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Still So Vain.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

APRIL 5, 1999:  Warren Beatty's always wanted to be more than just pretty. From Bonnie and Clyde through Reds and even Dick Tracy, he's worked hard to prove there's an edge somewhere beneath that soft focus grin, a brain behind the bedroom eyes. He's a matinée idol who wants you to respect him in the morning—which has made for an uneven but sporadically fascinating career.

Bulworth (1998, R) is the most interesting Beatty film of the '90s. He co-wrote, directed, and starred, and it feels—for better and worse—like a very personal project. He plays Sen. J. Billington Bulworth, a blueblood California Democrat who's grown disgusted with big-money politics and with his own complicity in it. He buys a huge life insurance policy payable to his daughter and then takes out a contract on his own life. And suddenly, with nothing left to lose, he starts doing the last thing anyone expects: telling the truth. Beatty's version of "the truth" is a refreshingly (or, depending on your viewpoint, obnoxiously) leftist one, assailing corporate greed and institutional racism, and it's delivered passionately. Bulworth is the most explicitly political Hollywood film in ages. It turns liberal-guiltish quickly, however, as Bulworth becomes fascinated with hip-hop culture and starts rapping (very, very badly) at campaign appearances. This somehow gives him immediate street cred. When a sassy black woman tells Bulworth, "You my nigga!," it's the ultimate realization of both Bulworth's and Beatty's white-guy fantasies, which are really more personal than political. It's also pretty funny, and that's the movie's saving grace. Beatty's not afraid to make a fool of himself if he thinks you're going to love him in the end, and you mostly do, even if the smugness of the film's conceit never quite goes away.

Before Bulworth, there was Leo Farnsworth. In Heaven Can Wait (1978, PG), which Beatty co-wrote and co-directed, he plays a pro football player who goes to heaven too soon and has to be returned to earth in a new body. He ends up as Farnsworth, a ruthless petroleum magnate. Though the movie—a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan—is not as ideological as Bulworth, Beatty's transformation of Farnsworth from marauding tycoon to man of the people is similar in tone. And the romance with Julie Christie is far more convincing than Bulworth's strained dalliance with Halle Berry.

Like Bulworth, Beatty's Shampoo (1975, R) takes place on the eve of an election. The carefully observed comedy, a bedroom farce played for pathos as much as laughs, uses the morally vacant 1968 presidential race as a metaphor for the empty pursuits of its hairdresser hero and the Beverly Hills women he beds. Directed by Hal Ashby (Beatty produced), it has a sophistication most of Beatty's self-directed films lack.

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