With the release of the new Peter Biskind book Star, a biography and study of actor-director-producer-writer Warren Beatty, I took a look at Reds (1981) the other night, his seminal study of John Reed and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, as seen through the eyes of Reed who wrote the first great journalistic book Ten Days That Shook the World. Long a passion project of Beatty’s he was never comfortable being a movie star,
wanting to be taken seriously as an artist, producing the brilliant work Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and dabbling in direction for the first time with Heaven Can Wait (1978) a remake of the classic Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1942). For his work on that romantic comedy he received four Academy Award nominations, as Best Actor, Best Director (shared), Best Producer (shared) and Best Screenplay (shared), a feat not accomplished since Orson Welles with Citizen Kane (1941). Never comfortable as a mere movie star, Beatty saw himself as an artist and his obsession with John Reed turned fever pitch when he went to Paramount to ask them to finance a film about Reed to the tune of twenty five million dollars. At one point the head of Paramount told him to take twenty five million, spend one million on any movie and pocket the rest but do not make Reds. Too late, Beatty was hooked.The result was a massive epic in which the director never lost sight of the fact he was making an intimate study about people, artists like himself.
Reds premiered in late 1981 to sterling reviews, some of the best in the last twenty years, as critics fell over themselves looking for the right superlatives to describe the film’s brilliance. No one really expected Beatty’s film to be as good as it was, in fact, it was rather stunning that the intense, handsome actor had made such a superb film. The film explores the life and relationship of John Reed and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who are part of the revolutionary writers group in Greenwich Village in New York, circa 1915-1916. There friends number the brilliant playwright Eugene O’Neill, portrayed with lethal sexuality by Jack Nicholson and the anarchist, fiery Emma Goldman, with Maureen Stapleton in a performance that would win her an Academy Award. The picture covers the turbulent relationship, marriage and seemingly constant battles between Reed and Bryant, with his passion for the American communism movement always hovering in the background. There are aspects to it she accepts, while others she does not, such as the constant meetings, and eventually an unplanned trip to Russia for him after the Revolution. Once there Reed cannot return home, and Bryant seeking O’Neill’s help gets into Russia and crosses the frozen wilderness to try and find him. They are re-united at a train station in Moscow, where it arrives, windows smashed, bullet holes present, after an attack in the desert. There they are re-united, finally at peace with one other, accepting of one another’s flaws and goodness, though he is dying and will die in Russia to be buried in the Kremlin.
At the half way mark of the film there is a breathtaking sequence that begins with Reed slowly making a speech and erupts into the Revolution that saw the Bolshevik party overtake Russia,. Trains are stopped in their tracks as the masses converge walking in peaceful demonstration, and Lenin eventually takes the podium finally in power, which both Reed and Bryant find deeply moving. The sequence lasts six or seven minutes and is astounding in its execution and direction, and in the manner is was cut together. From here in the theaters, the intermission comes, and the audience exists, exhausted.
Beatty is the great driving force of the film, as his direction is simply superb, understanding when the film needs to be large in scale, but also when he is telling a very human story. There are moments that may seem corny, yet they are also pure Americana, which is precisely what Beatty intended to pull the audience and they bring about the shift in ideals. And the performance he guides are superb, simply brilliant from his
own work as the intelligent though often boyish Reed, through to Keaton’s firebrand of a Bryant, and best of all Nicholson as O’Neill, the whiskey soaked writer who saw life filled with toxic pain and brought it to vivid life on the page. Stapleton is very good as Goldman, capturing the fire of a woman obsessed with politics at a time when women did not even have the vote in the United States. Of all the performances in the film it is Nicholson who burns brightest with an intense, altogether brilliant performance as one of America’s greatest playwrights.
As good as the moments of intimacy are, the film’s epic sweep is what takes the audiences on the journey with Reed. There is magnificent sequence in the Middle East in which Reed looks out a window on the train and sees camels moving across the desert, far from Russia. And of course, the film’s most metaphorical image, of Reed chasing revolution at the beginning of the film, forever after history, forever chasing what he
cannot quite be a part of but will always witness. The use of witnesses in the film is a stroke of genius on Beatty’s part, bringing in men and women who knew Reed and Bryant during the height of their fame, and bring some insight that is penetrating and illuminating. In some cases, the witnesses cannot remember certain events, which gives their scenes a timely brilliance reminding us that like history, memories fade becoming shadowy glimpses into the past in the landscape of our mind.
Reds won the New York Film Critics Award as Best Picture, while Beatty won all the major critics awards as Best Director, including the Golden Globe and the coveted Directors Guild Award. The film was nominated for a whopping twelve Academy Awards, four again for Beatty, and this time the path seemed clear for Best Film. On Oscar night, Beatty won Best Director as expected, while Stapleton took Best Supporting Actress and the film won Best Cinematography. However there was a change in the tide over the course of the night and the Best Picture award, which Reds should have won, went to Chariots of Fire (1981) a rather tepid and, frankly boring British film with a majestic musical score. Had Reds won Best Picture it might have broken even rather than losing money. The film did reasonably well on home video but was held back on DVD for years, finally released on DVD in 2006, twenty five years after the theatrical release.
An often forgotten American masterpiece, Reds is a challenging and demanding film on audiences, but a journey well worth taking. Of all the actors who have won Oscars for Best Director, no one was more deserving than Beatty, and he can proudly look upon this film as the crowning achievement of his impressive career.