REDS, directed, produced and co-written by Warren Beatty, who plays the lead to boot, is an excellent movie. It’s also the next thing to miraculous, coming out of Hollywood, a 195-minute, $35,000,000+ story of a long-dead radical journalist, a Socialist who became a Communist and was buried in the Kremlin (one of just three Americans parked there). A love story with a sad ending and little action, loaded with enough talk, much of it political, for five movies. That it came out in 1981, when RayGun was President, and that it not only swept praise and awards, but grossed enough to come in 13th place in a year when people were lining up for Superman II and The Cannonball Run, is nothing short of astounding.
“Look, what does a capitalist do? Let me ask you that, Mike. Huh? Tell me. I mean, what does he make, besides money? I don’t know what he makes. The workers do all the work, don’t they? Well, what if they got organized?”
1915. Frustrated writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) leaves her loveless marriage in Portland, Oregon to join energetic charmer John Reed (Beatty) in his circle of social activists on the East Coast, a group that includes playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and prominent anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). The couple fight and reconcile repeatedly, and are drawn to covering first World War 1, then the Russian Revolution up until 1920.
“All right, Miss Bryant, do you want an interview? Write this down. Are you naïve enough to think containing German militarism has anything to do with this war? Don’t you understand that England and France own the world economy and Germany just wants a piece of it? Keep writing, Miss Bryant. Miss Bryant, can’t you grasp that J. P. Morgan has loaned England and France a billion dollars? And if Germany wins, he won’t get it back! More coffee? America’d be entering the war to protect J. P. Morgan’s money. If he loses, we’ll have a depression. So the real question is, why do we have an economy where the poor have to pay so the rich won’t lose money? “
Beatty’s co-writer was Trevor Griffiths, an English dramatist & Marxist, with some tune-ups done by Elaine May and Robert Towne. Ambitious and detailed to a fault, the sprawling, intimate epic was superbly shot by Vittorio Storaro, of Apocalypse Now glory. It rambles on occasion, and the numerous arguments and breakups between ever-testy Louise and all-consumed Reed are a bit repetitious, but they’re always written, staged and played with wit, empathy and vigor, and Beatty’s wise inclusion of fascinating snippets of commentary cameos from 32 elderly ‘Witnesses’ who knew the couple and the times they moved in keeps the momentum from flagging. The witness inclusion is an ingenious (and ripely amusing) way to convey exposition and opinion to a modern audience instead of saddling the actors with it, another plaudit to the dense screenplay that credits a viewer with having a modicum of intelligence. Reed, Bryant and the swirl of characters they engage are witness to the Wilson Presidency’s crushing of the Socialist movement in America, the paralyzing infighting between factions, the euphoric rush of the Revolution and its possibilities and then the purging of dissent in the hard New Russia of the Bolsheviks.
Nicholson’s wounded, acidic O’Neill quietly takes command of the scenes he’s in, and Stapleton is a gruff battler as Goldman. Taking a break from his controversial life as a writer and ‘professional personality’, Jerzy Kosiński makes a vivid impression as ice-blooded Bolshevik revolutionary Grigory Zinoviev. A shrewdly-picked selection of character actors bring extra perks throughout the story’s many episodes.
“You dream that if you discuss the revolution with a man before you go to bed with him, it’ll be missionary work rather than sex.”
Beatty suffuses Reed with his customary charm and energy; along with Bonnie And Clyde and Bugsy, it’s his strongest work as an actor. That Jack Reed was an adventurist and amorist as well as an author and advocate certainly played to Warren’s well-known array of passions. Keaton’s dynamic, brave, hurt and challenging Louise is beautiful and funny, driven and selfish, ultimately fearless: her richest dramatic performance. The two stars were a couple at the time but their relationship buckled under the demands Beatty put on everyone (not least himself). The nearly 50 weeks of production consumed 2½ million feet of film, and required an editorial team of 65 people (under Dede Allen) to wade through. *
Along with shooting in California, England and Manhattan (Greenwich Village), Spain doubled for Far Eastern Russia, and Helsinki, Finland made do for Moscow. Location set-ups went north of the Arctic Circle.
“Jack dreams that he can hustle the American working man, who’s one dream is that he could be rich enough not to work, into a revolution led by his party.”
Despite length, subject matter and timing, the film managed to gross $40,400,000 in the US, a certain amount abroad, and Paramount wisely hedged their bets with enough pre-release financial juggling to not take a crippling loss.
When the Academy Awards rolled around, Beatty won for Director, Stapleton for Supporting Actress and Storaro for his Cinematography. It lost Best Picture to Chariots Of Fire (I dread having to jog slo-motion through that wet sand again), and received further nominations for Actor (Beatty), Actress (Keaton, who should have won over Katherine Hepburn’s sentiment tag in On Golden Pond), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Screenplay (again losing to Chariots Of Fire—a crime), Art Direction, Film Editing, Costume Design and Sound.
“I think voting is the opium of the masses in this country. Every four years you deaden the pain.”
Politically literate, emotionally resonant, meticulously crafted (just look at the costuming and makeup effort that went into the individual extras that you barely glimpse in the teeming crowds), wry and mature about the tug-of-war of intimate relationships and the slippery slopes of victory, Beatty’s gallant ode to ‘what was’ and ‘what maybe could have been’ is a triumph of artistic will gifted to the collective spirit, a magic-tragic love story with a heroic aspect, and a testimony to the dignity of principle and the courage it takes to stand for it when faced with defeat and despair.
With Edward Herrmann, Paul Sorvino, Gene Hackman, George Plimpton, Dolph Sweet, William Daniels, R.G. Armstrong,Nicholas Coster, M.Emmet Walsh, Jack Kehoe, Ian Wolfe, Bessie Love. The ‘Witnesses’ include Henry Miller, Adela Rogers St.John, Hamilton Fish, Rebecca West, Roger Baldwin, George Jessel and Will Durant.
* Keaton’s conception of Bryant: “I saw her as the everyman of that piece, as somebody who really wanted to be extraordinary, but was probably more ordinary, except for the fact that she was driven. I knew what it was like not to really be an artist. I knew what it felt like to be extremely insecure. I knew what it was like to be envious.” Diane and Warren were together as a couple for five years, which included the exhausting two years making the film, and the strain of his obsession on the project not only undercut their relationship, it drove many others involved bonkers mad with frustration.
Beatty had been thinking of doing a film on Reed since 1966. During the highly combative writing process he and scenarist Griffiths fell out (not before detesting each first). Warren favored endless takes: 70, 80, more, to the point where Stapleton rounded on him at one point with “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Nicholson, Beatty’s great friend and next-door-neighbor, near weeping, exploded at him “Just tell me what the fuck you want and I’ll do it.” Hackman owed him for Bonnie And Clyde, but after the dozens upon dozens of “do-it-again’s” forced on Reds, when later asked by Beatty to appear in Dick Tracy, Hackman declined with “I love you, Warren, but I just can’t do it.”
Takes or not, who would do it today? Beatty, looking back: “Reds marked the end of something, in the subject matter and the willingness to gamble…What moved the late 60s and 70s was politics. Reds is a political movie. It begins with politics and it ends with politics. It was in some sense a reverie about that way of thinking in American life, one that went back to 1915….We were those old lefties that were narrating this movie. We, me. Reds was a death rattle.”
Though Reds was and remains unique, it’s a tad unfair to tar 1981s output with the juvenile dross mentioned up at the top. Top-grade fare was on tap: Das Boot, Body Heat, Gallipoli, Prince Of The City, Cutter’s Way and Raiders Of The Lost Ark.