Warren Beatty blushed.
Dustin Hoffman -- his old friend, sometimes co-star ("Ishtar") and cameo mumbler in Beatty's "Dick Tracy" -- decided to do a little kibitzing at Beatty's expense. So he sidled up to a table where Beatty was holding forth to a handful of international journalists -- Spanish, Australian, German and Dutch, for instance.
"Pretend I'm Warren Beatty," yelled Hoffman. "He won't listen to me. Ask me personal questions. I keep telling him how to handle them."
"Go ahead ask him," says Beatty, getting into the anything-for-a-laugh spirit of Hoffman's neo-Borscht Belt tummling.
Uncomfortably personal and intrusive questions for Beatty come from around the table and Hoffman shouts his answers.
Is it true that you and Madonna are a couple? "Yes!" Is it still going on? "Yes!" Will you ever write your memoirs (now there would be a book)? "Yes, next question" screams Hoffman getting into it. "Come on. Get rougher. Get more nasty."
OK. Some of the journalists are enjoying this as much as Hoffman. The questions become absurdly fanzine-ish. Do you think your relationship with Madonna will last? "Yes!" Forever? "Yes!" Are you going to marry her? "Yes!" Isn't all this a publicity stunt? "No!" Are you two going to have children? "Yes!" "Yes!...And we'll all be in bed together doing those things!! Yessss!!!"
Huge laughter rocks the table from all chairs except Beatty's. He is red-faced and a bit flustered -- appreciative of his friend's antically disruptive spirit but truly uncomfortable. "You gotta do it that way," mutters a gleeful Hoffman, walking off, leaving his old friend's dignity in temporary tatters. Only a friend would be allowed such license -- and even then only a friend who happened to be one of the best actors in American film.
In any case anyone in America has noticed, Warren Beatty's longtime press silence has been broken -- not just broken, but smashed, pulverized, atomized. In magazine after magazine and TV talk show after TV talk show, Beatty has dynamited 12 years of public ice. He has joined the American Way of Hype.
Many of the interviews -- Barbara Walters' and "PrimeTime Live's," for instance -- have been unbelievably dreadful.
Sitting with him and a table full of journalists is fascinating. He is 53 (more or less the same age as Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jane Fonda) and has the occasional crow's foot and wrinkle to prove it. The occasional crow's foot, etc. doesn't seem to interfere much with his vibes. Female journalists -- who would later claim not to have felt any tidal pull on their hormones -- secretly fidget their feet under the table at approximately the rate of a rabbit's heartbeat while Beatty is sitting close by.
Deserved or not, his reputation is that of a man of astonishing success with some of the most famous women of the late 20th century (Woody Allen once said that if there is such a thing as reincarnation, he wants to come back as Warren's Beatty's fingertips). You'd think after the first 15 or 20, a man of wide horizons might take up cribbage or bowling or Arabic. And, in truth, Beatty's other dabblings include Democratic politics where many say he is a backstage figure of peculiar but significant influence.
Still, his reputation is his reputation. "I'm not sour on the media," he says. "As you can see, I enjoy talking to people and I almost include myself in the media."
It goes without saying that Beatty's new movie, "Dick Tracy" -- and the desire of Disney's executives to sell the hell out of it in any way possible -- has a lot to do with his new stance.
In the corporate world of Disneydom, the hysterically hyped "Dick Tracy" is just another one of Disney's "Summer '90 Premieres" along with Alan Alda's film "Betsy's Wedding," Frank Marshall's upcoming thriller "Arachnophobia," the Epcot Center's wild new Dolphin Hoteland, yes, the revived and refurbished "Let's Make a Deal." Across the hall from where Beatty talked to members of the press, people dressed as rutabagas and chuck wagons waited patiently for their chance to "deal" with Monty Hall.
In any case, a kind of glasnost has come to Beatty's cold war with the press. And it has come at Eastern European speed.
"I realized if I don't show up, you -- in general, I mean -- will simply invent now what I said. I'd rather at least have a shot at it. You -- and I don't mean you -- will probably invent something sexual or something about dieting or something about violence or some insult or some dramatic story. I'd rather try to do it myself. For the 12 or 13 years that I did not do interviews, I was doing it wrong."
In the past three decades, Beatty has become part of American folklore. To those who care little about his work as producer ("Bonnie and Clyde") and director ("Reds," "Dick Tracy"), he is the postmodern version of Errol Flynn. He is the vain, pluperfect dilettante who wears apricot scarves, dabbles in politics, makes movies and shows up in the nasty, nattering songs and memoirs of beautiful women.
The man you meet is an entirely different matter -- an old-fashioned New York humanist in Angeleno wolf's clothing, plum-colored jacket, black T-shirt in this case. He is intelligent, bordering on brilliant. He is also sometimes thoughtful bordering on inarticulate. No matter how much he came to symbolize blow-dried coastal hedonism after "Shampoo," his intellectual and moral center seems to be back in '50s and '60s theater in New York.
He is as intelligent as he need be to impress, say, a brilliant playwright. Like Elia Kazan (who cast Beatty in the actor's first film, "Splendor in the Grass"), he hasn't bothered to disguise his appetites for the simple reason that he seems to retain a naive '50s and '60s faith in unconscious, the will, the libido and such. His appetites have had to be channeled to go with the historic flow of changing mores, but his allegiances to the older ideals seem to die hard.
His one true majestic talent, as critic David Thomson once suggested, is for seduction -- sexual, business, political, all sorts. If he is, indeed, the Don Giovanni in the American opera house, it may be as much of his instant and apparently genuine interest in female intelligence as it is any of his physical endowments. It's instantly apparent the minute he opens his mouth in female company. Consider his "take" on the media and the tabloid culture of contemporary America after 30 years of celebrity. It is absolutely brilliant. (He calls it his "technology rap") It may be a synthesis of things he has read or heard. Then again, it may be some notions independently arrived at after being on the business end of 30 years of sexual rumors and testimony.
Either way, it is clearly the product of a well-oiled and functioning intelligence.
"I think our technology has far outpaced our ability to utilize it. If I could do a graph of inaccuracy in the 30 years I've been famous, the '60 and the '70s and the beginning of the '80s would go along like that (a middling level) and the last five years would go like that (way up, off the chart). And so would the technology. Faxes, cellular phones, all that crap, (and they're not crap, they're wonderful in their way) -- we send the messages before we check the fact, so that our carelessness is now ore important.
"It's all moving much faster. People get the message faster. They forget it faster. They say incredible things about us today that would have mortified us for months and years before. Now it's forgotten in three days and nobody repeats it if it's that inaccurate. When you are very famous and for a long, long time you are more aware of this than people who aren't famous."
It's impossible to know the truth about politics, the stock market and such, says Beatty, because there's no center for the information: "There's no there there, as Gertrude Stein and said about Oakland.
"You don't know how much inaccuracy there is about those other subjects because nobody can check that. Nobody knows what the stock market's doing. Nobody knows about the savings and loan or the budget deficit.
"I do know about my sex life. I do know what I'm doing. So I say to myself: 'Wait a minute. What's going on here? Nobody checks this, nobody checks that.' We're in some sort of crisis. Something will have to happen. Probably what will have to happen is that we will move further to what (Supreme Court Justice) Hugo Black always said we should have, which is no libel laws at all. We should be able to say anything we want, because that's free speech. Let the buyer beware. Let anybody say what they want to say. And let the public know that you cannot sue someone and collect.
"You don't understand how dangerous it is now. Don't you realize that the libel laws don't function at all? And that if we made them function, free speech would be destroyed? If you believe in the First Amendment -- and if you have anything else to do in life -- you can't go around correcting these things.
"If you keep saying stuff that's untrue, then we'll know you're a liar. If I keep saying stuff that's untrue, you'll know I'm a liar. That, I think, is free speech. I don't take it personally. I think it comes out about you, I think it comes out about me. The moment you're really famous, it comes out about you. I'm part of it. I'm not above or below it. I'm right in there with you.
"Eventually, it's all going to make us realize how much lying is going on. And when we realize how much lying is going on, it's going to make us more active in what we require. We'll stop buying the s---. We're buying it now. . . . (Eventually) we'll say: 'This publication is more accurate. I'm going to buy that. Now I realize there wasn't a three-headed man who saved a dog from a burning building which fell in the middle of a transvestite's wooden leg."
The resounding failure of Elaine May's $40 million-plus movie "Ishtar" is one of the many media blows that have rained on his head recently.
"I think the picture is funny. I did everything she said. It was not a big success, but I think it's good. I have learned that nowadays, when movies are released in 2,000 theaters, you absolutely must have that release managed by someone who wants it to succeed. You cannot have it managed by someone who wants it to fail. That release was managed by a man (then-Columbia studio head David Puttnam) whom, to this day, I have not met. I never received a telephone call, a letter, a telegram. I have been told he never even saw the movie."
About Puttnam's vehement aversion to huge Hollywood star salaries, Beatty said: "A marketplace is a marketplace. I think David Puttnam has a problem about stars. I think it's an emotional one. I can tell you that Dustin and I -- on that picture -- we saw the budget and said: 'This is terrible. Let's take our money on the other end (as a percentage of the box office gross.)' The studio wouldn't allow us to, because they had made a deal with HBO for 50 percent of the negative cost. So the higher the negative went, the more money they'd be guaranteed back.
"So we said, 'OK, we won't take the money on the back end, but let's please not make a lot of publicity about what this is costing.' They said: 'Of course we won't. No one will know.' Then they were all fired. New management came in -- Mr. Puttnam -- and decided to gain a lot of publicity by talking about what a horrendous amount of money had been spent. And the picture went down the tubes because all the reviews were about the budget. And the picture did cost too much."
Beatty said he didn't want to produce and direct "Dick Tracy" as well as star in it, but "sometimes that's the only way to get it done. I have a strong personality. If I develop a concept about something and then I ask someone else to direct it and then, if he's good, he's going to have his own ideas, it becomes a lot more work than just going out and doing it myself. It's not fun for him -- or her."
"Dick Tracy" is all Beatty's show. He got an exceptional team together and stayed out of its way.
"I got up this morning. I got all the reviews in. They're the best reviews I have ever gotten on a movie. And the Disney people say they're the best reviews they've ever seen for a movie. And everybody's saying, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. . . . But what about the T-shirts?' Well, it's OK by me. I think I've got a cut of the T-shirts. fine."
Still, he says the reason he makes movies is simple: "You want to do it. You want to see the movie yourself. That's what keeps you going. That's what gives you the energy to do it. When you get kind of rich and famous, you have to look to see the reason you want to do something. Otherwise, the money is not important enough."