There’s a sad momentum in Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America. In an exhaustive, 627-page biography of the Hollywood icon, Peter Biskind sets out to prove Beatty is a serious filmmaker of historic importance, not just an incorrigible playboy. But as if governed by his subject’s roving eye, the author undermines his mission with the promiscuity of his reportage—he just can’t resist the temptation to chase every skirt that sent a ripple through Beatty’s life. An endless task.
In the course of a career that now appears to be over, Beatty made at least seven significant pictures: Splendor in the Grass, Bonnie and Clyde, Heaven Can Wait, Shampoo, Reds, Bugsy and Bulworth. Not too shabby. And he’s reaped 14 Oscar nominations as an actor, producer, director and writer. He got four each for Heaven Can Wait and Reds—a feat rivalled only by Orson Welles.
But the claim from the book that spread through the media like a runaway STD is that Beatty had sex with 12,775 women—“a figure that does not include daytime quickies, drive-by blow jobs, casual gropings, stolen kisses and so on.” That’s ridiculous. The author “calculated” this bogus statistic by speculating that Beatty slept with an average of one woman per night from the mid-1950s until he met his wife, Annette Bening, in 1991.
Biskind, the former Premiere editor and author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, says he spent years courting his subject, who eventually agreed to co-operate, because “he wanted his children to be able to read something that gave him his due as a filmmaker.” But then the ever-elusive star reneged. So Biskind, the unrequited biographer, became another Beatty ex. He seems depressed by his dubious mandate. And as he compulsively jump-cuts from cinematic history to salacious tidbits every few pages, it’s hard to imagine Beatty’s children relishing the results.
It’s a juicy read. Warren’s exes include Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Jackie Onassis, Michelle Phillips, Mary Tyler Moore and Madonna. And his virtuosity as a leading man between the sheets inspires no end of mixed metaphors. Describing his insatiable sex drive, Joan Collins “felt like an oyster in a slot machine.” Her sister Jackie, who had to fend him off, says, “Warren would proposition a chair if it looked at him sideways.” Recalls Britt Ekland: “Warren could handle women as smoothly as operating an elevator. He knew exactly where to locate the top button.”
But by all accounts, this contemporary Casanova was an assiduously unselfish lover, always putting his partner’s pleasure before his own. “He knows a woman’s body better than most women,” says Madonna, “He can pinpoint the day of your cycle” (though she claims Sean Penn was a better lover). Biskind portrays Beatty as a sexual omnivore whose appetites ranged from elders to teenage girls. Carrie Fisher, who acted in Shampoo at 17, says, “He offered to relieve me of the huge burden of my virginity. Four times.” DeLauné Michel, a model seduced by Beatty at 18, recalls him saying, “You’re the daughter I never had”—“right before we had sex for two hours.” But the ex-lovers, who all end up ditching him in exasperation, tend to talk of him fondly.
For the personal stuff, Biskind relies heavily on secondary sources, explaining that “a contagion of silence” afflicted those close to Beatty, including sister Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, and celebrity exes. Full disclosure—one of his sources is Brave Films, Wild Nights (2000), my history of the Toronto film festival. Biskind cites the story of how Beatty tried to micromanage his own festival tribute in 1984—adding the detail that he ended up necking that night with lesbian Sandra Bernhard. Beatty’s other odd Toronto connection was his Canadian cousin, David MacLeod. A former Ontario Conservative campaign staffer, MacLeod served as the star’s right-hand man. He became a fugitive after being convicted as a pedophile—and was found dead in 1998 in the streets of Montreal.
Biskind hints that Beatty has a dark side, but goes no further. As a prominent Democrat who flirted with running for office, Beatty always acted latently presidential. Like JFK, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, he was torn between wanting to rule the world and have sex with it. But there’s no evidence of adultery. As if he’s struck a backroom deal with his subject, Biskind declares off limits anything personal since Beatty’s marriage to Bening—“anything that might embarrass them and their four children.” Too late for that.