Hughes, Beatty says, than it is a wry look at the undercurrent of sexual puritanism that persisted then—even in a studio system that was in the business of selling sex, love, and fantasy.
“I always found Howard Hughes to be an… amusing obstacle,” Beatty said. “The consequences of all of these rules of puritanism are very often comical, but the consequences can also be sad. Virginia, the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest religious organization in the United States, was an atmosphere I grew up in. And Hollywood, then as always, was making money out of sexual attraction. There’s something a little bit hypocritical in all of that.”
There’s a faint echo of that famously elusive Hughes mystique in Beatty, who at 79 still has a knack for charming and beguiling everyone who comes into his orbit. Beatty plays Hughes as a brilliant ball of daffy dysfunction as mercurial as he is demanding, as obsessed with his failing aeronautics business and his lingering daddy issues as he is with buying up all the banana nut ice cream in the city.
It’s the latest comedic role the Oscar-winner has taken on for himself, after his appearance in 2001’s Town and Country and his turn as an unhinged, truth-spitting senator in 1998’s Bulworth. He hasn’t gone dramatic in the two decades since he starred opposite Annette Bening, whom he married in 1992 and has four children with, in 1994’s Love Affair.
One of those Hughesian misconceptions Beatty takes issue with is the notion that he’s always been a womanizing playboy. Like Hughes, Beatty’s high-profile relationships with some of Hollywood’s most notable actresses took on legendary proportions of their own: Diane Keaton, Julie Christie, Natalie Wood, and Madonna among them. He waited until he was 54 to tie the knot with Bening, who also has a supporting role in his new film, partly because of a certain disillusionment he developed living in Hollywood.
“It came pretty early, because I saw things happening around me that I had felt possibly shouldn’t be happening,” said Beatty. “I began to see a huge rise in the number of divorces. People would say I was always afraid of being married. No! I wasn’t afraid of being married. I was afraid of being divorced.”
“So I waited a long time. And I had some very, very nice… well, nice is too mild a word—very meaningful relationships with wonderful women who, interestingly, were also not very interested in marriage. I think they had a sense of how the society was changing.”
He paused. “In other words,” he said, “I was not living as a monk.”
Beatty tends to speak long-windedly, his words chosen deliberately and his stories peppered with wit, all of it delivered with charm. He says he’s trying not to “pontificate” on politics as he promotes his 1950s-set romantic comedy, but how can he not? His go-to ways to evade thorny questions are brief but effective. “I don’t know” is an easy out, he chuckles, as are three more words he says he frequently wields: “Don’t start me.”
But just the other day someone sent him an old magazine spread that gave him a laugh. There on the cover of Newsweek, October 1999, was Beatty, Donald Trump, and Jesse Ventura, a trifecta of flashy political outsiders then threatening to enter the presidential race. Beatty pulled out his iPhone, found the image in his email, and laughed.
The longtime Democrat had, after all, campaigned for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and hit the trail with George McGovern in 1972, right between McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Parallax View. He’d come close to entertaining a dip into political office, maybe, once. Back in 2000, when Trump was dancing around the Reform Party, Beatty also flirted on the outskirts of the presidential circus, teasing the media.
“People were trying to get me to run in New Hampshire and I never made a comment about it,” he shrugged. “I was flattered that people would be kicking it around, but I’ve been through a lot of campaigns, from Jack Kennedy to Bobby Kennedy to George McGovern.”
Traveling around to promote his first film in 16 years, however, gave him a familiar thrill. “I feel like I’m in New Hampshire and Wisconsin with George McGovern in 1972,” he grinned. “I kind of enjoy it, you know?” Fast-forward a decade and a half from that Newsweek cover and Beatty is cautiously wary of weighing in on the future under now President-elect Trump.
“We may be surprised,” he said of the reality-TV personality and businessman turned leader of the free world. “And then again, maybe we won’t be.”
Beatty urged against overreacting to the extreme regime change in the White House, in spite of continuing alarm voiced by the American public as Trump fills his potential Cabinet with figures politically hostile to Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, and the LGBT community. Trump’s incoming right-hand man, Steve Bannon, is a hero to white nationalists who thinks Darth Vader is a role model. Last weekend in Washington, D.C., white supremacists celebrated Trump’s victory with parties and Nazi salutes.
And yet Beatty resists the rush to judgment. “I think we don’t know yet what the possibilities are,” he said. “And I think we have to respect our system and not respond precipitously. I think we’ll have to see what happens.”
Beatty recently called his transgender son Stephen “a revolutionary, a genius, and my hero.” But he also says he’s not yet worried about what the future will hold for the LGBT community under Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who signed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act as the governor of that state, opposed the 2009 Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, and advocated for conversion therapy. “I think it would be premature to come to some conclusion about something like that,” he said.
During this election season, cautious optimism is a stark contrast to the film of Beatty’s that has come most frequently to mind: Bulworth, the political comedy he directed, starred in, and co-wrote with Jeremy Pikser about a suicidal Democratic senator who takes out a contract on himself and begins to speak his mind in his final days, with the entire country enrapt. The film’s incisive look at race relations, the media, and institutional inequality remains relevant today, even if Bulworth’s rhyming style does not.
In a time of #OscarsSoWhite and Black Lives Matter, with immediate and growing unease over the legitimacy of the “alt-right” in Washington, many are wondering how the entertainment industry and Hollywood’s liberals will respond to the Trump presidency. Beatty, who with a few exceptions cast predominantly white actors in Rules Don’t Apply, considered the artist’s responsibility to answer growing calls for diversity and progress.
“We have a society that comes from everywhere in the world, more than any other place does,” Beatty began. “And in the words of Rodney King, he said something intelligent: ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ I think he said it well. What I also feel is that as we see around the world—Brexit, and what seems to be happening in France, and what is happening in certain areas of our country here—we will be happier if we realize what Rodney King said.”
He paused to put it another way. “Did you ever see Bulworth? There’s a scene at the end of Bulworth where Bulworth is giving a television interview. And he just has no inhibition at all about anything, he’s just saying what he thinks is true. I think he had a good answer to that.”
In said scene, Bulworth—who romances a young black activist, played by Halle Berry—takes to the airwaves to deliver his master plan for fixing racial disparity in America: “All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction,” he says. “Everybody just gotta keep fucking everybody until we’re all the same color.”
Bulworth’s radical platform may not quite be the best or most practical way to bring the fractured nation together. The better takeaway in 2016 might be the film’s spotlight on how easily an unexpected, loud, and unapologetically outspoken political personality grabs the country’s easily diverted attention. These are, after all, even more distracted times.
“What the character in Bulworth is saying—in Freudian terms, the id—has more to do with what Bernie Sanders was saying than anyone else,” Beatty said, munching thoughtfully on slices of watermelon. “But the value of spontaneity, the entertainment value of spontaneity, can be a danger.”
The entertainment value inherent to political life is something Beatty says he used to chat about with his late friend and fellow actor, President Ronald Reagan. The Republican POTUS brought it up in conversation once, years ago, when he invited Beatty to screen his Communist drama Reds at the White House.
“We used to, in a comical way, argue back and forth. He was a very likable person,” Beatty fondly recalled. “And he said to me at intermission, not trying to be funny, ‘I don’t understand now how anyone could be president without being an actor.’”