Gilbey on Film: who cares about Warren Beatty?

Our film critic spots a publicity stunt

Called upon by City Limits magazine (if the name doesn't ring a bell, ask your parents) to describe his perfect night out, that old romantic Mike Leigh gave a laconic response: "Food, film, fuck."

No excuse, after that, for a lucky lady being squired around town by the director to harbour any illusions about what was on the table. Although you do have to ask: food then film, Mike, and then straight on to the episode of transcendent intimacy? Surely you want the film first, so you can discuss it over grub before putting the cherry on the cake, as it were. Otherwise you run the risk of squeezing the precious post-movie discussion into the bus ride home -- not a problem if you came all the way from Inverness to the Truro Plaza for your big night out, but rather less relaxing if we're talking a brief hop across town.

What you want to avoid at all costs, I'm suggesting, is having any unfinished business and nagging questions intruding where they're not welcome. Nothing puts the dampener on a volcanic torrent of passion quite like one of the participants demanding at an inopportune moment: "And give me one good reason for the continuing employment of Gerard Butler. Go on, just one!"

I was reminded of Leigh's words by the brouhaha over the new biography of Warren Beatty. Now there's a man who would have a marginally different response to the City Limits question. Peter Biskind, author of Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, has estimated that Beatty slept with 12,775 women. So I'm guessing that, unlike Leigh, the actor would pass on the food and film. (Not hard to believe. Anyone who saw his last movie, Town and Country, will testify that his interest in cinema is kaput.)

Am I alone in hearing news of this headcount and not really giving a... well, a single one of those things that Beatty did with nearly 13,000 women? It's all priceless publicity for Biskind, a savvy writer, and will doubtless sell more copies of a book that's illuminating about the movie industry. But like most tittle-tattle, this revelation doesn't deepen our comprehension of what's on the screen -- although in Beatty's case it may go a small way toward explaining what isn't. (He is, in cinema at least, the supreme underachiever, the classic example of making a little go a long way.)

I can't recall a single example of beneath-the-duvet gossip that enhanced my understanding of a film, or of anyone's talent. The chief value, as in all such instances, is in the mountains of material it provides for gag-writers, such as these pertinent thoughts from readers commenting on the blog of former sitcom scribe Ken Levine:

"Beatty's address book was so big it had its own address."

"13,000 women? That can't be right. He must have counted one twice."

"Say what you will, Warren Beatty has definitively improved on counting sheep."

"At last we finally know what caused the Great Chalk Shortage of '92 -- it was all those marks on his bedroom wall."

"Some women complain that that Beatty was distant, frustrating, and never really gave them what they wanted. And those are just the magazine interviewers."

"Given the current US population, if you don't know who your father is there's a 1 in 24,142 chance it could be Warren Beatty."

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era