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Don’t Wait to Make Your Masterpiece

Warren Beatty waited nearly 40 years to make ‘Rules Don’t Apply,’ his Howard Hughes movie. It failed terribly at the box office. What happened?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“It’ll be rough for Warren to get to the real story. I don’t think anyone knows the real story about [Howard] Hughes.” — Shirley MacLaine, 1976

“There’s an essential loneliness in him. I’m not surprised that he’s interested in Howard Hughes and plans to make a picture about him. There’s something about Warren that reminds me of Hughes. I mean, I can see him dying alone with nobody there to love him or hold his hand. It hurts to think about that.” — Dustin Hoffman, 1987

“For years Warner Bros. was trying to get me to make a movie about Howard Hughes. [Hughes] did have a way of creating mystery about his involvements, and where he was, and what he was, while also maintaining a level of freedom.” — Warren Beatty, 2016

Freedom is a devil’s bargain — the more you get, the more you want, the more it destroys you. Few artists in Hollywood have secured more creative freedom in the past half-century than Warren Beatty, the actor-cum-producer-cum-director-cum-tinkerer. In fits and starts across the past 40 years, Beatty has discussed, planned, hemmed over, hawed about, fiddled with, and sighed through questions regarding a movie about the billionaire mogul Howard Hughes. That movie, Rules Don’t Apply, was finally released to the public last Wednesday. It bombed. Spectacularly so.

This is bad. It got worse over the weekend. How did this happen? There are myriad reasons, starting with a low recognition of the film’s primary stars, Lily Collins, soon-to-be–Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich, and, of course, Beatty himself, who was once arguably the most powerful and enigmatic figure in Hollywood. Beatty has not directed a film since 1998’s Bulworth, nor has he appeared on-screen since 2001’s (similarly spectacular) flop, Town & Country.

To many moviegoing Americans under the age of 30, Warren Beatty is not a figure of note. And the story that he selected — lo, those many decades ago — to tell as his return to movies is an obtuse and confusing self-reflective tale of glamour, power, and young desire gone haywire. It’s one part sex comedy, one part unreliable biopic, and one part moony romance. It’s a strange movie, cut to within an inch of its life in the first half and far too languorous in the back. But it could have survived all that.

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

The movie’s production was finally confirmed five years ago, with what was deemed a “great cast” circling. (There is a version of the movie starring Rooney Mara, Shia LeBeouf, and Jack Nicholson somewhere in another dimension. This is a superb dimension.) Beatty ultimately selected two relative unknowns to star alongside him in this story of Hollywood newcomers and the way their lives became bound by the eccentric Hughes. It is set in 1959, when a young, handsome, and pie-eyed Beatty himself first arrived in Los Angeles from a Baptist household in Eisenhower’s Virginia. Period pieces featuring unproven young actors and a 79-year-old screen icon are not, typically, the path to mainstream acceptance.

But more than that, Rules Don’t Apply played by too many rules. In the rollout, the sage and withholding Beatty did the sort of promotional work that he has in the past — select interviews with vetted major outlets like The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and GQ. He’s elusive, seductive, and ultimately Sphinx-like in every conversation. Perfectly Beattian. It’s an old-fashioned, unhip, utterly reasonable plan that no one cared about. For the vagrants of new media, he sat for a Reddit AMA, which sounds wonderful in theory, but when applied to a star like Beatty essentially resembles a post-screening Q&A that prizes brownnosing questions, evasive myth-building, and the occasional wry crack.

This was a press tour with mild revelation and little insight into the why of the movie, but Beatty’s Beattiness was so encompassing, it obfuscated everything else around it. Collins and Ehrenreich — two winning performers earmarked for bigger things — had no chance of competing with their benefactor’s big return.

Casanova died while working as a librarian. After tempting scores of women, juggling affair upon affair, adventuring his way through Europe in search of treasure, practicing magic and alchemy, surviving imprisonment and defamation, writing his memoirs, and having yet more romantic encounters with women the world over, Casanova settled into a life of scholarship, managing the library of Count Waldstein in Bohemia. His last words are alleged to have been, “I have lived as a philosopher and I die as a Christian.”

“Casanova” is a common assignation for Warren Beatty, given his history of high-profile affairs, but he shares a scholarly quality with the Italian adventurer, too. Beatty’s legacy will survive Rules Don’t Apply, just as no one cares that Casanova died a book minder. Beatty is one of the most singular, self-possessed creators in movie history. Just look at Reds, Bonnie and Clyde, or even the Skittles-colored pop-art experiment Dick Tracy for proof — Beatty’s self-belief is what willed a $25 million-budgeted movie about an angry and delusional old billionaire into the world in the first place. He more than likely would not have been happy simply walking away without completing his four-decades-in-the-making denouement, retiring to an imaginary library in his estate. (That said, his “unmade films” list is fascinating.) But I do not think it unfair to say that Beatty — who has spent the past 15 years raising his family and enjoying married life — waited far too long to make this movie.

In 1959, the real Howard Hughes was 54 years old. Beatty was in his late 70s when portraying the man. Whether moviegoers know this fact is irrelevant — there’s something stilted and strange about the setup in Rules, with Hughes funding a harem of aspiring young actresses and selectively choosing the ones he deems worthy of his physical attention. His Hughes needs to be dashing and confounding — instead he’s dyspeptic and frivolous. That Beatty is particularly good in his darty-eyed, loopy rendition of Hughes is also not much help — he feels like the only ingredient that’s fully realized in a half-baked concoction. By waiting all these years, Beatty watched his own cultural capital dwindle, another movie icon craft a Hughes story of his own, and a movie industry once built on stars embracing challenging parts reduced to the vagaries of intellectual property. Failure was inevitable.

This is a not uncommon affliction in pop culture. Ask Axl Rose. Or Harper Lee. Or Kenneth Lonergan. Waiting is death. Delay is a pox. (Every once in a long while, waiting works.) In the recent GQ profile of Beatty, the writer, Amy Wallace, elicits a great story from Bugsy screenwriter and filmmaker James Toback.

Imagine the interregnum between Bulworth and the long-gestating Rules Don’t Apply. That’s not a joke — creative abstinence is a terror, something Beatty’s friends and chroniclers know all too well. At the end of the 2010 biography Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, the movie historian Peter Biskind quotes Beatty’s longtime collaborator and screenwriter Bo Goldman on the prospect of his completing a Hughes movie. “Warren is an underachiever,” says Goldman. “He could have made five more wonderful movies, he could have been governor, he could have done everything, but his ego gets in the way.” In this case, he actually achieved his vision. It just didn’t happen soon enough.