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?
Beatty: Things come to a boil in this country from West to East – Southwest to Northeast. It's called money. Infotainment. Media. Things get hot here, then move back to what used to be the industrial center. Part of it is [Cali-fornia's] initiative system, which has its good points, but also a lot of bad ones. But the other thing is the huge population of this state. When something is voted into place in California, that's a huge number of people who are af-fected. That's a wonderful testing ground for politicians.
Weekly: A lot of critics and movie buffs bemoan the state of film, and everyone knows that money is at the root of the mediocrity. But there also seems to be less of a willingness on the part of audiences to be disturbed by a film, to be unsettled. Do you think that's because of some shift in public taste that's divorced from film-industry machinations, or is it that the decline of Hollywood artistry has shaped the tastes?
Beatty: Well, I think we make a big mistake if we compare the music business of today – the music business; that's an interesting slip – the movie business of today to the movie business of 25 years ago. It's a different business. It's the difference between a guy who ran a pretty good steak place 25 years ago and now heads a McDonald's franchise. You make a lot more money from the burgers than steaks. And most of the attention in the cultural pages of newspapers – not yours – is paid to what's grossing the most money. It's a chart ranking the weekend's top movies. That didn't exist 25 years ago. I think the audience is still there to see films that don't go to the middle, but it's hard to see them if you're busy looking at a mass of a million people going toward something. That hundred thousand going toward something else tends to get overlooked.
Weekly: Did you see today's L.A. Times detailing how well Godzilla did at the box office during its first 29 hours, breaking down the receipts from the Tuesday-night preview screenings and the official Wednesday opening-day gross, then comparing it to Lost World and Titanic?
Beatty: Well, those figures are given to them by the company that financed the movie, and also buys a considerable amount of advertising in the Los Angeles Times. The Los Angeles Times is as much a part of the machinery as Sony and the rest of these corporations. It's a pastime, going to the mall on a Friday night to see a movie, that has a different significance than it ever had before. It would have been inconceivable 20 years ago, 15, or even 10 years ago, that any movie would be on 7,000 screens, and it not be a function of the quality of the movie. It's the quality of chasing money.
Weekly: Celebrities, too, have entered into this poisonous marriage with the media.
Beatty: Many do, not all, but many. The game you have to play, as a celebrity who is trying to even participate in the mass sales pitch that everything is nowadays, is to guard as carefully as possible that which you feel needs to be guarded, and to still not get lost in the shuffle. Attention must be paid. I went about 13 years and never gave an interview. But now I'm sort of resigned to the fact that one has to do it if one is going to participate in the process.
There's no question that this is not a high-priced picture, but it's still a lot of money. So, I think the studio who put up enough money to make the movie, they honestly did not interfere. They didn't have the contractual right to interfere, but as you know, you don't have to have the contractual right to interfere, to interfere. On the other hand, they did nothing about the marketing and selling of the movie. They didn't know how this movie could be anything but a bore. Then they saw the movie and they laughed, and they've kinda come onboard.
My objections to the movie industry are far broader and more far-reaching than how this movie was handled, and I think they're objections that everybody has. Such as the idea that you have to get everybody on one night or you're a failure. I mean, what decent piece of work ever did that? It leads to nothing but the middle, and the word middle comes from the same root as mediocre. It's not “bad,” it's “middle.” It's just middle. Everything goes to the middle. That's the problem with the movies; everything goes to the middle. That's the problem with the Demo-cratic Party. It's lost its mission by going to the middle. I'm still a Democrat, I'm just not one of these Democrats. I'm a Bulworth Democrat.
Weekly: I've seen Bulworth twice, and each time you could feel some audience members slowly pulling away from the film. The trailer almost made the film seem as if it was going to be another angry white guy's anti-P.C. rant. That the film is so left when the ads suggested something so right has, I think, left a lot of people feeling betrayed. The last time I saw it, an older white guy hissed throughout the second half.
Beatty: The intention of the trailer was to convey the idea that the means of expression and the mode of expression would be societally impermissible. Surely you cannot say motherfucker or cocksucker in a movie trailer, because you can't get it played. So, then I had to go for things that were unacceptable, but then you had to ask yourself why are they unacceptable. “Malt liquor and chicken wings.” “They always put the big Jews on my schedule.” Somehow, the combination of words is unacceptable. They're not what is politically correct. You don't go forward without a certain amount of trepidation. I mean, I'm an inhibited WASP from the state of Virginia. I don't drop my pants easily, um, in public.
Weekly: It was interesting watching your recent interview on This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts – it was like watching outtakes from Bulworth. The questions were so inane, and when Cokie Roberts drew herself up in her best pinched schoolmistress air, chastising you for making a film that would undermine the public's faith in the government, it was great comedy.
Beatty: [Laughing] Yeah, yeah. Well, when you analyze Cokie – who's a very nice woman, works hard, does a good job – she doesn't realize the fact that she's working for Disney, her brother is one of the most important lobbyists in Washington, her mother was a congresswoman, her father was a congressman, and her mother is now ambassador to the Vatican . . . She means well. It's very difficult to be in that position and look at the statistics in a different way when we're fed a positive spin on so much that shouldn't be spun positively. I didn't want to be rude; I was down there promoting a movie, and I wanted to be good-natured about it. But we spoke afterward, and she really, in a good-natured way, said, “It makes me nervous when people do things that make the public have less faith in the government.” And I said, yeah, me too.
Weekly: There were three instances when I thought Bulworth faltered. The first is the drug dealer's turnabout. Even on comedic and satiric terms, that seemed forced, unbelievable.
Beatty: It was a little neat, huh? Well, it's a style. Because, really, how could [the characters] make all those transitions in a day and a half? Everybody gets wise a little easily . . . Let's just say it was not done frivolously or in an unexamined way. My feeling was always that we were doing a musical, and musicals have certain formulas, certain marks that have to be hit. Like in a Noel Coward play. This is a different cultural milieu, but that's what we were going for. It was pretty meticulous, whether it failed or succeeded.
Weekly: The second was when Bulworth rescued the black kids from the white cops. That seemed to drift over into pure white-savior territory.
Beatty: You know, sometimes you just do things even though they're expected. It's like, at a given point, the fat lady sings. I mean, another way of saying what you're saying is, isn't that a cheap joke? And it probably is.
Weekly: The last thing is when Nina says to Bulworth, “You my nigga.” Because that's a term of endearment – and a controversial one – that black folks use with one another; when she says it to him, it's bestowing so many layers of validation on him, and that's what makes it a real eyebrow raiser – again, even within the confines of satire. I mean, on one level, she's simply saying, you're my boo . . .
Beatty: Boo? I don't know the expression.
Weekly: Roughly, it's like sweetheart. But, when Nina says it to him . . .
Beatty: Where's it come from? Boo. Does it come from booty?
Weekly: No. It's something you could say to a friend or child as well as lover.
Beatty: My boo. I like that. I like it so much, I'm gonna use it tonight. It sounds sorta French. Ma boo. My boo. I like that.
Weekly: But even more than a sweet thing, “your nigga” is someone who's got your back, someone who's been through the fire with or for you, and it's very much rooted in shared trials, shared blackness – it's an affirmation grounded in blackness. When Nina calls the senator that, it's just the ultimate white-boy fantasy – to be granted that title on top of his own skin privileges.
Beatty: Yeaaah. That's an interesting point, because I took this picture up to Oakland for a screening, and when it got to the point where I had this long kiss with Halle, three of the brothers who were sitting up front – big, strong, good-looking guys – got up and started heading for the exit. Then they heard bang! from the screen, and they turned around and went back to their seats . . .
On one level, we're forced to admit that we may never know the answers between the sexes, between the generations, between the races. But I would put the races pretty far down on that list. I mean, her saying that to him is a leap, but it's just a movie; it's not a cure for cancer.
Weekly: In the movie, every group you spoke in front of – the black congregation, the gathering of Hollywood Jews – you chastised, you offended. Yet, when you were to speak before a white, Presbyterian church, the character flees before saying anything at all to them. Why is that? Is it because, if you had to pick one group to direct the whole film toward, they would be it?
Beatty: That would be the group. That's the group I come from. Their [visible] amount of repression and inhibition, the level of Puritanism, the thickness of their vanilla armor is very funny to me. The faces of the people in that church – and they're wonderful people – those faces make me laugh. Talk about stereotypes. These are stereotypical vanilla, soulless people – the Massachusetts Bay Colony all in one gathering. That's what Bulworth was running away from.
Weekly: Bulworth works on many levels – including the notion of the identity glitch – and the casting of Halle Berry adds another layer. Berry – who is biracial – is perceived, unfairly I think, by a lot of black folks as a black-white girl, and a lot of her recent acting choices seem geared toward challenging that perception. With all those factors in mind, using her to play a girl from the hood takes on a special resonance. Were you aware of that extra weight when you cast her?
Beatty: Definitely. But you look at Halle Berry and you see the future of America. There is no choice. That's where it's gonna go. Halle Berry is a fact of life. There was never a moment's doubt in my mind once I met her. I'd thought of other people, people who could have brought a lot of interesting qualities, but Halle is not going to be denied. She's a person who's getting her perspective on this mantle that's been thrust upon her, and I think she's gonna handle it very well. But she is the future of America. She's the essence of it.