Warren Beatty is one of the greatest movie stars of the New Hollywood generation. First breaking out with a debut role in Elia Kazan’s romantic drama Splendor in the Grass, Beatty became the face of a generation with his lead performance in Bonnie and Clyde. The subversive crime thriller was a tipping point in modern cinema that predated the American New Wave, a movement Beatty would play a major part in. His noted work during the era included Shampoo, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Parallax View.
Often choosing roles that aligned with his progressive politics, Beatty paired himself alongside bold auteurs. His selective performances are representative of his strong personal ethics and drive towards excellence. In the midst of his success, Beatty decided to go behind the camera as well, and directed five films across 38 years.
His limited directorial filmography is truly bizarre. None of the films he helmed fit the same stylistic or genre mold, and each highlights a different side of his career. Some have aged quite well, while others have only suffered with age. Here is every film directed by Warren Beatty, ranked worst to best.
5. Rules Don’t Apply
2016’s Rules Don’t Apply was billed as Beatty’s comeback. Released fifteen years after his last acting role (and eighteen after his last directorial effort), the Howard Hughes biopic saw Beatty directly commenting on Hollywood and the film industry for the first time. Oddly both subversive and nostalgic, audiences weren’t entirely sure what to make of Beatty’s return to screen. The $25 million passion project brought in less than $4 million; the only reason Beatty had to show up at the Oscars that year was for the infamous La La Land fiasco.
Rules Don’t Apply shows the slow passing of Old Hollywood between 1958 and 1964 through the eyes of Hughes (Beatty), whose ambitious plans for innovative aircrafts and RKO Pictures begin to crumble away. The increasingly delusional Hughes begins to fall for young contracted actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), who also courts the attention of Hughes’ idealistic limo driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich).
Rules Don’t Apply is zippy and entertaining, benefiting from top-notch production design and a slew of cameos from Beatty’s friends. However, the film can’t decide if it wants to be celebratory or melancholy; Beatty tries too hard to make Hughes empathetic, but he’s clearly a barrier to the genuine romance between Marla and Frank. Ironically, Beatty is upstaged in his own star vehicle by the charismatic Ehrenreich and effervescent Collins, the rising stars that in the film represent Beatty’s own generation.
4. Heaven Can Wait
Beatty’s 1978 directorial debut came just as New Hollywood had begun turning its eyes towards blockbusters, with Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman marking a transition towards the commercialization of American cinema in the ‘80s. But it was still a time where a screwball comedy crowd pleaser like Heaven Can Wait could be one of the year’s top grossing films, and with a star like Beatty backing it, a major awards player. Heaven Can Wait earned nine Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Beatty.
Beatty stars as Los Angeles Rams backup quarterback Joe Pendleton, who is plucked from existence by an inexperienced guardian angel (Buck Henry) the week before the Super Bowl. Upon entering the afterlife, Joe protests that he wasn’t meant to die, but unfortunately his body has already been cremated. He’s instead inserted into the body of an incompetent millionaire, whose wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and secretary Tony (Charles Grodin) are conspiring to kill him. Joe attempts to buy back the Rams and trains his new body with lifelong friend Max Corkle (Jack Warden).
Heaven Can Wait never leans too far into the twisted humor, aiming more for broad laughs and physical shenanigans. Beatty doesn’t seem too concerned about any of the logical jumps, opting for a more sentimental direction as Joe falls for environmentalist Betty Logan (Julie Christie). It’s a somewhat awkward merging of tones, but Heaven Can Wait is mostly entertaining thanks to the charisma of the ensemble, with Grodin in particular having a blast chewing the scenery. Plus, the fact that Beatty launched a genuine campaign to upend The Deer Hunter’s Oscar chances so he could secure a Best Picture win is hilarious.
3. Dick Tracy
Beatty had been largely absent from the screen throughout the box office renaissance of the 1980s. After the universal acclaim for Reds in 1981, his only subsequent screen role was in the notorious 1987 box office disaster Ishtar. Returning in full force with an attempt to launch his own franchise, Beatty crafted a stylized interpretation of the classic 1930s serial Dick Tracy in 1990. Of course, Beatty starred as the titular private eye, a brilliant investigator who solves crimes in a metropolitan city that’s clearly intended to be New York.
Dick Tracy came a year after Batman when comic book-inspired films were still a shaky prospect. The film is simply a technical marvel; each foreboding alleyway, grand central hall, and elaborate nightclub is meticulously designed in a cartoon style. Beatty shot the film with panel-inspired framing and blocking, and the dialogue is all delivered with the earnest urgency of a ‘30s comic strip. It is particularly memorable for Al Pacino’s scene stealing performance as the eccentric gangster Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, who is comically exaggerated with Oscar-winning makeup.
Dick Tracy is a blast, and Beatty doesn’t seem to be taking any of it too seriously at all. As is characteristic of the pulp stories that inspired it, the actual conspiracy plot of Dick Tracy quickly gets convoluted and confusing, but the film puts more emphasis on lavish setpieces and frequent action. Although it was intended to spawn a recurring series, legal litigations and disappointing box office returns made it a peculiar one-off.
Beatty has never masked his politics, and decided to tackle a mirage of hot button issues in the late Bill Clinton era. Bulworth pulls an interesting twist on the political satire. Billed and seemingly formatted as an inspirational crowd pleaser, the film leans in a far more cynical direction as it goes on and the prospects of actual progress dwindle. It’s a well-landed commentary on the bleakness of political party corruption disguised as farce, but unfortunately much of Beatty’s handling of class divide plays very problematically on modern viewings.
Beatty stars as Democratic California Senator Jay Bulworth, who faces a tough reelection campaign. Once idealistic about real change, Bulworth’s frustrations lead him to gradually accept bribes from corporations and big party spenders. Depressed with his career and failing marriage, Bulworth decides to hire an assassin to kill him so his life insurance will go to his daughter. His impending demise inadvertently grants Bulworth the chance to speak his mind; he rattles off at a campaign speech about the evils of both parties, and surprisingly finds that his “no holds barred” attitude is wildly popular.
Beatty finds humor as Bulworth is tracked meticulously by news coverage and delivers frank, offensive remarks commenting on corporate policy control, failing health care, and poverty. It’s amusing to see him upend the system, and while Beatty’s attempts to approach class and racial divide are well-intended, they’re riddled with problematic jokes and stereotypical Black characters. Bulworth’s romance with the young activist Nina (Halle Berry) has strange ramifications, as Beatty doesn’t always seem to know who should be the butt of the joke.
Reds is Beatty’s masterpiece. His more confident second effort behind the camera saw him fearlessly tackle a 195-minute epic with a broad scope and personal touch. A decade-spanning story loaded with insights and commentary could easily feel either self-important or bloated, but Beatty’s effective direction makes Reds feel alive. Characters are granted time to develop, and though he leads the ensemble, Beatty is respectful to the perspectives of the various historical figures he’s depicting.
Beatty stars as American journalist John Reed, who is stigmatized within his profession over his radical attitudes. Reed strikes up a romance with wealthy married woman Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) after delivering a fiery speech, and the two begin to explore the growing resistance and artistic movements in New York. Bryant simultaneously grows attracted to the brilliant playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), and an unfulfilled Reed heads to St. Louis before becoming a war correspondent.
The crux of Reds’ dramatic weight comes during Reed’s experiences in the 1917 Russian revolution detailing journalism on the front lines. Reed is no longer sure if he’s a participant or a newsman, and his fanaticism for the communists places him at risk from the Russian monarchy, American troops, and debilitating personal illnesses. Reds is uncompromisingly emphatic about the importance of good reporting, but the epic story is told with a mature dramatic grace. Beatty rightfully won his Academy Award for Best Director, and forty years on the timely film feels just as essential.
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