The Warren Beatty Study Guide

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Some astronomers watch for the return of Haley’s Comet. Some children are already watching for the return of Santa Claus. Film aficionados watch for the return of Warren Beatty to the silver screen.

Few artists can boast the ratio of Oscar-nominations to total films that Beatty has accrued. Almost everything he’s touched has turned to gold. This is partially credited to his choosiness in picking projects to work on. Beatty hasn’t appeared on screen in fifteen years. He hasn’t written and directed a film since 1998. This week, he returns to theaters in a film he acts in, wrote, and directed. THIS IS A BIG DEAL. Here are nine films to get you up to speed on the historic return of Warren Beatty.

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Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

This Arthur Penn classic earned a nod for Best Picture and put Beatty on the map with a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. His portrayal of Clyde Barrow is still harrowed today as one of the best takes on a historical anti-hero. Upon viewing, specifically watch for the subtle way that Beatty takes the words of the tough-talking Barrow and manages to make them charming – a skill that would come in handy as he began to write for the screen himself.

Shampoo (1975)

Shampoo is story of lovers who undo a hairdresser from Beverly Hills around the election of 1968. The film established Beatty as more than just a flash in the pan. Co-written with Robert Towne, the script brought him his first Best Original Screenplay nomination. Watch how Beatty manages to give each character in the film their own voice – a standard of good scriptwriting.

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Heaven Can Wait (1978)

The story of an LA Rams quarterback accidentally taken away from his body by an overanxious angel before he was meant to die who returns to life in the body of a recently murdered millionaire. Heaven Can Wait gave Beatty nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and just for good measure – Best Picture. Beatty’s writing begins to deepen even further, moving into complex thematic territory that would become a staple of his work.

Reds (1981)

Returning to portraying a historical figure, Beatty would again be nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Picture, and for the first time take home an Oscar for Best Director. Mixing documentary interviews of elderly people who knew the film’s characters in real life, Reds stood as an innovative exploration of a radical American journalist who became involved with the Communist revolution in Russia. Beatty had built up creative capital with his previous projects. He spent it with Reds – a great lesson for all creatives trying to maneuver the system.

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Ishtar (1987)

Criticized as a creative miss for Beatty, he neither wrote nor directed the film. Ishtar tells the story of two lounge singers that get booked to play a gig in a Moroccan hotel but somehow become pawns in an international power play between the CIA, the Emir of Ishtar, and the rebels trying to overthrow his regime. The film didn’t deserve the stones that were hurled at it and does mark a turn for Beatty, who was not satisfied with just playing it safe in the realms he had worked in before.

Dick Tracy (1990)

Remaining unafraid to try new creative projects, Beatty next starred in the story of a comic strip detective taking down the mob. A film that often gets lost in the shuffle of films based on superheroes, Dick Tracy has a more refined story than many dramas that made it to the screen in this era. It’s worth a revisit, if you haven’t seen it in some time. The film serves as a bit of a bridge between the risks Beatty took with Ishtar and the success he would see in his next project.

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Bugsy (1991)

Considered a return to form for Beatty, he again portrays a character from American history. The story of how Bugsy Siegel started Las Vegas, Beatty would again be nominated for Best Actor in a Leading role and Best Picture. With Bugsy, we begin to see Beatty take the work he took creative risks with and craft it into perfected performances. He would take the energy from the success of this film and return to his writing table for his next project.

Bulworth (1997)

Taking back the reigns of his creative work, Beatty both wrote and directed Bulworth. The story of a disillusioned liberal politician who puts a contract out on himself and takes the opportunity to be bluntly honest with his voters using hip hop culture, the film shocked audiences and made for endless conversations about its metaphorical meaning. At last, Beatty was able to combine stylistic risk-taking with award-winning quality. He earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the film.

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Rules Don’t Apply (2016)

Again, taking on a character from the pages of American history, Beatty provides a lens for Howard Hughes unlike any we’ve seen before. Combining humor and wit with a knack for historical detail, the film avoids the label of history biopic and instead tells a straightforward love story, taking place in the midst of Hollywood chaos. Rules Don’t Apply is Beatty at his best. He writes, direct, acts, and gives us something we don’t get enough of these days – a story with something to say.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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