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COVER STORY

Hanging With Warren B

Thirty years ago, Warren Beatty and 'Bonnie and Clyde' ushered in a youthful new era in Hollywood. Now Beatty is using rap culture to reach a new generation with his political farce 'Bulworth.'

May 03, 1998|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

The guard at the entrance to Universal Studios studies the man in sunglasses who's pulled up at the gate in a Mercedes convertible. "Your name, please," he says.

"Beatty," answers Warren Beatty, wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants as black as his Mercedes.

The guard scans his drive-on pass sheet, then stares quizzically at his visitor, trying to place the face. "First name," he says politely. Beatty slides his sunglasses down his nose so the guard can get a better look.

"Warren Beatty," he says. The guard's eyes finally widen. "Oh, Mr. Beatty," he says, handing him a drive-on pass. "Do you know where you're going?"

"I'm going to New York Street," Beatty says, sliding the sunglasses neatly back in place. "It's where it's always been, isn't it?"

Wherever Warren Beatty goes, he seems to know the way. Today he's paying a surprise visit to the set of a music video promoting "Bulworth," his new political farce that opens May 15. The ads for the "Bulworth" soundtrack running in hip-hop magazines don't even mention Beatty--the only names on display are rap stars. So "Bulworth," which is getting a 2,000-theater opening weekend blitz, will serve as a compelling test of Beatty's box-office clout. Can the man who once dated Natalie Wood, Joan Collins and Susan Sontag still cut it in a culture that grooves to a hip-hop beat, cackles at the brazen gags of "South Park" and avidly follows the how-low-can-you-go antics of "The Jerry Springer Show"?

As Beatty strolls down New York Street, surrounded by baby-faced extras, it's impossible not to wonder whether this might be the last hurrah for a movie star who was as much of a cool-guy icon for baby boomers as Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum were for previous generations. As Beatty puts it one night: "You're talking to a guy who's been famous longer than anyone you probably have ever known, though believe me, it doesn't always work to your benefit."

But it's one thing to be famous; it's another thing to still matter. At 61, Beatty is now a paterfamilias, with a wife--actress Annette Bening, 39--and three small children. He is still strikingly handsome, though the look is more distinguished than sexy, like an aging TV anchorman. It's been 30 years since "Bonnie and Clyde" brought a new youth-culture vibe to movieland. It's been 17 years since Beatty won a best director Oscar for "Reds." Since then, he's only made four movies--two of them stinkers ("Ishtar" and "Love Affair"), two minor enjoyments ("Dick Tracy" and "Bugsy").

Beatty's style, self-consciously cool and opaque, is out; jokey irony and explicitness is in. When Paul Thomas Anderson wooed him for the Burt Reynolds part in "Boogie Nights," a daring career rejuvenator, Beatty turned him down, worried that the film might romanticize the sordid world of porn. Beatty's sense of history--a quality in short supply in Hollywood--betrayed him.

He remembers when porn wasn't smirky dumb fun. In 1976, when Harry Reems was going to jail on obscenity charges from his performance in "Deep Throat," it was Beatty who held a benefit for the imperiled porn star.

One of the rappers who might help give "Bulworth" some streetwise credibility is Canibus, a New York underground sensation who co-wrote "How Come," the song being made into a video on the Universal back lot.

"It's embarrassing, because I really didn't know who Warren Beatty was," the young rapper says, waiting for his next scene. "It took a while to figure out he was the guy from 'Bugsy' and 'Dick Tracy.' But when I told my mother, she freaked. She said he was on a caliber with Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier."

Canibus was clearly enthralled by the actor's old-school charisma. "He's got the classic hype. When kids hear him rhyming and getting out of line, they're gonna go, 'Yo, man, what kind of [expletive] are you saying? Warren's buggin' out!' "

On the video set, Beatty is the picture of regular-guy charm. The video's producer, actress Lynn Whitfield, teases him, saying, "We were told we couldn't afford to put you in the video." Beatty acts surprised: "No one called me." When Whitfield asks if he'll appear in a scene, Beatty instantly accepts. "Hey," he says. "It's my video, isn't it?"

He spends hours waiting for his moment, munching on pizza with the extras. When the cameras roll, he wears street clothes, seated in the back of taxi, acting like a startled passenger as Canibus bemoans everything from the assassination of Malcolm X to politicians "making certain decisions, like puttin' minorities in prison."

Between takes, Beatty chats with an executive from Interscope Records, which is releasing the soundtrack. He says he's flying east to show the movie to a host of political bigwigs. Beatty's Rolodex would be the envy of any fund-raiser--one early "Bulworth" screening included Norman Mailer, Henry Louis Gates, Martin Scorsese, Cornel West, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Sondheim.

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