“Reds” by Warren Beatty: Foote In Film
By John H. Foote
REDS (1981) – Directed by Warren Beatty (****)
With the release of the new Peter Biskind book Star, a biography and study of actor-director-producer-writer Warren Beatty, I took a look at Reds (1981) the other night, his seminal study of John Reed and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, as seen through the eyes of Reed who wrote the first great journalistic book Ten Days That Shook the World. That book, more than any other of its time, created the template for all future current event reportage books, with its urgent, passionate writing about a world changing before Reed’s very eyes.
Long a passion project of Beatty’s since visiting Russia in the sixties, he was never comfortable being a movie star, wanting instead to be taken seriously as an artist, producing the brilliant work Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and dabbling in direction for the first time with Heaven Can Wait (1978) a remake of the classic Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1942). For his work on that romantic comedy he received four Academy Award nominations, as Best Actor, Best Director (shared), Best Producer (shared) and Best Screenplay (shared), a feat not accomplished since Orson Welles with Citizen Kane (1941). Though Beatty was proud of his work on the film, he longed for a serious project that would challenge him to do the finest work of his career.
Beatty saw himself as an artist and his obsession with John Reed turned fever pitch when he went to Paramount to ask them to finance a film about Reed to the tune of twenty five million dollars. At one point the head of Paramount told him to take twenty five million, spend one million on any movie and pocket the rest but do not make Reds. Too late, Beatty was hooked. Those in the business were stunned that Beatty, best known in some circles as a playboy/ movie star, would want to make a film about American communism in the teens, that explored the Russian Revolution and the passion with which a group of artists believed in communism at that time in American history. The gall, they thought, of this man to want to make a film about communism during the Reagan presidency!!! More over, did he possess the artistry to make such a film? Some obviously had forgotten Beatty produced Bonnie and Clyde (1967) perhaps the seminal work of the sixties.
The result was an extraordinary, massive epic in which the director never lost sight of the fact he was making an intimate study about people, artists like himself, who believed in a politic that would become a threat to the fabric of their country in the years to come.
Reds premiered in late 1981 to sterling reviews, some of the best in the last twenty years, as critics fell over themselves looking for the right superlatives to describe the film’s brilliance. No one really expected Beatty’s film to be as good as it was, in fact, it was rather stunning that the intense, handsome actor had made such a superb film. Among the best reviews was one from the New York Times which stated Beatty had made the finest American film since Citizen Kane (1941)!!
The film explores the life and relationship of John Reed and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who are part of the revolutionary writers group in Greenwich Village in New York, circa 1915-1916. There friends number the brilliant playwright Eugene O’Neill, portrayed with lethal sexuality by Jack Nicholson and the anarchist, fiery Emma Goldman, with Maureen Stapleton in a performance that would win her an Academy Award. The picture covers the turbulent relationship, marriage and seemingly constant battles between Reed and Bryant, with his passion for the American communism movement always hovering in the background, moving to the foreground to overwhelm their marriage. There are aspects to it she accepts, while others she does not, such as the constant meetings, and eventually an unplanned trip to Russia for him after the Revolution. Once there Reed cannot return home, and Bryant seeking O’Neill’s help gets into Russia and crosses the frozen wilderness to try and find him. They are re-united at a train station in Moscow, where it arrives, windows smashed, bullet holes present, after an attack in the desert. There they are re-united, finally at peace with one other, accepting of one another’s flaws and goodness, though he is dying and will die in Russia to be buried in the Kremlin.
At the half way mark of the film there is a breathtaking sequence that begins with Reed slowly making a speech and erupts into the Revolution that saw the Bolshevik party overtake Russia,. Trains are stopped in their tracks as the masses converge walking in peaceful demonstration, and Lenin eventually takes the podium finally in power, which both Reed and Bryant find deeply moving. The sequence lasts six or seven minutes and is astounding in its execution and direction, and in the manner is was cut together to the choirs singing the communist anthem The Internationale. Astounding filmmaking.
Beatty is the great driving force of the film, as his direction is simply superb, understanding when the film needs to be large in scale, but also when he is telling a very human story. There are moments that may seem corny, yet they are also pure Americana, which is precisely what Beatty intended to pull the audience and they bring about the shift in ideals. And the performance he guides are superb, simply brilliant from his own work as the intelligent though often boyish Reed, through to Keaton’s firebrand of a Bryant, and best of all Nicholson as O’Neill, the whiskey soaked writer who saw life filled with toxic pain and brought it to vivid life on the page. Stapleton is very good as Goldman, capturing the fire of a woman obsessed with politics at a time when women did not even have the vote in the United States. Of all the performances in the film it is Nicholson who burns brightest with an intense, altogether brilliant performance as one of America’s greatest playwrights.
I loved the manner in which Keaton captured Bryant’s competitiveness as a writer, not quite knowing hot to keep up Reed’s progressive writing, eventually understanding it makes the greatest sense to write about things that matter, that are happening, and having an instinct to know when history is unfolding before your eyes. She evolves, and in evolving becomes a much more likable character, moving past the smug arrogance she brings to her early scenes, that incessant need to be the center of attention, which is of course why she falls for O’Neill, because he is so willing to put her there and on a pedestal. The chemistry between she and Nicholson is powerful, yet gentle, like good whiskey aged the right amount of time. Sparks fly between Beatty and Keaton, but with she and Nicholson there is something softer, and we may wonder why she chose the path she did instead of breaking his heart.
As good as the moments of intimacy are, the film’s epic sweep is what takes the audiences on the journey with Reed. There is magnificent sequence in the Middle East in which Reed looks out a window on the train and sees camels moving across the desert, far from Russia. And of course, the film’s most metaphorical image, of Reed chasing revolution at the beginning of the film, forever after history, forever chasing what he cannot quite be a part of but will always witness.
The use of witnesses in the film is a stroke of genius on Beatty’s part, bringing in men and women who knew Reed and Bryant during the height of their fame, and bring some insight that is penetrating and illuminating. In some cases, the witnesses cannot remember certain events, which gives their scenes a timely brilliance reminding us that like history, memories fade becoming shadowy glimpses into the past in the landscape of our mind.
Reds won the New York Film Critics Award as Best Picture, while Beatty won all the major critics awards as Best Director, including the Golden Globe and the coveted Directors Guild Award. The film was nominated for a whopping twelve Academy Awards, four again for Beatty, and this time the path seemed clear for Best Film.
On Oscar night, Beatty won Best Director as expected, while Stapleton took Best Supporting Actress and the film won Best Cinematography. However there was a change in the tide over the course of the night and the Best Picture award, which Reds should have won, went to Chariots of Fire (1981) a rather tepid and, frankly boring British film with a majestic musical score. Had Reds won Best Picture it might have broken even rather than losing money. The film did reasonably well on home video but was held back on DVD for years, finally released on DVD in 2006, twenty five years after the theatrical release.
An often forgotten American masterpiece, Reds is a challenging and demanding film on audiences, but a journey well worth taking. Of all the actors who have won Oscars for Best Director, no one was more deserving than Beatty, and he can proudly look upon this film as the crowning achievement of his impressive career. He made other films, some very good ones including Dick Tracy (1990) an under valued live action version of the thirties comic strip and Bulworth (1998) a scathing black comedy about American politics with Beatty as a senator who speaks the truth!! Both films display the obvious gift Beatty had for directing, but he simply did not do it enough. He surpassed his performance in Reds with his sublime performance as Bugsy Siegel in Bugsy (1991) but has never done a greater of directing than he did with Reds. His finest work and one of the greatest of American films.