Props to You, Warren

Finally, Warren Beatty has put his body where his mouth is. After years of hiding in his Mulholland mansion, heckling candidates from the sidelines and hedging on questions about running for public office, the has-been actor became the can-do campaigner against Arnold’s power grab in Tuesday’s uglier-than-most election. Props for being the anti-prop provocateur, Warren. I didn’t think you had it in you to move from merely gabbing about the Governator and grabbing media attention to grappling mano a mano with Schwarzenegger and gatecrashing his partisan events.There were a lot of places I expected to find Beatty during this time (the Grill, Dr. Arnie Klein’s office, West Hollywood’s Pleasure Chest), but none surprised me more than when he showed up as part of the “Truth Squad” nurses, teachers and firefighters brigade shadowing Schwarzenegger’s shameless shilling in Anaheim, San Diego and Riverside this past weekend. That is, if you don’t count my bedroom, where Warren’s silky voice surprised the heck out of me coming from my radio for an anti-Arnold spot he recorded for the California Nurses Association, or my answering machine for a widely distributed get-out-the-vote telephone message. What was most shocking was how he stumped in full view of the merciless news cameras, the inspiration for “He’s So Vain” putting himself on physical display, even though that once-perfect face is now geriatric and jowly, his stomach can’t hide a bulging gut, and he moves stiffly on spindly legs.“He rode the bus along with everyone. He really put himself out there,” swooned Charles Idelson, spokesman for the nurses’ group. “He was someone actually willing to stand up to Schwarzenegger and get right in his face, and I respect him for that.” I didn’t think that would happen, frankly. Back in June, shortly after Beatty made that anti-Arnold commencement speech at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, I wrote that “he’s the wrong man sending the right message, so no wonder pundits poke fun at Hollywood political polemics. Serious times like these call for serious people, not just serious media attention. Taking a leadership role in liberal Hollywood requires more stamina than Beatty has ever been able to muster, as well as more courage” (Bulworth B.S.).

I based that opinion on Warren’s own words: During the 2002 midterm elections, when Robert Redford, Rob Reiner, Alec Baldwin et al. shook hands, raised money and talked politics in states with neck-and-neck U.S. Senate races, Warren stayed home and then rationalized about it to The New York Times: “I have found I need to be much more careful of what I say because, when those opinions go against the grain, then one is subjected to all kinds of ad hominem attacks.” Worse, when the Hollywood anti–Iraq invasion group Artists United To Win Without War formed, Beatty never joined. So I watched and waited to see which Beatty would emerge during this proposition fight: Warren the once Democratic Dynamo we’ve waited three decades to see resurface? Warren the Committed Reformer we’ve seen snatches of but little more? Warren the Independent Dilettante we’ve learned to live with in recent years? I thought the answer came when, post-Berkeley, Beatty grabbed headlines for himself, and not his cause.It wasn’t until four months after his Berkeley speech, on September 22, that Warren showed me and everyone else he was ready to rumble (though I worried that, at 68, he might break a hip in the process). Because of what Idelson calls a “long friendship” with Rose Ann DeMoro, the executive director of the California Nurses Association, Beatty was invited to be the keynote speaker at the group’s Oakland convention, where he delivered a savage attack on Schwarzenegger’s “insulting and bullying” onslaught against California’s nurses, teachers, firefighters and Democratic legislators. Warren’s words were greeted by cheers, “Stop Arnold” signs and repeated cries of “Run, Warren, run!” from among the 600 in the audience. The rabid national media foamed at the mouth at the prospect of a real-life Battle of the Movie Stars: The Terminator vs. Bulworth.Arnold and his flotilla of flacks fired back, calling Warren “washed-up,” a “crackpot” and, worse, a “B actor.” Coming to Beatty’s defense was no less than his wife, Annette Bening, who at times appeared even more outspoken on the issues than her husband (or maybe she just looked more concerned, since her face wasn’t full of Botox).That was in sharp contrast to Schwarzenegger’s better half, Maria Shriver, who kept a purposefully low profile during the prop war, no doubt because of the Kennedy family’s long political history as a recipient of union support. But the damage to her Democratic bona fides was done. Here, her hubby infamously derided nurses who showed up to protest his attempt to block new nurse-to-patient staffing ratios as “special interests” whose “butts” he was always kicking. And Shriver responded not by defending the nurses but by lambasting Beatty. “When I look in the mirror,” she told one audience, “I don’t just see a first lady, I don’t just see a Kennedy or a Schwarzenegger, I don’t just see a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister and a friend, and, thank God, I don’t see Warren.”To which Beatty responded, “I would think Maria might have some trouble looking in the mirror because she knows and I know that all these right-wing, union-busting initiatives are bad for California. I feel bad for her.” The speeches, the ads, the phone calls, the TV interviews carefully lit from behind to hide Warren’s liver spots, were all signs that Beatty this time around was in the driver’s seat on setting the agenda and not just stroking his ego. For once, another “will-he-or-won’t-he” media psychodrama starring Warren as a possible candidate, this time for the 2006 California governor’s race, took a back seat to the issues. Whether he runs or not doesn’t matter; he had now become the public face of the prop fracas. Even though the unions and the Democratic pols, and even another famous face — Rob Reiner (a.k.a. Meathead), who worked behind the scenes for months — drove the anti–Prop. 75 effort, Beatty took the wheel, and soon the media, on a joy ride. He managed to not once make that deer-caught-in-headlights expression we’ve seen in previous years. Instead, he gave us The Best of Beatty, combining politicking with professionalism and panache and even playfulness. (About his film career? “I still want to make movies. I don’t think I’m bad at it.”) Then, last Saturday, Beatty kicked it into high gear. He and Bening planned to stalk Schwarzenegger at campaign stops all day. They boarded a bus draped with a banner reading “Truth Squad” that shadowed Schwarzenegger’s caravan. What followed was a savvy publicity stunt in San Diego, where Beatty and Bening strode side by side to the entrance of an airport hangar where the Guv was meeting with several hundred supporters. The pair were stopped at the door because they were not on the guest list and didn’t have an identifying wristband. The media went wild, dubbing it “gatecrashing” and describing it as an episode of “political street theater.” Arnold derided it as a “sideshow.” But it worked: Beatty grabbed the 6 p.m. news and the next day’s headlines for his side.As for Warren’s future, I don’t care what he does so long as he doesn’t make another crappy Dick Tracy movie. True, a Field Poll found both Beatty and Reiner in a statistical dead heat with Schwarzenegger for 2006 among voters surveyed. But 52 percent of registered Democrats say they’re not inclined to back Beatty for the party’s nod (41 percent don’t want Reiner, either). Warren is still coy, saying on the one hand he doesn’t want to be governor, but on the other, “I don’t believe you take public service off the table.”None of that matters now that Beatty has shown he’s not just a mouth but the man.

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