Reds: Warren Beatty's history lesson is 25 years old

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

[Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.]

The movie star Warren Beatty, like so many people these days, is getting old, and with the hot breath of mortality on the back of his wattled neck he has undertaken the large project of reclaiming his reputation as a maker of movies. And not a moment too soon, either. Beatty's last several pictures have ranged from the kind that barely break even (Bulworth) to the kind that break the bank--calamitous, apocalyptic commercial failures like Love Affair, costarring Pierce Brosnan and Annette Bening, and Town and Country, costarring Goldie Hawn and Garry Shandling. In fact, it's difficult to find anyone in the continental United States who has watched either of these last two Beatty movies anywhere but in an airplane, and even then many passengers were reported to have jumped rather than watch Garry Shandling cuddle Goldie Hawn. Those two aren't getting any younger, either.

So now we who survived Town and Country are being asked to make room for Reds, the 1981 historical epic that Beatty produced, cowrote, directed, and starred in. For some reason Reds has never been released on home video, and although no one seems to have complained about this, Beatty and Paramount Home Entertainment are rolling out a 25th anniversary double DVD this month, with as much fanfare as they can muster. The new discs pile several hours of additional material on top of the movie's original running time of three-and-a-half hours. When a promotional preview copy arrived unbidden in the mail the other week, I was surprised to discover that Reds was worth watching, or rewatching, if only for clinical reasons. It's a period piece, of course, but in a complicated way: It's a window into the past--a window into a 1970s window into the teens, to be specific, and a relic of the kind of leftism that has already faded, though the hangover remains.

Reds tells the story of John Reed, played by Beatty, and his wife Louise Bryant, played by Diane Keaton. Reed, if he's remembered today at all--and he wasn't much remembered in 1981, either--is known as the author of Ten Days that Shook the World, an energetic account of the Russian Revolution. Vladimir Lenin himself wrote the book's introduction. Reed covered the revolution as a highly sympathetic, and highly paid, magazine correspondent. Later, before his death in 1920 at age 33, he became more directly involved, as an American member of the First Comintern. Reed was a courageous adventurer, a vivid writer, and a keen observer. He was not, however, terribly scrupulous in what he recorded. His friend Bertram Wolfe, later to become the great Sovietologist, recalled a mutual acquaintance once reproaching Reed for exaggeration in his reporting:

"But it didn't happen that way!" said the painter friend.

"What the hell difference does it make?" said Reed. He was a painter, too, he said--one who disdained "photographic accuracy" in favor of an "over-all impression."

In politics he was just as gauzy. He knew nothing of economics, socialism, Russian history, or the Russian language, and though he didn't understand capitalism he despised it, for all the usual good-hearted reasons. He fell hard for any strongman who seemed to him embarked on a grand project to remake society and lift up the working man. His politics were ambidextrous: For Reed, Mussolini no less than Lenin pointed the way to a brighter dawn. Well-meaning, ignorant, talented, romantic--he was, in other words, a bit of a booby. Growing up, Warren Beatty idolized him.

As director and screenwriter, Beatty applied Reed's reportorial principle--forgo accuracy for the big picture--to the telling of Reed's adventures. In a notice about the movie's rerelease, a reviewer for the New York Times called Reds a "superior history lesson," which just goes to show how badly Times movie reviewers need a history lesson. It is much easier to make the case that Reds is a grand work of the cinematic art, which it isn't, than that it's an adequate means of conveying accurate information about John Reed or the revolution. Crucial events are telescoped or ignored, characters invented or reimagined, chronologies upended. Scenes that never happened--such as a final confrontation between Reed's wife Louise and her sometime lover Eugene O'Neill, played by Jack Nicholson--become pivot points in the plot.

And it's not as though Beatty was in such a rush he didn't have time to get the story straight. He began working on a screenplay about his hero not long after his breakout movie Bonnie and Clyde, in 1967. This was at the dawn of Radical Chic, when a left-wing movie glamorizing a fellow-traveling, Mussolini-loving American pseudo-Communist--a prime example of one of Lenin's "useful idiots"--might have seemed like a terrific idea; edgy, even. In a new interview included in the DVD release, Beatty mentions that he was inspired to do the movie by what he calls (still!) "the mistaken American paranoia about Communism." He hired the British playwright Trevor Griffiths, a foam-flecked Marxist propagandist, to help him write the screenplay.

Unluckily for them, between the original inspiration in 1967 and the release of the movie in 1981, a terrible thing happened: the 1970s. From Angola to Vietnam to Cambodia to Afghanistan, Communism looked less romantic by the day, and even for some leftists, "fellow traveling" took on a slightly sinister cast. Paranoid Americans elected as their president a Baptist scold who, upon taking office, turned around and began lecturing them about their "inordinate fear of Communism." Meanwhile, the film production ground on, and by the time of its release in 1981 Americans had kicked out the Baptist scold in favor of a president who gave every indication of believing we really would all be better dead than red.

Tossed by these ideological crosscurrents--from Radical Chic to detente to Reaganism--Beatty apparently suffered a failure of nerve. The politics of Reds are a muddle of feints and hesitations and unexplored inferences. As the great movie critic Richard Grenier pointed out at its release, its point of view is best described as "anti-anti-Communist," not so morally obtuse as to be pro-Communist but disdainful above all of anyone who disdained Communism with unseemly zeal. Beatty takes much greater care, for instance, demonstrating the creepiness of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, father of America's first Red Scare in the late teens and early 1920s, than portraying any lapse of the Bolsheviks.

By most accounts, Reed himself had grown disillusioned with the Revolution at the end of his life. Beatty hints at the disenchantment but seems unsure of its cause. Reed is shown objecting strenuously to a Bolshevik functionary who has rewritten one of his dispatches, after which Reed never quite rekindles the old revolutionary fire. A hack myself, I sympathize. I hate it when that happens. But as a source of disillusionment, "They messed with my copy" doesn't compare with "They're liquidating two million kulaks."

With his politics so uncertain--or OTB (overtaken by events) as the journalists say--Beatty decided, instead, to make a movie about sex. Here's where the re-release of Reds has much of its contemporary interest, inadvertent though it is. While he was developing Reds, Beatty made two movies, Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait, that celebrated his status as a swordsman of world-historical achieve ments. Reds gave him the chance to reconcile his progressivism with his priapism--which is also, when you think about it, what the entire New Left was trying to do in the 1970s, too. The movie catches him at the zenith of his pulchritude. Unfortunately, it catches Diane Keaton, playing his wife, at the zenith of looking like Diane Keaton. Yet old photos show Reed to have been an oafish-looking, potatoey fellow, while Bryant was often described as a great beauty. Maybe Beatty should have played her instead.

People who recall the movie from 1981 may be surprised to discover that Louise, not Reed, is at the movie's heart. It begins and ends with her. In real life, however, whatever her looks, Louise Bryant was a much less appealing person than Reed, and much less interesting. By turns an aspiring poet, journalist, artist, and model, she dumped her first husband to follow Reed to New York City, where they set up house in the center of a colony of Greenwich Village bohos. She worked his journalism contacts to build a career of her own. It never quite panned out. She had none of Reed's talent, none of his insouciance or large-heartedness. But the ideology of Free Love--redubbed sexual liberation 50 years later--offered compensations. She took several lovers on the side, including O'Neill, at the time her husband's best friend. She dumped them, too, when she followed Reed to Russia in hopes of advancing her career. And while he grew uneasy as the revolution curdled, she accommodated herself to Leninism quite easily.

She wrote admiringly, for example, of Feliks Dzerzhinski, founder of the Soviet secret police: "It was his duty to see that the prisoners were quickly and humanely disposed of. He performed this grim task with a dispatch and an efficiency for which even the condemned must have been grateful, in that nothing is more horrible than an executioner whose hand trembles and whose heart wavers."

From this sour, unpromising material, Beatty tried to fashion Louise into a feminist ideal, an independent woman and early career gal, whose sex life was omnivorous, earnest, politically potent, and, by the look of it, not much fun at all. The Louise of Reds is as much of a stud as Beatty was in real life, but her studliness is a means to personal liberation. While the God of socialism was failing, on screen and off, Louise holds out a separate set of possibilities. In retrospect, Keaton's performance stands as the high-water mark of a certain kind of feminism, and--wonderful to say--it's the most anachronistic thing in the movie. In 1981 she was supposed to look self-actualized, noble, and worthy of emulation. Now, in the post-feminist age, where the most wholesome elements of feminism have been widely absorbed while others, less wholesome, have been discarded, Louise comes off as shrill, impetuous, self-centered, grandstanding, hedonistic, irresponsible--a mess.

The sexual revolution, we now know, didn't turn out any better than the Russian one. Of course, there's no way that Warren Beatty, of all people, could have figured on that in 1981. He probably thought he was pointing the way to a brighter dawn. Now this creaky old flick captures something else: The moment when sex displaced socialism as the ideological preoccupation of the left--another signpost, confidently directing all who would follow it to another dead end.

comments powered by Disqus