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BEATTY FOR PRESIDENT Is it just an act?; Player: Warren Beatty is brilliant in the politics of his industry, but in the real world, it's not clear if he's willing to "get comfortable with ridicule."


SINCE ARIANNA Huffington floated the idea of a Warren Beatty presidential campaign two weeks ago, the actor's ambitions have been the summer's most delectable political story. Jokes abound. Whom, for example, would President Beatty hire as his intern?

The 62-year-old Beatty has stayed virtually silent, but his friends are encouraging speculation. "Warren has been consulting with Democratic and Reform Party activists," they say. "Warren is taking this very seriously."

Wife Annette Bening, they report, is enthusiastic.

The right thinks Beatty is a ridiculous, preening glory hound who would preach limousine-liberal ideas. The left thinks he can illuminate a grand populist vision with pure charisma.

Both sides mistakenly assume that because Beatty is an actor, he, like Ronald Reagan, could flatter, seduce and inspire voters. He charmed Natalie Wood, Madonna, Faye Dunaway, Julie Christie, Isabelle Adjani, Diane Keaton, et al. Surely he could charm a few million disaffected Democrats. (And even if the only people who vote for Beatty are women who slept with him, he could make a strong showing in the California primary.)

But Beatty has always been, in the words of film critic David Thomson, "a very uneasy actor." Beatty is too cool and distant to be great on screen. He has made his mark on Hollywood more as a producer and director, and it is this that explains his political ambition.

The media snicker at the actor-politician, who presumes to speak on the day's great issues. But consider Beatty as a self-made businessman. Beatty sympathizers such as Huffington rightly ask why Steve Forbes, who inherited his millions, is a serious candidate, while Beatty is a joke.

Beatty has shown a ruthless, brilliant talent for manipulating the politics of his industry. In Hollywood, where no one gets his way all the time, Warren Beatty has gotten his way forever.

In "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Peter Biskind chronicles how Beatty parlayed the heartthrob status he'd won with 1961's "Splendor in the Grass" into a controlling position as a producer. He almost single-handedly brought "Bonnie and Clyde" to the screen in 1967 and made his fortune by negotiating a contract for 40 percent of the film's gross.

In the 1970s, he bullied screenwriters and directors into making "Shampoo" and "Heaven Can Wait" his way. In 1981, during the height of the Cold War, he persuaded Gulf & Western to pony up $25 million for "Reds," a movie sympathetic to communism.

A few years later, he got Columbia to spend the then-preposterous figure of $40 million on "Ishtar." It flopped, but Beatty walked away unscathed.

Most recently, he compelled Rupert Murdoch's 20th Century Fox to put up $35 million for "Bulworth" and to give him creative control over the film, even though 1) it was a political movie, and hence a lousy investment, and 2) it propounded ideas that Murdoch detests.

The stories are endless about how Beatty charmed or threatened this director or that executive into doing what he wanted.

Beatty brought those same skills to his second career as an activist. Ron Brownstein, who chronicled Beatty's politicking in "The Power and the Glitter," notes that Beatty might be the only star in Hollywood history who preferred to participate in politics from behind the scenes.

Beatty doesn't need the ego gratification of public politics. He has been famous throughout his adult life. In 1972, Beatty gave speeches on George McGovern's behalf, but he disliked the high-profile role. He was an awkward, embarrassed speaker. "He understood why the public is skeptical of a guy who makes $10 million a year talking about the class struggle," Brownstein says.

But Beatty excels at the back-room nitty-gritty. In 1972, he aided McGovern most by organizing fund-raisers, even persuading Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to reunite for a McGovern benefit.

When he advised Gary Hart in 1984 and 1988, Beatty remained in the shadows, planning media and campaign strategies. "Political pros in that campaign thought he was a positive force," Brownstein says.

Of the few public statements Beatty has made about his potential campaign, the most revealing is this: "There has to be someone better [than me]." This is not modesty; Beatty has no modesty. It is his cool and honest pragmatism. He recognizes that he'd be a better operator than candidate.

Though he's supposed to be a liberal icon, Beatty lacks the crystallizing vision of a Reagan. His politics are a muddle. It's not happenstance that he is backed by such an odd assortment of people, ranging from Republican populist Huffington to earnest liberal Bill Moyers. Beatty is not cynical: He desperately believes the political system is broken and needs fixing. He just seems unable to explain how it's broken and how it should be fixed.

In interviews, Beatty repeatedly chokes when asked for specific political ideas. He seems to believe that too much money is in politics, corporations are too powerful, welfare reform was wrong and race is a big problem. He says he wants to conjure up the spirit of Robert F. Kennedy and 1968.

"Bulworth," the closest thing to a Beatty political platform, is a mess as political science -- incoherent, condescending slop about the evils of lobbyists and the innate decency of black folk.

"Bulworth" is fabulous on day-to-day campaign tactics. This is Beatty's curse: His political principles tell him to deplore gamesmanship, but gamesmanship might be what he understands best. Similarly, Beatty spends a lot of time savaging Washington business-as-usual, yet he cultivates friendships with Henry Kissinger, Larry King, and John McLaughlin -- Washington incarnate.

Beatty is meticulous, even anal. As an actor, he is famous for demanding take after take until he's sure it's right. Movie stars can control their images. Beatty can forbid interviews, decline to answer questions and refuse to appear in public. He didn't speak to reporters from the late 1970s till the early 1990s.

But politicians must answer questions, take abuse and keep smiling. The first thing candidate Beatty would have to learn, says Huffington, is "to get comfortable with ridicule." It's not clear that Beatty is willing to do that.

He's too cautious. After all, he twice declined opportunities to run for office in the 1970s, when he was a much more credible candidate than he is now. Brownstein says Beatty led the polls in the 1974 race to succeed Reagan as California governor but refused to run. And, in 1976, Beatty resisted pleas to make a late primary challenge to Jimmy Carter.

Beatty's flirtation with the presidential campaign might be a canny political tactic. He doesn't want to run, but perhaps he can use the threat of a candidacy to make himself a behind-the-scenes player, the guy who delivers the left to Al Gore or Bill Bradley.

In the early 1960s, Beatty turned down the opportunity to play John F. Kennedy in a movie, then became a producer. This year, Beatty might turn down the opportunity to play Robert F. Kennedy in a campaign, and then become a power broker.

David Plotz is a senior writer for Slate online magazine. This article was distributed by New York Times Special Features.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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