The Kennedy Center

Warren Beatty


actor, director, producer, writer (born March 30, 1937, in Richmond, Virginia)

In 1962, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association awarded Warren Beatty the Most Promising Newcomer Award. Rarely has anyone lived up to the title so brilliantly—and so often. He made his film-acting debut in 1961's Splendor in the Grass, and instantly became one of the screen's most charismatic stars. He made his producing debut with 1967's Bonnie and Clyde—in which he also starred—and created a milestone in American film. He made his writing debut with 1975's Shampoo—which he also produced and starred in—and fashioned a wistful and iconic portrait of American culture. He made his directing debut with 1978's Heaven Can Wait—which he also produced, wrote, and starred in—and was nominated for four Academy Awards.

Has anyone else ever held such a prominent, influential place in front and behind the camera—or so thoroughly captivated the imagination of the film-going public for four decades—with just 22 films? Part of Beatty's success, of course, is due to that inexplicable star quality which some lucky few happen to possess. A lot of it, though, has to do with the extraordinary range and depth of his work. There are the early career-making dramas (Splendor in the Grass, Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, All Fall Down, Lilith, Mickey One) that established him as his generation's leading interpreter of sensitive, brooding, troubled young men. But since then he has starred in or created films—some of them among the most honored motion pictures ever—in an impressive array of genres: romantic comedy (Heaven Can Wait, Shampoo), heist adventure (Kaleidoscope, $), gangster picture (Bonnie and Clyde, Bugsy), revisionist western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), paranoid thriller (The Parallax View), historical epic (Reds), comic book adaptation (Dick Tracy), and political satire (Bulworth).

A measure of his range as a film artist is that Beatty personally has been nominated for an Academy Award 15 times, spread out over four categories and six films: Bonnie and Clyde (producer, actor), Shampoo (co-writer with Robert Towne), Heaven Can Wait (producer, actor, director, co-writer with Elaine May), Reds (producer, actor, writer), Bugsy (producer, actor), Bulworth (co-writer with Jeremy Pikser). In 1982 he was awarded the Oscar as Best Director for Reds, but all six movies will be seen, and talked about as long as the world cares about films.

"Every project and every performance is different," writes Stephanie Zacharek on "His restlessness is his driving force. His overall sense of vision and his distinct and radical guiding sensibility (have) fueled his ambitions and inspired a remarkable and uncompromising slate of mainstream movies."

Beatty does have a second Oscar—the Irving Thalberg Award of 2000, presented to "creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production." With a "remarkable and seldom predictable career," wrote David Thomson in the New York Times at the time of the award, "maybe no one did more to reinvent (the motion picture) business than Warren Beatty." Bonnie and Clyde changed everything, and American films after Bonnie and Clyde were markedly different from that preceded it. The first-time, 30-year-old producer made the film as an independent movie—at Warner Brothers and before anyone had uttered the term "indie." Thomson writes: Beatty "kept the script 'wild,' took the unit away on location; he let Arthur Penn shoot in ways that alarmed old-timers; he used a new breed of actor; he saw how to chase laughter with dread, and to make a merry riot out of slaughter; and…he argued and cajoled and manipulated the studio into making it a success." Perhaps most importantly, Beatty "educated a generation of young filmmakers on how to use the studio setup to their advantage," giving birth to what turned out to be the last golden age of American cinema. Bonnie and Clyde was a movie so new and different that upon its initial release it was severely panned, quickly disappeared from theaters, and deemed an utter failure. At Beatty's insistence, it was released again a few months later and subsequently proclaimed a brutal and exquisite masterpiece by the very same critics who had earlier dismissed it. The film both disturbed and thrilled the youthful, rebellious audiences of 1968, and ended up one of the year's biggest moneymakers, as well as a contender for 10 Oscars. Its influence was widespread: from making stars out of Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and Estelle Parsons, actors who would dominate American movies for the following decade, to revolutionizing the fashion industry with its depression-era costumes, makeup, and hairstyles.

Beatty is the younger brother of actress Shirley MacLaine. In 1992, he married actress Annette Bening. They have four children: Kathlyn, Benjamin, Isabel and Ella Corinne.

Beatty studied acting with the internationally acclaimed Stanislavsky teacher Stella Adler, and made his Broadway debut in 1960 in William Inge's A Loss of Roses. Although the play closed after a few performances, Beatty made an impression and was nominated for a Tony Award. More importantly, the veteran playwright took notice of his young star, which led to Beatty making a riveting film debut as the rich and handsome Bud Stamper in Splendor in the Grass . Boasting an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Inge and heartbreaking direction by Elia Kazan, the movie remains one of the finest explorations of teenage love and frustration ever filmed. In the movie, Natalie Wood's Deanie becomes enthralled with Bud—just as filmgoers everywhere became enthralled with Warren Beatty. Four decades later, the love affair continues—but not just with the actor, also with the artist.
September 2005
Photo of Warren Beatty