Warren Beatty's obsession with millionaire Howard Hughes

Warren Beatty.

NEW YORK • Lest there be any question about whether, at 79, Warren Beatty is still a force of nature, the interview for this article lasted more than six hours. He said: "I bleed people dry."

In mid-July, his new film Rules Don't Apply, was screened for journalists at 20th Century Fox in New York City. It is his first film in 15 years and the first he has written, directed and starred in since Bulworth (1998).

The storied writer-director-actor and Casanova-turned-house-husband showed up unannounced and had attendees gather around him in the lounge, like courtiers.

At his peak, he was the epitome of Hollywood new and old; a larger-than-life matinee idol, lover boy and film-maker whose work kick-started cinema's new Golden Age in the 1970s, making him evermore a big deal.

Now, six decades into his career, it was clear he still wanted to - and did - hold sway.

Rules Don't Apply, opening on Nov 23, is a withering take on money in politics that feels more relevant than ever today.

It has been kicking around Beatty's noggin for decades and is sort of about millionaire Howard Hughes although Beatty, who plays Hughes, does not want it described that way.

In an interview at the Beverly Hills mansion he shares with his wife, actress Annette Bening, and whichever of their four mostly grown children happen to be home, he said: "Call it a movie about Hollywood in 1958. Old Hollywood. Warren Beatty's Hollywood. Warren Beatty's old Hollywood. Or old Warren Beatty's Hollywood."

It is about an aspiring actress Marla (played by Lily Collins) and an ambitious chauffeur Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), who are employed by an increasingly delusional Hughes and forbidden, by his decree, to act on their budding love.

Hughes has long intrigued Beatty, who, like the reclusive millionaire, knows both the freedom afforded by piles of money and the access to power brokers that fame allows. Beatty also arrived in Hollywood in the late 1950s from a small town, Protestant background.

"You could say maybe I'm more interested in myself than Howard Hughes," he said.

Part of what drove his interest in Hughes was how the millionaire shrouded himself in mystery, which amused Beatty greatly.

"Nobody was trying to get him, but he wanted them to try and get him," he said. "He wanted them to be more curious."

Of course, Beatty, himself, carefully curates what information he lets become public. In the interview, he was exacting about what was on the record and off and he keeps a few stories in rotation.

Several anecdotes that he meted out - his meeting Marilyn Monroe at Peter Lawford's, how he calls his children "four Eastern European countries", his discovery decades ago that Hughes rented a slew of suites and bungalows at the Beverly Hilton - ended up in his November profile in Vanity Fair.

It was two hours later before he consented to being recorded. When he finally went on record, the colourful tales vanished, the free-flowing chat dried up and his speech became tortuously stilted.

Then there were the pauses. He would start a word, then stop, then start again, then sigh. The silence yawned. Planes passed overhead. Interviewers have been noting these peculiarities for decades. The man likes to take his time.

Five years passed between the time he met Ehrenreich and gave him the part in Rules Don't Apply.

"We kept having extensive dinners and lunches and he flew me to New York and we once had dessert with Bill Clinton," Ehrenreich said.

Whenever Collins met Beatty for lunch, she knew to clear her afternoon. "I learnt very quickly, it's a lunch but it's also a day," she said.

Beatty was painstaking in prop placement and it was not unusual for discussions about a line of dialogue to last hours. "He also would direct in character," Ehrenreich said. "He would give you notes as Howard Hughes."

As he does with all of his movies - and his life - Beatty also remained in firm control of the project throughout. New Regency helped him put together the US$26 million (S$36.2 million) in financing and secured distribution through Fox.

Production wrapped in 2014 and although Beatty could have probably edited it forever, he knew to stop himself.

"A poem is never finished; it's only abandoned," he said, paraphrasing poet Paul Valery. "It would be possible to go on forever with a poem, a movie or a song."

Early reactions to the new film have been glowing, he said, at least those made to Beatty's face, although he conceded that he cannot tell if people were being polite and truthful.

Asked later over supper if he paid attention to reviews, he cleared his throat. Silverware scraped plates. A distant piano tinkled. "Yeah," he finally said.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline Warren Beatty's obsession with millionaire Howard Hughes. Subscribe