Carly Simon has never gone public with the identity of the target of her 1973 No. 1 hit “You’re So Vain,” but Warren Beatty has no doubt that it’s him. He crows about it in the middle of Peter Biskind’s 600-plus-page account of his life. Even better—or worse, depending—is that Beatty has earned his reputation as the vainest man in a mighty vain town. Biskind’s Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America abounds with quotes about Beatty’s obsession with himself, which his biographer shares.
Anyone who’s read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Biskind’s definitive history of ’70s-era New Hollywood, will be more than familiar with the material that makes up a hefty portion of Star—and unfortunately, Biskind doesn’t really improve upon or add much dimension to his discussions of the making of 1967’s Bonnie And Clyde (which made Beatty a Hollywood superpower, as producer and star), or Robert Altman’s 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Beatty’s first co-starring role with then-paramour Julie Christie.
Christie, of course, was only one of many women Beatty took up with at the time. Biskind estimates Beatty’s lifetime total at around 12,775 women, often two at a time. His discussions of the most famous libido in Hollywood history have a purple fascination, but Biskind too often seems like he’s high-fiving Beatty for his peccadilloes rather than examining them, as when he says of the year-and-a-half, around-the-clock editing of 1981’s Reds, “Suffice to say that Beatty’s playfulness, and his deeply held belief in his own entitlement, would lead him routinely to do things that today could get him brought up on charges of sexual harassment in the workplace, if any of the women wanted to press charges, which is unlikely.”
The same basic attitude goes for the movies Beatty helped shape from the ground up as producer, director, and (much-contested) writer, as well as star. Beatty made some great films, but when he’s applauded for not firing Elaine May from the notorious 1987 flop Ishtar after she refuses to direct a battle scene, Biskind comes on a little thick. Discussing Reds, he takes on an apologist’s tone: “[Beatty] discovers his films as he goes along, which is one of the reasons he does so many takes, excessive as that may seem.”
There is some fascination in following Beatty’s trail from golden-boy genius to leathery pain in the ass. But after the notorious Ishtar, it becomes wearying to read about one flop after another in which Beatty hires on as an actor, then upends the script and direction to suit his tastes and ego. Readers will probably give up on him long before Biskind, or Hollywood. The author’s Warren-knows-best genuflection grows wearying, too. After 1981’s Reds, Beatty had only one hit, 1990’s Dick Tracy. It’s made interesting here not because it actually made money (more than $100 million, though it didn’t turn much profit), but because Beatty’s tabloid-ready escapades with Madonna provide the comeuppance this ultimate ladies’ man had coming for decades, as Madonna ridicules him in public and turns his image into that of a clueless sugar daddy. Harsh, maybe, but it’s the sort of fond skepticism of which Star could have used more.