Movies We Like
If someone told me they found Bulworth, filmmaking wise, to be a little lazy and, comedy wise, not all that funny, I wouldn’t argue with them. If they found it a touch offensive, maybe I could be persuaded to concede their point. But for me, though flawed, Bulworth is one of the most audacious political satires ever made. And for star and director Warren Beatty it’s one of his gutsiest moves in a long and fascinating career of audacious moves. Bulworth is one of the few modern political films that is actually political - it names names.
Beatty’s first starring role was in Elia Kazan’s soapy teen love classic Splendor In The Grass (1961). He would surround himself with major directors for the next two decades, working with John Frankenheimer, Robert Rossen, Robert Altman, George Stevens, Richard Brooks, and Mike Nichols. They would all be unmemorable films with the exception of Altman’s talkie, cult Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He would fare much better working as his own producer and later as a director. As producer and star Beatty helped start a filmmaking revolution in Hollywood, with the masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The French New Wave inspired period piece, with its frank sexuality and startling violence, would influence a generation and help to jumpstart the golden age of auteurism in Hollywood of the 1970s. He would star and produce Shampoo (1975) and add director to his resume with Heaven Can Wait (1978). Both comedies were massively popular in their day with audiences and critics alike, though maybe not as "hip" in today’s light.
Though a less prolific decade for Beatty, only making two films, the '80s would have a major high and low for his career. With Reds (1981), his dream project, he would write, star, produce, and direct a massive love story, the biography of communist John Reed. It’s a film of fine detail, a labor of love, and one to be respected (if not watched over and over again). Meanwhile teaming up with Dustin Hoffman and director Elaine May would prove to be a disaster of legendary proportions with lame Ishtar (1987). The "on the road" type comedy would prove to be unfunny and downright unwatchable. The money spent and money lost on it is still considered one of the most excessive films ever made.
Beatty would bounce back in the '90s. He would run the show again with the hit Dick Tracy (1990). Trying to fill Cary Grant’s shoes, he would act in the dull clunker, the Love Affair (1994) remake. But he would have two of the best, most unusual performances of his career with Bugsy (1991), and especially with Bulworth.
As Senator Jay Bulworth, Beatty plays a man much like himself, facing the final lap of a storied career with immortality approaching. Bulworth’s Washington office is covered with pictures of the Senator with his idols, icons in their own day, the usual suspects, Bobby, Martin, etc. Tired of selling out his own beliefs and facing financial ruin, Bulworth puts out a contract on his own life, choosing to go out with a bang. When he returns to California, sleep and food deprived, knowing he has only days left he "flips out" and finds his inner freedom. He does what no politician would ever have the nerve to do: he begins to tell the truth. He tells a black church that the politicians are lying when they speak of fixing inner city LA (he includes himself in the list of liars). He insults a group of Jewish film moguls at a home fundraiser by pointing out their Hollywood greed and saying their work is crap. On the campaign trail he calls out both Clinton and Dole, both the Democrats and Republicans, as pawns of big business and brings out a lot of truths that only a Ralph Nader would dare utter.
Bulworth grows deeper into his pose and insanity, eventually hooking up with a group of South Central women who take him to a club and, after sampling Hip-Hop and drugs, he gets "jiggy" with it, starts rapping, and wearing Hip-Hop outfits. And he begins to romance one of the women, Nina (the very romance-able Halle Berry). Meanwhile his election staff (lead by Oliver Platt) work the spin-control but, to their shock, as Bulworth tells the truth his once poor election numbers begin to rise and in the Capra tradition, the truth telling politician starts to catch on with the public’s imagination.
As a whole, Bulworth is not a perfect film; there are often some tired conventions at work. The hit-man subplot, which somehow Nina figures into, does not work. The homeless woman who speaks as a Greek chorus, proclaiming what we should think, is a lazy writer’s concoction. Even some of the racial attitudes could be seen as trite and obvious: the uptight whites learn to be real from the free-spirited blacks. The colors on the screen, the way it’s shot, often looks overly pretty and too gaudy (ironically enough, much like the look of many of Spike Lee’s films). But these flaws can be overlooked because so much of the film is fresh and daring.
In an age of safe "political" films like Dave (1993) or The American President (1995) or even the horrendous feel-good blacklisting film The Majestic (2001), the politics are not generic and are not used as a backdrop to hang the real plot. Even a fairly intelligent "political" film like The Contender (2000) always seems to be playing it down the middle so as not to offend a section of the audience. Like Network (1976) or Bob Roberts (1992) before it, the politics of Bulworth seem to come first. It doesn’t try to have its cake and eat it too - it throws the cake at the audience it’s not worried about offending because it’s sure it‘s speaking the truth.
If nothing else Warren Beatty is known as a smart and cautious guy - that's why he usually takes so much time between movies, hemming and hawing over his next move. He’s been a major movie star most of his life, the guy has never played a supporting role in someone else’s film. Every film he does usually helps to continue the idea that Warren Beatty is a mega star. This is why Bulworth stands out so oddly in his filmography. He could have been laughed off the screen, and one gets the feeling that Beatty’s legendary vanity would not want that.
An old white movie star rapping could have stunk of condescension. But it works - not that he raps well, I’m sure a rap aficionado would declare it terrible. It’s what he raps about. Some of the moments are very powerful, especially as Bulworth begins to realize exactly what he is saying. In a long but rather moving rap/rant Bulworth exclaims…
“We got Americans with families that can't buy a meal. Ask a brother who's been downsized if he's getting any deal. Or a white boy bustin ass til they put him in his grave. He ain't gotta be a black boy to be living like a slave."
Seeing the poverty and the drug culture despair and the racial divide around Los Angeles and falling for the beauty of Nina, Bulworth declares…
“White people, black people, brown people, yellow people, get rid of 'em all. All we need is a voluntary, free spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fucking everybody til they're all the same color.”
It’s a funny moment and bold idea. A Frank Capra "political comedy" this obviously isn’t.
Bulworth was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Warren Beatty & Jeremy Pikser).