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Warren Beatty’s Film Career, Told Through His Onscreen Love Stories

The infamous ladies’ man starred in several classics that featured a romantic subplot. At the movies, though, he rarely ended up with the girl.

It’s a quirk of the passage of time that a whole generation has now grown up thinking of Warren Beatty as a family man. For decades, such an impression would have been inconceivable: Millions of moviegoers viewed the 83-year-old actor, producer, screenwriter and director as the epitome of the crush-worthy star — a singularly beautiful leading man notorious for his offscreen love affairs. (One Beatty biography suggested that he had bedded 12,775 women. “It would not be feasible,” he said when asked about that astronomical figure. “It could not happen.”) But that now all seems very far in the past: He and his Bugsy co-star Annette Bening​ have been married since 1992. That’s impressive for any couple, but it’s downright heroic in the movie business— especially when the husband was once described by novelist Peter Feibleman as “the best-looking, most successful stud in Hollywood for a very long time.”

Beatty was well-aware of his lothario reputation but also tried to downplay it, casting himself as the one who invariably would be the dumpee, not the one who did the dumping. “The decision to end an affair is never mine,” he has said. “And it’s never without considerable cost. Where sex is involved, you become very vulnerable and when separation takes place — God, the pain. Even the promiscuous feel pain.” Whether that was sincere or a savvy manipulation to make himself seem like the victim, this public stance carried over into his movies, which often found him courting a beautiful woman, only to have that love affair fall to pieces before the end credits. Maybe Beatty was a sucker for unrequited love stories. Maybe he was communicating his sadness about his real-life relationships not working out. Regardless, at the movies, Beatty’s characters often had to learn to live with the pain of separation. It was as if he was performing public penance for being a heartthrob. 

Rather than offering a straightforward overview of Beatty’s best performances, I decided to look at 10 films that define his onscreen persona as a ladies’ man, picking movies in which romance is a central factor. Only when I compiled this list did I realize how rarely a Beatty protagonist ends up with the girl — heartbreak and/or death often drive him and his amour apart. Beatty found everlasting love with Bening, but his onscreen selves were rarely as lucky.

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Beatty’s first film was directed by Elia Kazan, a giant who had worked with Marlon Brando, among others. Playing Bud, the son of a wealthy family who falls in love with working-class Deanie (Natalie Wood), Beatty even conveyed some of the tortured, mumbling intensity of that revered Method actor. (After all, they’d both studied under Stella Adler. “Sometimes Warren would talk with his teeth a little close,” a former classmate once said, “and some people would say that they weren’t hearing [him].”)

Splendor in the Grass was a Romeo and Juliet tale, with the main characters drawn to one another but forced to be apart because of the repressive society in which they live. (The movie comes from a time when having premarital sex was considered a passport to eternal damnation.) But even though they eventually find themselves with new partners, it’s clear that they still hold a torch for one another. 

The film started a pattern for Beatty on screen: His characters were consumed with passion, but all that passion meant nothing in the face of the harsh realities of life, leaving him romantically bereft. Wood had been a star since childhood, but she and this newcomer had a palpable chemistry. As Kazan wrote later in his memoir, “It was clear to Natalie, as it was to me, that Warren was bound for the top; this perception was an aphrodisiac.”

Splendor in the Grass also began a tradition of Beatty wooing his co-stars. He and Wood would start dating a few years later. “Neither Warren nor I was ready for a permanent relationship … we were both so confused that we thought fighting and hostility meant real emotional honesty,” she would later write about their relationship.

All Fall Down (1962)

Where other actors make a big show of embracing their dark side by playing despicable characters, Beatty found himself turned off by the prospect, which made it a challenge for him to portray Berry-Berry, the borderline sociopath who creates plenty of misery for others in All Fall Down. “Well, there’s no guy who makes out with all women, no matter how good he is,” Beatty later said about the character, who seduces the emotionally fragile Echo (Eva Marie Saint), only to treat her horribly after she gets pregnant. 

Probably not surprisingly, then, All Fall Down sticks out in his oeuvre: It’s a bleak story about an unlikable character, and Beatty either didn’t yet have the talent or inclination to make the guy compelling. The film is less a romance than a study of a bastard who inflicts pain on a love interest who doesn’t deserve such shoddy treatment. “I came in very young. Younger than when people become what they call ‘movie stars,’” Beatty said about his early years figuring out how to be a film actor. 

In the next few years, he would sharpen those instincts. But All Fall Down is an intriguing outlier that suggests the path Beatty was clear he didn’t want to take over the rest of his career.

Lilith (1964)

Because Beatty tended to have warm relationships with his leading ladies, it’s striking when he didn’t. That was certainly the case with this flawed but often fascinating drama about a Korean war vet (Beatty) who’s employed in a psych ward, drawn to one particularly troubled patient, Lilith (BreathlessJean Seberg). But although he’d worked with director Robert Rossen to find the film’s Lilith — Beatty was a great admirer of the Jean-Luc Godard landmark — the two actors didn’t hit it off. “I was intimidated by Warren Beatty,” she later said. “He talked a different language than I did in his work.”

In some ways, though, that tension fuels Lilith, which focuses on an unstable romance between two tormented individuals. Beatty’s character is slowly unmoored by Lilith, resulting in a bristling performance that’s hard to wrap your arms around. Was it the war or this woman that sent him over the edge? Beatty was always more comfortable in classic Hollywood storytelling — for all the game-changing films he’d soon make, he’s an old-school leading man through and through — so it’s interesting to watch him take some acting risks here, even if Lilith isn’t wholly successful.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Beatty was in his late 20s when he helped change Hollywood, producing a violent film about outlaws who became a cultural sensation, especially among young moviegoers. “A lot of people out there just kind of dismiss me as an irresponsible kid,” he said at the time. “All of Hollywood is old, old, old, for that matter. There are as many good young actors and directors in America as there are in Europe, but Hollywood shuts them out. Hollywood is afraid of young blood. It’s a ghost town.”

As, respectively, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, Beatty and Faye Dunaway represented that young blood — they were sexy and exciting and new, flaunting a lusty chemistry that felt a little dangerous. Even though Clyde is impotent, Bonnie and Clyde allowed Beatty a chance to really show off his swagger — he’d always been handsome, but as a charismatic and carefree bank robber, his cocky strut was powerfully appealing. The characters became the cinematic symbol of hot, young rebelliousness for decades to come. (And the fact that they die in a hail of bullets only made their love story more romantic.)

The costars’ chemistry was such that it was always noteworthy that they weren’t a couple. But they’ve been friends ever since. “We both knew it would be the end of the relationship onscreen,” Dunaway said in 2017 of their decision not to date. “It’s a bad idea. You get very confused. It’s why doctors don’t operate on their families. You don’t want to carry that personal luggage onto the set with you when you’re trying to do a great job.”

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Photographer Michael Childers spent time with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie when they were a couple, and their affectionate demeanor stayed with him. “The Julie and Warren thing was magical,” he later said. “He was demented about her. I knew 16 other girls he dated, but Julie was special.” Their first onscreen appearance together remains their best. In this terrific Robert Altman Western, he plays John McCabe, a man with big plans to establish a brothel in an up-and-coming township in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century. But soon comes Constance Miller (Christie), a madame with far more experience in this field than he does. They form a partnership that McCabe hopes develops into something more.

Beatty and Altman famously feuded during McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s production — the actor is a control freak, and the director was someone who didn’t like being controlled — but the result is among the most elegiac and bitter of Westerns, illustrating how America was forged mostly by greed and violence. (Poor McCabe doesn’t stand a chance once some well-armed entrepreneurs ride into the community with an eye to putting him out of business.) But among the film’s many glories is the hesitant love story between McCabe and Miller. She’s a savvy woman of the world, while he’s a hopeless romantic. As this doomed huckster, Beatty is endearing and vulnerable — you understand what Miller sees in him, but also why she knows their courtship isn’t going to lead to anything. 

Shampoo (1975)

George Roundy is a Beverly Hills hairdresser in 1968, and although he’s incredibly handsome, none of the men whose wives and girlfriends visit his salon feel threatened. (After all, they figure he must be gay.) Beatty liked the idea of playing George, with the twist that the character was straight. “Some of them just like fucking,” Beatty once said of George, who juggles a few different women in Shampoo, a political satire about the end of 1960s idealism. Set around the 1968 presidential race, the film follows George as he agrees to escort Jackie (Christie), the mistress of his financial backer Lester (Jack Warden), to an election-night event. (Lester doesn’t want his wife to find out about the affair, and he assumes George is homosexual — not realizing that Jackie used to be George’s girlfriend.)

A comedy of manners, Shampoo gets a lot of laughs out of the fact that gorgeous George isn’t exactly the brightest guy in the world. But he’s got a big heart, and so the movie isn’t judge-y about his many romantic flings — the bottom line is he loves women, even if it sometimes proves an occupational hazard. Jackie, though, was always the one who got away, and Beatty and Christie believably play exes who can’t keep their hands off each other, despite all the reasons they broke up in the first place. George might be a himbo, but he’s got poetry in him, which comes through clearly during Shampoo’s heartbreaking final moments as he watches Jackie ride out of his life one more time.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Of the films Beatty directed or co-directed, Heaven Can Wait is the most crowd-pleasing of the bunch. His debut behind the camera was made with Buck Henry, an adaptation of Harry Segall’s play, which starred Beatty as a hunky quarterback who’s mistakenly taken up to Heaven before his time. Returned to Earth, he eventually falls in love with a schoolteacher (Christie) who cares passionately about the environment. In real life, their relationship had ended, but the onscreen bond between the two actors remained. It was a bittersweet touch that, for once, their characters might actually find a happy ending.

Ironically, Heaven Can Wait wasn’t the sort of movie Christie liked. “Julie’s own preferences don’t lean to the linear film, and she’s decidedly not sentimental,” Beatty later said. “She’ll always tell you what she thinks, with clarity, and the directness of an arrow. The pain, too. But it’s valuable. And whatever it is you sense about her is what holds the film together — that intensity you feel about her.” 

But if Heaven Can Wait was a feel-good love story, Beatty’s inherent intelligence made it far smarter than it would have been otherwise. His character is a regular guy thrust into an extraordinary situation, and Beatty made you like this jock, who has to almost die to finally find the woman of his dreams.

Reds (1981)

“He is curious about everyone. He is so seductive in that regard,” Diane Keaton said in 2016 about her former boyfriend Warren Beatty. “He makes you feel like you are the only one, the person that matters; that you are just absolutely fascinating, you know?” During their time together, they made Reds, an ambitious biopic about John Reed, a journalist and activist who fiercely championed the cause of the American Communist movement. (Keaton played Louise Bryant, who became his lover and believed in the same radical agenda.) 

Reds lost to Chariots of Fire at the Oscars, but Beatty won for Best Director. Accepting his award, he started his speech by saying directly to his girlfriend, “Miss Keaton, I know that public expressions like this can be embarrassing sometimes, and that my chances of speaking with you privately later are at the moment excellent. I do want to tell you that you make every director that you work with look good, and I think that what they’re trying to tell me here tonight, thank God, is that I’m no exception.”

Indeed, while Beatty directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in the film, the power of Reed and Bryant’s love story is such that it’s as important as the sweeping history that Reds captures. Biopics struggle with that balance between the intimate and the epic, but Beatty got it right: You feel that he and Keaton are equals in the film, that she’s not simply the “love interest.” For all the accolades Beatty received for Reds, the movie is very much a doubles act.

Dick Tracy (1990)

When Beatty dated Madonna in the early 1990s, he was tightlipped about their relationship, even though he knew it would come up while promoting his film Dick Tracy, in which she played the lounge singer Breathless. (“Madonna is simultaneously touching and more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” he said blandly when Rolling Stone asked why he’d cast her. “She’s funny, and she’s gifted in so many areas and has the kind of energy as a performer that can’t help but make you engaged.”) 

In the comic-book adaptation, she’s the sexy femme fatale trying to lure honorable cop Dick Tracy (Beatty) away from his beloved Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). After years of playing rebels and misfits on screen, it was fun to watch Beatty take on such a square-jawed figure — a guy who would do the right thing rather than have an affair — but it also was an indication that Beatty knew he was getting too old to be the young stud anymore. Beatty was 53 when Dick Tracy hit theaters — Madonna was 31 — and his ease in front of the camera dwarfed hers. Don’t feel too bad for Madonna, though: She got her revenge, of sorts, when she featured him briefly in her 1991 concert documentary Truth or Dare, in which the press-shy Beatty looks absolutely mortified to be sucked into her media circus.

Bugsy (1991)

The story goes that, while working on the Oscar-winning Bugsy, Beatty confided to his costar Annette Bening, “I want to tell you that I’m not making a pass at you, but if I were to be so lucky as to have that occurrence happen, I want to assure you that I would try to make you pregnant immediately.” It’s a hell of a line, and they got married in the spring of 1992. (They have four children.) The film that brought them together turned out to be a success as well, with Beatty playing Bugsy Siegel, a gangster with dreams of turning Las Vegas into a gambling mecca. Bening was Virginia Hill, an actress who’s dating a friend of Bugsy’s — not that he’s going to let that stop him. (Or, for that matter, the fact that Bugsy is married with kids.) Their initial meeting is incredibly romantic: Once they talk, it’s over for him. He has to have her.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Bugsy, which was directed by Barry Levinson, was the last truly great Warren Beatty movie. He’s since only made two other films, Bulworth and Rules Don’t Apply, and only appeared in two others, including 1994’s Love Affair with Bening. In the last few decades, he’s focused on family, not so much worrying about motion pictures anymore. But that’s helped make his body of work hold up in ways that his peers’, who kept cashing checks to be in garbage beneath their talents, simply haven’t. 

And, besides, staying away from the silver screen has had other benefits as well. “[M]y marriage and children are the biggest and best thing that has ever happened to me,” Beatty said in 2016. “There’s no 10 movies that would be as interesting to me as any one of my kids.”