By John H. Foote
Watching Warren Beatty dressed up in gangsta clothing, rapping his political speeches was often hysterical. Yet if you listen to what he is saying, really listen, there is an urgency, a primal scream in the words telling us how things are, how to fix them, and the cost of doing so. Without question, this is the finest, most electrifying and bravest performance of Beatty’s long career. The actor-director risks more than he ever has on film as Bulworth, a senator who recognizes the plight facing inner city African Americans living in poverty and does what no other politician has ever done, he speaks out. He lashes out at the wealthy, laying blame where should be.
Nominated for Best Actor for Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Reds (1981) and Bugsy (1991), he has not won an Oscar for acting but did earn one for Best Director for his magnificent epic Reds (1981). He deserved nominations for McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Shampoo (1975) but was passed over.
And again, he was ignored for his stunning, brilliant, courageous performance as Senator Jay Bulworth in this scalding, white hot political comedy.
A wealthy, popular California Senator, disgusted by who he is, takes out a multimillion-dollar insurance policy on himself and then hires a hitman to kill him over the weekend. Suddenly liberated by the thought of his impending death, he begins speaking the absolute and shocking truths about race in California.
Beatty has always been a deft comic actor, very aware of his good looks and presence on screen. He was perfectly unaware as George, the stud hairdresser in Shampoo (1975), and not to bright but lovable as deceased Joe in Heaven Can Wait (1978). Here he offers something different, a profound physical performance brimming with intelligence and a shocked, growing awareness. Watch his face when he finds a group of black children armed, selling drugs in the hood. Though dressed like a homeboy, the kids know by instinct he is not one of them, but they happily follow him when he offers them ice cream, because they are, after all, children, even coming to their rescue when the cops harass them. Bulworth listens with thinly veiled disgust as a dope dealer, played with fierce intelligence by Don Cheadle, justifies hiring children as his soldiers, but while appalled, he realizes the biting truth. What the dealer does not realize is that Bulworth is taking in every single word, verbatim. He later uses those words in a stunning television interview littered with profanities and without apology. By speaking the truth, by attacking white wealth, exposing how the minorities are being held back, he wins over the black votes.
Walking through the hood in short pants, chains, a hat and sunglasses, Beatty does so with such jaunty, bouncy confidence, near fearlessness, we cannot quite wrap our heads around the genius of the performance.
And he raps. Yes, Warren Beatty as Bulworth gives his speeches in rap lyrics, speaking from the heart, perhaps for the first time in his political career. His aides are shocked, his new black friends inspired, the drug dealer completely inspired, it really is extraordinary.
Beatty was always a fine actor, but something changed after Bugsy (1991), a performance in which he displayed homicidal, volcanic fury for the first time, as gangster Ben Siegel. His guard down, liberated, free, he gave himself over to Senator Jay Bulworth and in doing so, captured the same sort of hope as his good friend Senator Robert Kennedy.
Beatty directed the film as well and co-wrote the biting screenplay. How I would have loved to have been on set to watch him evolve into Bulworth. The connection between he and Nina (Halle Berry) is perfection to see, with her recognizing his honesty and decency.
Unafraid to look ridiculous, Beatty portrays this man of the people, though not his people, perfectly, the searing message of the film just under the surface of the narrative.
He becomes, as the mysterious homeless man says, “Be a spirit, don’t be no ghost.”
How did the Academy miss this brilliant piece of acting? Shameful.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.