Sunday, December 04, 2011


Re-fighting the Cold War

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This piece originally posted Jan. 3, 2007. I'm re-running it today to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie Reds.

By Edward Copeland
It was with trepidation that I decided to use the occasion of its 25th anniversary DVD release to face off again with one of my old cinematic archenemies, namely Warren Beatty's 1981 film Reds. I'd known for a long time this day would come because through those two-and-a-half decades, I'd carried the scars of enduring the film and it had remained as one of the most boredom-inducing experiences of my filmgoing life. However, I also knew that it probably wasn't fair to the film. I saw Reds in its initial release — when my Oscar obsession was blossoming in seventh grade and deep down, I knew that perhaps a 12-year-old wasn't the movie's ideal audience and I needed to give the film another chance, to watch it with fresh, adult eyes.

Could the Reds I watched again in 2006 possibly be the same Reds that felt like as if a dentist were performing a root canal on me when I saw it decades ago — or is the real truth that the film remains the same but I'm not a different moviewatcher than I was back then? I think the answer is clear — and it would probably be plain stubborness on my part not to acknowledge that conditions must truly be correct for an individual to appreciate some films and a three hour-plus account of early socialists and the Russian revolution isn't really the best material for someone who at the time worshipped the reels Raiders of the Lost Ark unspooled from, especially since over the years Raiders has diminished in my eyes. Re-watching Reds, which initially to me seemed to move slower than Heinz ketchup, surprised the hell out of me when I realized that its pacing seemed exceptional for such a long movie. Sure, no Nazi faces were melting, but Reds' richness finally has become apparent to me. It's also worth noting that in the period between my initial seventh-grade viewing of Reds and my second encounter in 2006, one of my favorite courses at college was called Era of Russian Revolutions.

In many ways, Reds not only plays as a great film to me today in a way it didn't back in the 1980s, it also works as a far more relevant one as well. When you watch as the idealism of those who felt socialism was the answer to capitalism's wrongs inevitably gives way to cynicism as the communists in Russia begin using their power to deny the people rather than to give them a stronger voice, it's hard not to see the parallels. Ideology by necessity almost always gives way to disillusionment as true believers, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, realize that the people whom they've trusted and believed in to realize their ideal dreams either have something else in mind or lack the essential ability to implement their goals. Reds also plays more clearly to me today as a story of the battle between art and politics as Jack Reed (Beatty) tries to balance his love of writing with his political sensibilities. He wants to help fight for his cause, but he still bristles when anyone tries to change his words. Deep down, even if he didn't admit it, he was more writer than revolutionary. Of course, the love that really lies at the heart of Reds is that between Reed and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). Keaton's performance resonates much more strongly for me now than it did when I was a bored adolescent. Perhaps, as much as I love Annie Hall, this might be Keaton's best performance as an often-fickle woman whose political views often drift as often as her interest in the men in her life. One of the things that annoyed me the most in junior high were the witness scenes, where the talking heads against the black backgrounds recounted their experiences with Reed and Bryant. I never appreciated the contradictions their stories presented at the time, but they shine through now, especially in the case of Bryant who remains a bit of an enigma.

Keaton hardly is the only actor who comes off even better than I remember from my first viewing. While Oscar winner Maureen Stapleton was my favorite part of the movie at the time, her great work as Emma Goldman actually is a much smaller role than I recalled. The other performance that plays even better now than it did then is Jack Nicholson's work as Louise's sometime lover, playwright Eugene O'Neill. It may well be Nicholson's most quiet and reserved work on film ever. I love Jack — and I love when he goes over the top, but there isn't any sign of that Nicholson here. Nicholson's O'Neill is smart, quiet and bitter over his treatment by Louise though still willing to help her in a pinch when she needs it. In the featurettes included on the 25th anniversary DVD, Nicholson recalls asking Beatty why he wanted him for this part and Beatty replied that he wanted someone who could conceivably steal Louise from Jack Reed and Nicholson certainly fills that bill. As for Beatty's work, you almost have to divide it into the four roles he served on the film. As producer, getting Reds made truly seems an impressive accomplishment in hindsight. As co-writer with Trevor Griffiths, his script plays much better than it did for the 12-year-old Edward Copeland. As director, his Oscar win seems deserved to me now, though I might still opt for Spielberg's work on Raiders in a pinch.

Then there is Beatty the actor. Beatty is never bad, but when you really get down to it, most of his performances come off sounding like the same person. The exceptions would be his earlier work as Clyde Barrow for Arthur Penn in Bonnie and Clyde and especially as John McCabe for Robert Altman in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Close your eyes and listen to Heaven Can Wait's Joe Pendleton, Reds' Jack Reed or Bugsy's Bugsy Siegel, and aside from subject matter, they all sound the same. Even Bulworth to some extent falls prey to this. Perhaps it has something to do with when Beatty directs himself, even though Buck Henry co-directed him in Heaven Can Wait and Barry Levinson helmed Bugsy. Beatty reminds me much of Robert Redford — more star than actor. His range is limited and his directing output has been so scarce, I can't help but wonder if he'd moved more toward Clint Eastwood's later career and did less work in front of the camera and more behind, his film reputation might be held in higher esteem.

Reds as a whole plays as such a great movie to me now (even at 12, I recognized how great Oscar-winning Vittorio Storaro's cinematography was, though it's embarrassing to admit that I wasn't familiar with the movie's composer, a man named Sondheim), and Beatty's role in its success is so essential, that I won't begrudge him scoring high in only three of his four jobs on the film. Critics don't like to admit they were wrong — but I was, but at least I can blame it on my young age at the time. In one of the anecdotes on the great featurettes on the DVD, Beatty admits that when he offered to show Reds to his 13-year-old daughter she seemed completely disinterested, though he claims she saw it and liked it anyway, but would a young teen really want to tell her famous father what she really thought? Besides, even if she were lying, she likely will grow to admire it as she ages.

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Like you, I was in my teens when I saw Reds - although it long after the '81 Oscars, so there was never really an element of Spielberg-inspired indignation in my reaction to it. I've always felt that I should probably try to see it again at some point - your piece reinforces my belief that there's something to be gained from a second viewing.

Based on that first viewing - which probably occured some 13 or 14 years ago now - I thought it was a good film, albeit one which inspired respect instead of a visceral response....for while I appreciated the fact that it was intelligently made and well-acted, I didn't respond to it on an emotional level. To a certain extent, it felt like a dry academic exercise, a well-researched graduate thesis complete with footnotes (in the form of eyewitness testimonials). I recognized its merits, but it just didn't draw me in the way I imagined it was intended to.

I share your appreciation for Keaton's recent years, she seems to have become almost a caricature of herself, with all those idiosyncratic Annie Hall mannerisms becoming more exaggerated - and starting to look like cuddly shtick. In Reds (and, to a lesser extent, in Shoot the Moon), she showed that she could be just as compelling when not strictly reliant on her distinctive star persona, as established by the Woody Allen films.

I guess where we part ways, in terms of our initial teenage responses, is on the matter of Stapleton. While I've always been an admirer of the actress, I never really saw the big deal was about that performance - as you say, her character is so peripheral to the action that she doesn't ever really register that strongly. I find her other Oscar-nominated performances, in Airport, Interiors and Lonelyhearts, much more interesting.

I get what you're saying about Beatty as an actor, but I'm not sure I agree with it in full. He doesn't have a great range, tis true, but he's hardly Redfordlike in his limitations. I don't think Redford could have conveyed the halting sexual insecurity and humilation of Clyde Barrow - the bewildered adolescent behind the blustery thrill-seeker - as effectively as Beatty did. I also think you should see Bulworth again, as I did recently - another role that required some risk-taking and an element of craziness to pull off. There's such a spirit of giddiness at work that it's really unlike any other performance Beatty ever gave - it's the only time he's ever shown go-for-broke abandon (something Redford has never done) and really seemed to step away from the control board to simply enjoy himself as an actor. I'd like to see Bob go in for that much self-mocking, or spew out angry, hyper-charged rap with the fire of a man possessed.
Bonnie and Clyde seems to be the one, true exception for me. I agree that he's better than Redford actingwise, but his post B&C work does seem awfully similar from one film to the next. It's interesting that in the case of both actors, their work behind the camera has often proved more interesting than their work in front of it. I just wonder why Beatty has spent such little time behind the camera.
Uh, McCabe and Mrs. Miller? "I got poetry in me."
Redford couldn't have played that role in a million years. Or Shampoo, for that matter.
Actually, McCabe may have been the breaking point. His early work such as Splendor in the Grass seemed similar to me, then Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe & Mrs. Miller did offer something more, but from Shampoo on, he always seemed similar to me in everything. Granted, he's better than Redford and I'm not saying he's bad, just limited. Admittedly though, I've never been a Shampoo fan, though I do like Heaven Can Wait and Bugsy a lot and Bulworth a great deal. I still just wonder why he hasn't spent more time behind the camera, especially after reassessing Reds. I mean -- he's only directed four films since 1978 and one of those was the time waster Dick Tracy.
I all fairness, it should be noted that making a film is a pretty all-consuming process, especially when one is wearing multiple hats. As writer, director and producer, Beatty supervised nearly every aspect of the production of Reds, and reportedly worked on the film roughly 16 hours a day, every day, for the better part of a year. He has stated that he probably would have worked more in recent years if it didn't necessitate spending so much time apart from his family - he has four young children. It should be noted that Redford made only one film as a director - Ordinary People - before his three children had reached the age of adulthood.

Although he's never said as much, I think Beatty is also (for a Hollywood alpha-male) unusually supportive of his wife's career success, and that the two very carefully coordinate their schedules so that they are never both working at the same time - unless it's on the same project. It's true that Beatty remained inactive as a director - and as an actor - for most of the 80s, preferring instead to focus his energies on political activism, among other things (notice I was too tactful to say "womanizing"). But I really believe that - as corny as it sounds - his current state of semi-retirement owes more to the fact that he legitimately enjoys being a full-time father and family man, and has prioritized that above his career. People who become parents late in life - Beatty will be 70 in a matter of weeks - tend to want to savor the experience a bit more, and be more present for it. I can't see anything that would require the same commitment of time and energy that Reds tempting him as this stage of his life.
The best piece of yours I've read so far, Mr Copeland; well done!
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