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Warren Beatty is sitting in his room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, cradling a phone to his ear and discussing the critical response to Bulworth. "Listen," he says into the receiver, "the reviews have just come in from around the country, and they're the best reviews of my life. If people would rather go see a 7-billion-pound lizard, what can you do? That's what it's come to." He looks across the table at me, shrugs and laughs. He laughs a lot during our interview. This isn't the Beatty who's notoriously lockjawed with the press, the one who lets questions hang unanswered forever. Instead, he's funny, quick and almost freakishly charming. It's easy to see how he earned his rep as the mad seducer: He listens intently, leans in, looks you in the eyes, asks thoughtful questions, then nods and gestures for you to keep talking. He's got big-dick confidence. He's also playfully competitive. "There's gonna be a lot written about Bulworth," he says before hanging up the phone. "There won't be a lot written about the lizard."
Bulworth, an anomaly at the multiplex, is a film of ideas and ideals. That those ideals center around the issues of race and class, that the film - at its center - is a hardcore, intelligent, unapologetic and very funny leftist tract is why it's both dazzling and refreshing. It's a movie that, despite some wobbly moments, works on about a dozen levels: a brutal send-up of left-wing politics as well as a heartfelt lament for the fall of same; a satire of political and personal corruption; a gleeful clanging of racial and cultural stereotypes against one another until the sounds that fall out ring forth truths; a series of speeches so purposefully over-the-top in their didacticism that they're as hilarious as they are truthful; a celebration of cultural blending that doubles as a giddy presentation of the caricature known as the white nigger. The foundation of the film, though, is the question posed by hood rat Nina (Halle Berry) to Senator Bulworth (Beatty) near the film's end. "You're insecure because you're white?" she asks incredulously. The answer, of course, is yes, and Beatty spells out how that particular insecurity has played out on - and continues to shape - our cultural, political and personal playing fields.
L.A. Weekly: Although the film has gotten some amazing reviews, a lot of those that haven't been so positive have either explicitly or subtly asked why would a rich, famous white man make this film . . .
Warren Beatty: I'm not rich.
Weekly: You're richer than most. You're in the top 20 percent of the nation's wealthy.
Beatty: Much higher than that.
Weekly: Then you're rich.
Beatty: [Laughs] Okay.
Weekly: So, there's been this undercurrent in those reviews that for you to make this film, you're either a hypocrite, a poseur . . .
Beatty: I'm a traitor to my class.
Weekly: But why? There are people who don't even belong to that class who labor very hard to maintain its privileges. Who are you to do otherwise?
Beatty: Well, deep down I'm not rich. I'm from a Southern family . . . Bulworth says it in the movie when he says [ordinary] white people have more in common with [ordinary] black people than they do with rich people. It's the failure to realize this that has spawned an entire century's separation of the races. In truth, I was lucky, because I had a set of parents who had strong ideas about fairness. My father was in public education; so was my mother. There's something in my past that's very democratic, something back there that's Christian - Southern Baptist. I think it's just something I grew up with.
Weekly: The Village Voice recently ran a couple of articles that really took the movie to task for its use of stereotype and paternalistic politics. I think that's a far too simplistic, literal reading of the film, but how do you respond to those charges?
Beatty: Going to the movies has become such a lull that if you can do something that breaks the mold a little, it can at least start people talking. People say all the time that they don't mind being attacked - and I've said it too, even though I don't mean it - but I really don't mind being attacked if it comes from people who feel that the subject wasn't covered fairly. I mean, you do the best you can. You try to get people's attention through whatever means you find necessary. I'm just glad that the objections transcend the boring objections to how you use the form. The [critics] get into the subject; they deal with race and class and money in politics - which has a tremendous bearing on race.
Weekly: Is the film set in California, as opposed to Washington, precisely because it is about the pull of race and class and money on politics? Because California, much more than D.C. or New York, is really grappling with those issues in a way that seems to be setting the path for the rest of the country?
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