Warren Beatty’s Quest For A Comedy Partner Begins


It’s a quest which would culminate in ISHTAR, which I still haven’t seen. I expect to maybe like ISHTAR.

But I did not care for THE FORTUNE, directed by the other half of the Nichols-May team, Mike Nichols, which pairs Beatty with Jack Nicholson. This thirties farce feels like an attempt to do a PAPER MOON, and Beatty’s comic stuffiness seems very Ryan O’Neal. Nicholson is dipping his toe in the waters of overacting for the first time. As is Stockard Channing, and the results are loud, shrill, and protracted. I’m sure there are people for whom the movie is hilarious, but they seem to be in a minority. We spent our time wondering what caused these people to choose to do this film. It’s hard to imagine it being funnier on paper, and in fact the pleasure we got was entirely from John Alonzo’s cinematography and Dick and Anthea Sylbert’s design, both of which recall CHINATOWN. Which is a somewhat better movie.

Screenwriter Carole Eastman was a friend of Jack Nicholson and wrote FIVE EASY PIECES, so I guess that explains him. And I imagine he would have Nichols and Beatty’s phone numbers on his rolodex. And so, a disaster is born. But a handsome one. We particularly enjoyed Warren’s 3D necktie.


Turning to Biskind for the gossip, as usual, we find a story that Beatty used THE FORTUNE, regarded as a safe investment by its studio, to get the more tricky SHAMPOO made — with ironic results when the former flopped and the latter was a breakout hit. (I don’t really like either, but should give SHAMPOO another chance.) He claims Beatty bought the script for some vast sum, which Beatty denies… and he mentions Nicholson’s friendship with Eastman but doesn’t suggest that may have been a deciding factor in getting the thing made. He also says the script was too long and had no third act (all too apparent in the finished movie) — Nichols, concerned about his budget overages on CATCH 22 and DAY OF THE DOLPHIN took a machete to it and “cut out all the funny stuff” according to Polly Platt, at one point scheduled to design the movie. Doesn’t sound like something the talented Nichols would do, but the movie certainly has very little funny stuff, so if it was present to begin with, somebody must have cut it.


This shot may explain where Beatty got the idea that he should play DICK TRACY.

Maybe if the film had been made in some other era, the theme of two men plotting to murder an innocent heiress for her money might have been acceptable, if unsympathetic — in the forties or fifties we’d know everything would turn out OK. In the seventies, all bets are off, which is part of what makes that decade’s cinema so exciting, but it means we can’t trust the filmmakers to end this film in a non-misogynistic, socially acceptable way. I mean, we’ve seen MASH and THE GETAWAY and STRAW DOGS and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER at this point so anything is possible. The ending isn’t horrible like that, but it’s certainly peculiar, unresolved and kind of disturbing: a big shrug to rank alongside another seventies take on Old Hollywood, Elia Kazan a,nd Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s THE LAST TYCOON, which solves the source novel’s unfinished structure by just… stopping in mid-air.

vlcsnap-2014-05-01-00h46m06s136“There’s a man on the wing of this plane!”


14 Responses to “Warren Beatty’s Quest For A Comedy Partner Begins”

  1. I am not sure you would like Ishtar. There is something squalid and mean-spirited about it.

  2. James S Says:

    Interesting perspective, I didn’t find Ishtar squalid or mean spirited. I thought it kind of loved it’s two schlubby heroes
    And I kind of loved it. It’s a quietly (subtly) funny film though, with the exception of the deliberately awful songs, which meant it didn’t stand much of a chance in an era of Bill Murray and SNL (who I also like)
    Also I’d try to forget how much it cost, because that distracted me the first time, you can’t see much of it onscreen. (and you still can’t convince me it’s budget would’ve made 3 Terry Gilliam films or 2 Indiana Joneses) The price of May’s perfectionism

    I’m trying to remember if it’s a Beatty or a Nicholson biography that has all the interesting stories contrasting May with Eastman, two strong, intelligent, funny women with very different personalities. Beatty and Nicholson were both really loyal to them

    I really didn’t like The Fortune either (A Coen brothers favourite don’t you know) but I’d imagine like the later Eastman/Nicholson collaboration “Man Trouble” the original messier script is much better than the finished project,
    I love the story about the execs watching it for the first time, desperate for it to work. During the first scene, as the characters escape through the window, one producer breaks out in desperate fake laughter trying to get a funny atmosphere going. Everyone else turns to look at him, and he apologizes.

  3. I got the impression Ishtar didn’t like its heroes at all! I’ll give it another watch in case I was wrong.

  4. Maybe it likes them in a Coen Bros way — likes having them around to humiliate. A kind of patronizing affection? I don’t automatically dislike such an attitude, but I’m happier when I see it transcended.

    Off to look at the spot where Mary Pickford was born.

  5. Oh you must give Ishtar a look! I didn’t get it at all on first-view, but on the second came to regard it as a Minor Masterpiece. Though it does have one very bad bit of comic arab-face. There’s no way around the unfunniness of that, I’m afraid. And yet Seth MacFarlane is still doing that sort of thing like an utter shit. This might be because he’s an utter shit.

    Anyway, I like Ishtar loads better than The Fortune.


  6. I’m one of “the happy few” who liked The Fortune. I’m not about to make a major case for it. I just loved the way Warren snapped out “the mousebed heiress” and Jack looking like an even more hapless Stan Laurel. Plus the delightful Stockard Channing. I haven’t seen Ishtar since it was first released. Jonathan Rosenbaum swears by it. I’m sure it’s worth another look but on first glance it seemed really strained.

    As for Dick Tracy, I loved the costumes and it provided a setting for some of Sondheim’s best songs. Here’s the lovely Gavin Creel with one of them:

  7. Randy Cook Says:

    Nichols and May were two of a kind, and a one of a kind team. Their brilliant work seems fresh today. Might I presume to say that their comedy owed much to its understated delivery? Now, I haven’t seen THE FORTUNE, so I can’t judge, but I would like to mention that one of Nichols’ favorite pictures is THE PALM BEACH STORY. This leads me to assume that perhaps MN was trying to emulate Sturges, whose comedic voice was different from Nichols’. Attempting to emulate the voice of one of cinema’s greatest humorists is a tall order (I’m looking’ at you, Joel and Ethan), and perhaps Nichols was not entirely successful working outside his comfort zone. Guess I’d better give THE FORTUNE a look, but I suspect I might have a similar reaction to DC’s.

  8. Speaking of Mike Nichols —

  9. I only just got into Cassavetes the filmmaker, but I think that scene is a triumph.

    I love early Nichols up until halfway through Day of the Dolphin. Then something bad seemed to happen, and despite some decent work since then he hasn’t recaptured my interest. Angeles in America seemed the best.

    The Fortune can’t be seen as truly Sturgesian because the plot has no complexities. Laurel & Hardy is probably the best reference, particularly for the lengthy business with the trunk, which was quite funny at times. The 70s interest in L&H also led to Harry & Walter Go To New York, a period movie nobody seems to have a kind word for. I do like the fact that Elliot Gould plays a character called Walter Hill though. Who is a complete idiot.

  10. Haven’t seen The Fortune (nor Isthar either), but the former reminds me of A New Leaf, directed by the May half of the Nichols-May team. which has a plot similar to The Fortune – Walter Matthau has run through his money and marries a klutzy heiress (May herself) whom he plans to bump off once he gets his mitts on her dough. Haven’t seen it in years, but recall it as quietly, blackly comic (and has a gem of a performance by George Rose as Matthau’s butler). You might also consider it for your 70s retrospective.

  11. That scene isn’t from Cassavetes. It’s from Elaine May. And it’s all about how Mike Nichols (“Izzy”) lost his hair.

  12. Yes, Mikey and Nicky somehow feels totally improvised while being totally scripted. I realize it’s May.

    In his excellent memoirs, David Watkin rather ungallantly speaks of Mike Nichols’ toupee being blow off by a plane while shooting Catch 22.

  13. Elaine May is primarily a writer. She takes her cues as a director from her collaborators. The Heartbreak Kid is dominated by Charles Grodin. Mikey and Nicky is very Cassavetes, and Ishtar Warren Beatty. She feels much more at home letting someone else direct, ie. Mike Nichols on Primary Colors and The Bird Cage.

    Currently she has a project about the making of a movie that she’s angling for her boyfriend Stanley Donen to direct.

  14. I would be fascinated to see Donen direct again — an automatic entry for the Late Movies Blogathon.

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