Beatty Biographer Peter Biskind Talks Shop With Fellow-Author Sheila Weller
Last week—vying with the latest economic, Tiger Woodsian, and failed-Northwest-Airlines-terrorist-bombing-blame-game news that was zinging around the web—was a certain number: 12,775. Specifically, it was the cool surmisal that, if you did “simple arithmetic,” Warren Beatty has likely bedded a total 12,755 women, “give or take,” in his (still incomplete) lifetime. That…pause-inducing…tidbit came from Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, the brand-new and long-awaited biography by Columbia County resident Peter Biskind.
Biskind (left) and his wife, author Elizabeth Hess (Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human), moved to Chatham fulltime ten years ago (after weekending there a previous ten), and even though it’s made him “grow to appreciate cows more than I ever thought I would,” country living has hardly blunted the edginess of America’s perhaps most authoritative chronicler of the last four decades of American filmmaking, film business, and filmmakers’ misbehavior. Biskind’s previous books include The New York Times bestseller Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, and he’s a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. His work provides a consistently smart, entertaining—and scoop-rich—inside view of how some of the best of American cinema has been created, by often larger-than-life (and large-libido’d) directors, producers, studio executives, and stars.
Biskind has known Beatty since 1989. When in New York, the actor would frequently call the author to have dinner (often very late), and he once told Biskind he liked him because he “looked like Leon Trotsky.” (Since Beatty’s boldest, and some say best, film was Reds, a romantic view of the Russian Revolution improbably produced during the Reagan era, this was no small compliment.) Biskind is the first (‘“and, now, probably the last,” he says) author who’s written a biography of Beatty with his cooperation. Though a complicated, cat-and-mouse-like cooperation it was—and (notwithstanding Beatty’s attorney’s huffy retorts that readers would expect this), Star was certainly not written on the condition that Beatty review and approve it, pre-publication. “I would never do a book like that,” Biskind says. Writing the biography of a complex man—“he’s very smart, manipulative, ambivalent about making decisions, a big tease in every respect; unbelievably charming, and one of the great filmmakers of the twentieth century who really hasn’t gotten his due”—was exhausting. The first line in Star kind of says it all: “Finishing this book was like recovering from a lingering illness, although admittedly one that I had brought on myself.” Since misery loves company, part-time Berkshires resident Sheila Weller (right), author of Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, another member of the small tribe of chroniclers of the complicated lives of sexy, brilliantly talented, living cultural icons, spoke to Biskind about his new book for Rural Intelligence.
Weller: So, are you fully recovered from that lingering illness?
Biskind: Let’s just say I’m in remission at the moment. It’s tricky when you write about living people. I do genuinely admire Warren, and I like him, and I suspected he wouldn’t like the book. Looking in the mirror at yourself and then having someone take a photo of you and realizing that the photo doesn’t match your image: it’s hard. I wouldn’t want to read about myself, so I didn’t think he would like to. But he’s a self-reflective and introspective guy, and when time passes I hope he’ll recognize the accuracy of the portrait.
Weller: Okay, that number: 12,775. It certainly got buzz. Were you, like, driving down Route 23 looking at cornfields when you thought: Aha!, I’m going to count his probable lovers?
Biskind: I don’t remember [when I came up with it]. It was a little bit tongue in cheek, and I thought it would be amusing. I was a little taken aback that everybody seized on it as gospel. After all, no one was standing over his bed with a clicker, counting every woman who passed his door. (Also, it was so much less than Wilt Chamberlain’s 20,000 women. I figured: God, Warren’s a piker.) But, from what I know about him, it’s a fair count.
Weller: Yes, you do go into some delicious detail. And you say he had to have sex to get to sleep every night.
Biskind: He did twosomes and threesomes, so that sort of escalates the figure. He could have had the flu and missed a couple of nights, but he made up for it.
Weller: I want all the high-minded readers to know that you provide trenchant analysis of his movies, but, um, keeping on the women for a moment: How many women talked to you on the condition that you not use their names?
Biskind: Maybe seven or eight. Not a huge number, but enough.
Weller: Every author who does this kind of book relishes his or her great “get” sources—the ones who really give insight into the character. Who were yours?
Biskind: One was Joyce Hyser, a sometime actress [who was one of Beatty’s serious but less-known girlfriends]. She’s smart and perceptive, and she was pretty open, so I was very happy to get to talk to her. Warren would introduce her as Bruce Springsteen’s former girlfriend, which she was. He was so controlling in his relationships, he would want to run the women’s lives. Joyce went to New York with him once and she went to Saks,and bought a sweater for herself and when she got back to the hotel there were three identical sweaters in different colors on the bed. She accused him of having her followed. She still doesn’t know how he found out.
There was an age disparity between her and Warren, and Hyser’s shrink was always telling her to get rid of him, that it was not a healthy relationship. So one day Warren insisted on going to her session with her. In five minutes, the shrink [a man] was in the palm of Warren’s hand. He said to Joyce, `Why would you want to get rid of him?’ Warren completely seduced the guy. He did that. Every man and every woman was in love with him. How many people can you say that about? And he was such an important filmmaker, so it was the perfect storm for a biography.
Weller: What’s an example of his meticulousness as a filmmaker?
Biskind: A story I particularly like is: He was shooting Reds [which, like his Heaven Can Wait, earned Oscar nominations in four categories] in Finland. It was hard to find Russian speakers there, because the Finns hated the Russians, and he needed an old woman as an extra in a railroad scene. The line producer proudly took a woman to Warren’s trailer, but Warren said a couple of things to her in Russian and found out she didn’t speak Russian. So in the middle of the night, the line producer had to find, and costume, another Finnish old lady who did speak Russian…as an extra. It was a huge hassle, but that’s how meticulous Warren was—he didn’t take anything for granted.
Weller: Okay, back to the romance gossip, Was Julie Christie a love of his life?
Biskind: I think Christie was The One. People are always asking me, Why Annette Bening? [Beatty met Bening in 1991, during Bugsy, and eventually married her, changing his ways. They have four children.] I think a couple of reasons. Not to detract from Annette’s charms, but I think Madonna [who preceded Bening] was so difficult, and he was so traumatized by the age difference—she was constantly making fun of him for being old; she ran him ragged—that, when the Madonna thing was over, I think he realized he was too old for all this [running around].
Weller: And wasn’t Bening from this straight-ahead solid family? Her mother, a professional church choir singer?
Biskind: Yes. And her father, a Republican insurance man from San Diego. He checked out her family. This was before genome testing, but he would have taken a look at her genome, if he could.
Weller: As you said: Meticulous and controlling, among other things. Did anything in your research surprise you?
Biskind: I’ve known Warren for so long, so there weren’t huge surprises. I was very familiar with his personality, including its inconsistencies. People said to me, “Warren doesn’t like gossip,” which is true—he didn’t like gossip about himself. But he was a great collector of gossip. He would spend a lot of time making calls from L.A. to New York, just collecting the day’s gossip.
Weller: Okay, enough about Hollywood. Back to Columbia County. Where do you like to hang out?
Biskind: I love Swoon, a restaurant in Hudson. And Blue Plate in Chatham. And Muriel’s Chatham Bookstore. And Mado’s pastry shop. Food. Books. Pastry….
Weller: And cows.
Biskind: And cows. I love it up here.