Warren Beatty’s love letter to Lenin

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Warren Beatty in Reds

We’ve spent the last couple of days contemplating Shirley MacLaine‘s love affair with Mao’s China. Now let’s turn to her brother, Warren Beatty, and his long-term crush on Soviet Communism. Our focus is on the epic 1981 movie Reds, Beatty’s “dream project” and “labor of love,” which he co-wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. It tells the true story of John Reed (Beatty), a journalist – and devoted Communist – who, in the U.S., helped establish the American Communist Party, and, in Russia, was a fervent participant in and witness to the birth of the Soviet Union, where he became one of Lenin’s very first American useful stooges and ended up as the only American to be buried in the walls of the Kremlin. 

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A scene from Reds

Politics aside, Reds is a good old-fashioned big-screen drama in the best Hollywood tradition. Over three hours long, it’s as stirring and sweeping as Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. And there’s no fashionable modern-day moral ambiguity: Reed is, quite simply, a hero. The movie encourages us to view his commitment to Communism as admirable. As Peter Biskind wrote in a 2006 retrospective on the film for Vanity Fair, it’s an “homage, of sorts, to the Russian Revolution as well as to the high passions that animated the largely forgotten American left in the years before, during, and after World War I.” In Biskind’s eyes, it wasn’t just John Reed who was a hero – Warren Beatty, too, was a hero, whose “vision and persistence” enabled him to win over studio heads who weren’t enthusiastic about the idea of a motion picture that would “dramatize the Russian Revolution from a not entirely unsympathetic perspective.”

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Diane Keaton in Reds

Biskind tells a story that provides a glimpse into Beatty’s mindset. While visiting the Soviet Union in 1969, Beatty was asked by Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk to star in a movie about Reed. Beatty turned Bondarchuk down – not because he was loath to take part in a project that would have been a work of sheer Communist propaganda filmed under close Kremlin control, but because he didn’t like the script. Even then, however, he was already thinking of making his own Reed movie, and asked to meet an old woman who had been one of Reed’s lovers. She had spent 16 years in a labor camp, and hated Stalin, but was philosophical, telling Beatty that “of course the revolution is in its early stages.” Beatty’s reaction? “It was at that moment I thought, I have to make a movie about that kind of passion.” Not, note well, a movie about that kind of self-destructive delusion – the woman was still devoted to an evil and pernicious ideology that had landed her in a labor camp for 16 years! – but about what he regarded as a laudable ardor.

More on Monday.

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