By John H. Foote
4. REDS (1981)
Watching Warren Beatty’s massive epic Reds on the big screen at the beautiful University Theatre in downtown Toronto for the first time, I remember being awed. The entire film seemed to be so intelligent, so perfectly written. And Beatty as director had captured all the intimate moments between so many characters, best of all as John Reed and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), both radical writers who travelled to Russia as the Bolshevik Revolution took place and reported it daily, Reed writing it all down in his masterful eyewitness account “Ten Days That Shook the Word”, perhaps the greatest piece of journalistic writing until Woodward and Bernstein wrote “All the President’s Men”.
Warren Beatty had wanted to direct as long ago as 1967 when he produced Bonnie and Clyde (1967), one of the major films to usher in the New American Cinema of the Seventies. Watching Arthur Penn closely he was content to learn on this one, but he demanded to be heard. Through the next few films he again heeded the work of the directors he worked with, finally deeming himself ready to direct a film, a lovely comedy Heaven Can Wait (1978) based on the forties film Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). For the film, to help guide Beatty through his performance, he hired comic Buck Henry to co-direct with him, but make no mistake, Warren Beatty was in charge. When Heaven Can Wait was a massive box office hit and nominated for nine Academy Awards, Beatty personally received four (Best Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay), making him the first artist to achieve that distinction since Orson Welles with Citizen Kane (1941). Convinced he was ready to make his dream project, the story of writer John Reed, he convinced Paramount to fund his project to the tune of $32 million and began the long process of making Reds.
Seeing the finished film in that grand old cinema that December evening in 1981, I was breathless by what he had achieved, the film was truly astonishing. Beatty had created an intimate epic that was also a grand love story, serving up scenes worthy of David Lean, including a startling 10 minutes of the Revolution itself in Russia leading to the intermission. Filled with intelligence, the actor had waited until he was ready to make an ambitious important film, and his execution, overall direction of the picture ranks among the great directing achievements in film history. Long before he even started the film, he went across the country to talk to “The Witnesses”, contemporaries of John Reed and Louise, now elderly people who knew them well. Former friends and enemies speak to the camera with a solid background of black. We hear only their remembrances, no questions, and they are a delight. Henry Miller was as frank and shocking as he ever was, and the rest were wonderful.
The first image we see of Reed defines who he is for the entire film. He is in Mexico chasing a revolution, Pancho Villa’s army, forever chasing history will be Reed. His writing was urgent, giving the reader the sense they were in the middle of the events he was eyewitness too, brilliant reporting in “Ten Days That Shook the World”, still studied today. What interested Reed was the politics of a country, specifically how that country took care of its people. Coming from a family of wealth he understood what wealth was, and did not really care for it, choosing to earn his own way through his writing. Reed was part of a group of radical writers who wrote about the American work force, and became their voice against their oppressors. Among his friends were the anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), the great poet and playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), most who thrived in Greenwich Village. When Reed married Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), a forward-thinking woman who, under the spell of Reed, became a great writer for women’s rights and with him witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, editing and helping him write his masterpiece.
Theirs was a contentious marriage, both given to affairs, Bryant with Reed’s best friend O’Neill, Reed with women he met on his tours. Even after their reconciliation during the 1917 Revolution, they remained at odds over his involvement with communism in America. When he left for Russia she made it clear she might not be there when he came back. In the film, when he does not come back, imprisoned before leaving for the Middle East, she smuggles herself into Russia, crossing the Zhivago like wilderness, to find Goldman, accidentally. She discovers Reed is in the Middle East and greets the smashed train, riddled with bullets as it arrives in Moscow. We see him behind her before she sees him, and that famous embrace used on the poster takes place, where Reed asks her “please don’t leave me” before his death a short time later. Reed is among the only Americans buried in the Kremlin.
As a director, Beatty proved extraordinary, with a clear vision of what he wanted. He fills the screen with epic scenes, the Revolution itself, a montage over five minutes to the strains of the “The Internationale”, showing the common folks take Russia with Lenin at last taking the podium as leader, cutting back and forth through the beautifully lit streets of Moscow as the Bolsheviks march, taking over the city as Reed and Louise fall in love again, seeing one another clearly perhaps for the first time. In many ways the film matched the intimacy and sweep of Dr. Zhivago (1965) and even Gone with the Wind (1939). Another sequence has Reed aboard a train travelling through the Middle East, again a Russian theme on the sound score and Reed opens the curtain of his window to see camels prancing through the stunning vista of the desert, arriving at their destination where Reed finds a scarecrow of Uncle Sam being burned, which serves only to make him homesick and very aware of the freedom he has given up.
Yet for all his astounding epic moments in Reds, the small intimate moments are what make the film the work of art it remains all these years later.
The performances in the film are exquisite, an extraordinary ensemble of actors bringing history to vivid life. Beatty is superb as Reed, an intellectual who understands the theories of communism, which does not make him one at all, only that that very type of government kept Russia out of WWI, while America, a democracy, plunged in. He knows being with Louise makes him a better writer (her too), just as he knows she cheated on him with his best friend O’Neill, and we question whether or not Reed, for all his intellect truly understands love. Does anyone? The passion Reed had for his work, his writing, always chasing history, was akin to the love and devotion Beatty had for his film, refusing to yield to anyone in making the picture, choosing the film over friendships, over life itself.
As Louise Bryant, Diane Keaton gives one of the finest performances of her career, an early feminist who, with Reed, continues to expand as a person to grow as a human being. She recognizes the people surrounding her help make her a better writer too – O’Neill, Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, all of them, urge her to write about what is happening in the world, right now. Reed captures the urgency of it all, Louise learns too, as they become lovers and “comrades”.
Jack Nicholson is astonishing as the playwright Eugene O’Neill, a bitter, caustic man who might have been driven to alcohol by Louise herself. Their affair damaged him, deeply, and though he would encounter her again, often, he always managed to stab her with words, which in his hands were worse than a blade of any kind. Nicholson moves slowly in the film, and speaks clearly and equally slow, his words sinking in, hitting their mark so they make their point. He wields words like a weapon, knowing exactly the impact they are going to have when they hit. It is a deeply darkly sexual performance, and we feel the heat between the two of them, understanding what each sees in the other, just as we understand how Louise used O’Neill. Nicholson deserved to win the Oscar for this superb performance.
Veteran actress Maureen Stapleton had the role of her career as anarchist Emma Goldman, deported to Russia for her beliefs. Direct, brutally honest and to the point, she is the first person to make clear she does not think Louise is intelligent enough to keep up with their radicalism, just as she is the first to admit she was wrong about her. A tiny, bundled up force of nature, Stapleton as Goldman was remarkable, and walked away with every scene she was in, leaving us wanting more.
Shortly after the release of Reds the reviews across North American poured in declaring the film a masterpiece, some stating it was the greatest American film since The Godfather or, going back further, Citizen Kane. Beatty’s direction was often singled out in reviews, his brilliance, courage, artistry, his genius.
Reds won the coveted New York Film Critics Award for Best Picture, Beatty among the runners up for Best Director. On the East Coast, from the Los Angeles Film Critics the film won Best Picture again, this time allowing for Beatty to win as Best Director and Stapleton as Best Supporting Actress. Beatty won the Golden Globe for Best Director, and then earned the Directors Guild of America Award as Best Director, a huge honor for any director, but it was the second year in a row the award went to an actor!
Then came the stunner – Reds was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, the most by any film in 15 years. Beatty personally, and for the second time, was nominated in four categories: for producing the year’s Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay, a co-nominee. Among the many nominations the film added to his four were Best Actress (Keaton), Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Best Supporting Actress (Stapleton), Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design and Best Film Editing. Going into to Oscar night Reds was the runaway choice to sweep the awards, though it was a foregone conclusion Henry Fonda would best Beatty for Best Actor. But through the night, there was a tidal wave in favor of Chariots of Fire (1981), a very average film about Olympic runners, certainly not a film for the ages, but a film of the moment.
Reds won Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress, before Beatty won his Academy Award for Best director, a well-earned award for the gifted artist. Then Keaton lost Best Actress to Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond (1981) and in a shock I am not sure I have ever gotten over, Chariots of Fire won Best Picture. Chariots of Fire!
Beatty looked crestfallen, like someone had beaten him up. Rarely have I seen a man who had just won an Oscar as the year’s Best Director look so defeated, but he did.
Reds never did make a lot of money, the length of over three hours cut its screening times in half at the cinemas, and when it came out on video, it was rented, but not in huge numbers. Thank God for DVD and later Blu Ray where it remains popular with audiences who have re-discovered Beatty’s masterpiece. A remarkable film, made with passion and honesty, created with agonizing detail and absolute love.
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.