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How 'Star,' Peter Biskind's biography of Warren Beatty, was born

THE BIG PICTURE

January 14, 2010|By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Of all the many jaw-droppingly dishy anecdotes in Peter Biskind's new biography, "Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America," I found myself especially astounded -- in a "what would a therapist make of this?" kind of way -- by the saga of Beatty's on-again, off-again early '60s affair with Natalie Wood.

It was a soulful romance, even if Beatty wasn't exactly faithful, but the strangest events occurred after Beatty had moved on. The coda to the affair, according to Biskind, occurs in the mid-1960s, when Beatty began dating Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi Ballet's prima ballerina who, inconveniently, was already married and didn't speak a word of English. Nonetheless, Beatty would occasionally go on double dates with filmmaker Henry Jaglom, who was then seeing Wood.

As it turns out, Wood's parents were Russian, so Beatty's ex would serve as translator for his verbal nuzzlements to his new paramour. "Beatty would ask [Wood], 'Tell her how you say, 'I love you more than life itself.' "

Needless to say, this is the kind of eye-popping tale that gets people to read books these days, which is why Biskind is a bestselling author ("Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"). Biskind spent untold years trying to persuade Beatty to cooperate with him on his new biography after meeting him in the late 1980s.

At some point around 2000, Biskind says Beatty phoned him and told him he was ready to participate in a full-scale biography.

But that decision, like so many Beatty decisions in his film career, was immediately undone by a new set of hesitations and back-pedaling.

It's possible that Beatty was spooked by the publication of "The Operator," an unflattering biography of David Geffen by Tom King that Geffen had initially cooperated with, much to his regret.

"Warren was definitely aware of the fallout from that book," Biskind told me recently. "But he would've been cagey and wary anyway. That's the way he is. What Warren did with me was a lot like what he'd do with the studios. He'd pitch a project, hook you and then when you were hooked, he'd back off and you'd have to sell it to him and beg him to do it, even when in fact he was the one who initiated it."

There were times when Beatty was incommunicado, but other times when he was in a wooing mood.

"When he'd come to New York, he'd often call me and we'd go out to dinner," Biskind recalls. "When I did a piece for Vanity Fair on 'Reds' in 2007, we talked and talked and I assumed that he knew that everything we talked about would end up in the book. But there was always a lot of procrastination and delay. We'd have a lot of lunches when I'd come to L.A. and sometimes he'd talk and talk and say nothing, and sometimes your jaw would drop with the stories he'd tell."

After a series of titillating excerpts from the book appeared in the New York Post, Beatty's lawyer, Bert Fields, issued a statement attacking its accuracy, saying in his inimitable pit-bull style that Biskind's "tedious and boring book . . . contains many false assertions and purportedly quotes Mr. Beatty as saying things he never said."

Fields also claimed that the biography wasn't authorized, which seemed an odd complaint, since the book doesn't make that claim. Fields also didn't say which Beatty quotes were inaccurate. (My call to Beatty's office went unreturned.)

Biskind, who says he hasn't heard from either Beatty or Fields, took the attack in stride.

"I don't know what set that off," he says, perhaps a bit disingenuously, since it's easy to imagine Beatty anxiously phoning his attorney after reading the New York Post excerpts, which are full of explicit accounts of his sexual escapades. "All I can say is that I'd told Warren that the book would have to deal with his sex life."

In fact, Biskind claims in the book that Beatty has had sex with 12,775 women, a figure he calls a "guesstimate." When I pressed him about whether it was an invented number, he responded: "Warren did say to someone else that he couldn't get to sleep at night without having sex with someone, so I just added up the days. It didn't seem like an unreasonable figure."

Biskind did interview a large assemblage of Beatty friends and confidantes, including filmmaker James Toback, Buck Henry, Diane Keaton, Dustin Hoffman, Bo Goldman and production designers Dick and Paul Sylbert, who between them have worked on a number of Beatty films.

Holdouts included Robert Towne (who was still upset over Biskind's portrayal of him in "Easy Riders"), Jack Nicholson, Julie Christie, Leslie Caron and Elaine May, one of Beatty's frequent script collaborators.

"It's one of the many reasons why it's so difficult to write about Warren," Biskind says. "It's not just Warren who's hard to get to talk, but many of his friends too. Getting the major women in his life to talk was really hard."

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