Once a week for the past six years – a streak that could not be interrupted even by Superstorm Sandy – the New York Movie Klub has gathered its 20 or so members to share a film with each other. Cinephile City’s Mark Young is a member of the Klub, and every Monday he will share the previous week’s movie here.
It’s easy to dismiss Warren Beatty’s 1998 film Bulworth with a snide joke, something like “In the annals of things movie audiences were desperate to see, ‘Beatty Raps!’ isn’t quite up there with ‘Garbo Speaks!’” Given how broad much of the comedy in Bulworth is, you can fool yourself into thinking the movie wants you to make that snide joke. But it’s not so. Bulworth is Beatty’s most personal film, his most earnest film, and his most honest film. It’s the sort of comedy that one makes out of fear: fear of selling out, fear of stagnation, fear that one has become a parody of oneself. Beatty looks that fear in the eye and attempts to bury it with satire.
Beatty plays Jay Billington Bulworth, a Democratic senator from California in 1996. Bulworth is embroiled in a tough primary battle, and the film opens on Bulworth reviewing his newest campaign ads: he’s against welfare, against affirmative action, against government, against liberalism. Photos of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X stare down at a commercial which doesn’t sound that much different than that of the real-life 1996 Republican candidate for president, Bob Dole. In short, Bulworth has become everything he once hated, and it’s torturing him.
Out of despair, Bulworth arranges for a life insurance policy to pay his daughter, and then puts out a contract on his own life. Once he begins assuming that he’s living on borrowed time, he begins to tell audiences everything they don’t want to hear, starting with an incendiary speech at a black church in South Central Los Angeles. This catches the eye of Nina (Halle Berry), who takes him on a whirlwind tour of those parts of L.A. where the other half lives. The film quickly becomes a madcap race from political event to ‘hood and back to political event, with Bulworth’s speeches becoming more and more like an Ice Cube song as he has fewer and fewer hours left to live.
The most important thing to understand about this movie is that it was not an attempt by Beatty (then 61) to re-invent himself and look hip to a younger audience. It’s easy to think the film might be that, in part because aging actors do that all the time, and in part because Beatty’s name was often connected with political office in California. But Bulworth is not an act of ego. Jay Bulworth is a terrible rapper, a terrible dancer, and completely out of touch with the African-American experience in his home state. That is, in fact, the joke.
Which is not to say that Beatty doesn’t put a fair amount of himself into the character of Jay Bulworth. It’s easy to imagine that Beatty was plagued by the same fears that turn his on-screen character suicidal. In 1967 Beatty had to beg a disbelieving Jack Warner to give Bonnie and Clyde a wider release, and once he did, Beatty’s performance turned the entire idea of the Hollywood leading man on its head, igniting a revolution in moviemaking and inspiring the greater countercultural movement. Yet that same man was making Dick Tracy twenty-three years later: an action blockbuster that no studio head would ever misunderstand, which no subculture would ever embrace, whose candy-colored scenes cover up the bloated storytelling typical of filmmaking-by-committee. One could easily imagine Beatty sitting in his office just as Bulworth does, looking at pictures on the wall of Arthur Penn and Hal Ashby, sobbing while trailers for Dick Tracy play on his TV.
Beatty’s response to this dilemma as a filmmaker is exactly the same as Bulworth’s response as a character: do whatever you damn well please. Bulworth is filmmaking without a net: Beatty couldn’t tweak anything to remove racial or sexual awkwardness, as Bulworth’s awkward fumbling for a new life is the whole point of the comedy. If any scene was not working on the page or during shooting, there was no option to just shrug and say “let’s move on” or “we’ll fix it in post-production.” The scene in which Bulworth and Nina visit a nightclub is utterly without vanity: Bulworth dances like your dad, raps like Karl Rove (warning: you won’t be able to un-hear the terrible rapping which ensues if you click that link), throws his hands way up in the air, and waves them all around like he just doesn’t care.
That carefree attitude coalesces into a political message which is overtly anti-corporate and populist. Bulworth stands alongside The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror VII as one of the first pieces of entertainment to employ the message that Ralph Nader used in the 2000 election and Donald Trump is employing today: the money buys everyone equally, the entire system is a sham. Beatty also has a sharp blade ready for the empty, buzzword-heavy nature of our political discourse; dog-whistle phrases like “family values” and vague promises such as “I offer a hand up, not a handout” are treated like nonsense by both Jay Bulworth and his audience.
It’s also important that black people and hip-hop culture are part of Bulworth’s awakening. If you look at Beatty’s career, he’s made some of the great films of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s — some of the great films of all time, really — but it’s also tough to avoid the fact that his filmography is as white as mayonnaise on white bread with crackers on the side.
In some ways Bulworth feels like an apology or even a statement of guilt for this state of affairs. Bulworth’s first truth-telling monologue doesn’t actually tell it like it is, instead relying on overtly racist stereotypes (“put down the chicken wings and malt liquor”) to order community leaders to stop riots themselves. Later, Bulworth reminisces about Huey Newton and asks Nina, “why are there no black leaders?” in that same I’m-patronizing-but-I-don’t-realize-it manner. Nina’s comically detailed response is great for a laugh, but it also goes to the heart of the movie: South Central didn’t choose to be where it was any more than Bulworth chose to despair at the beginning of the movie. It shockingly easy for the corrupt system to put you in the awful place without your even realizing it.
There’s a moment around the start of the film’s third act, when Bulworth hides from his assassin in Nina’s Compton home, where it seems like Beatty will strike that point with even more force: you can be a white guy rapping, it seems ready to say (or in the metatextual sense, you can be an A-list white actor writing and directing a movie in which you rap), but if you haven’t confronted the actual social conditions which created gangsta rap, if you haven’t accepted your role in creating and perpetuating those conditions, then you’re just appropriating the culture and playing at rap. I waited for a moment which would sell that message, but it never came.
Instead, there’s a comic moment where Bulworth foils a Rodney King-type incident by using his senatorial clout. That moment, and most of what comes afterward, feels like the movie chose to be an easy crowd-pleaser when it had been sharp and uncompromising up until then. Bulworth’s climactic prime-time TV appearance isn’t quite funny enough; his rapping is a little too slick and the message feels like an awkward repurposing of things Bulworth had said before. The assassination subplot gets drawn out to an annoying degree, only to be easily discarded. The end of the film is far too on-the-nose about Bulworth’s message and what it means in the context of American history.
What I would have liked to see from Bulworth is a more direct confrontation of one of the simplest and saddest facts about American politics: those strategies and messages that have Jay Bulworth suicidal at the beginning of the movie? They work. People decry the money in politics all the time, but the actual citizenry often votes exactly how that money wants them to vote. If Candidate A and Candidate B are even in the polls two weeks out from Election Day, and B spends those two weeks buying ads saying, “A is against family values” while A buys no ads, B will be the favorite to win.
It’s possible that’s just too grim and sad a message for even the most grim satires. As a culture, we want to feel that someone, like the person Jay Bulworth has become by the end of the movie, could win an election. We want to feel that if someone in power would just point out how much monetary influence is in politics, that America would immediately reject the process. We all want to feel like the incorruptible good guy. We don’t want our movies to make us feel powerless and hopeless.
…Except that’s how Network, the greatest satire of all time, ends. Bulworth is a fine satire, sharp and trenchant, but when the time comes that it could aspire to be perfect, to be Network, Beatty blinks.
Warren Beatty hasn’t had a success since Bulworth. His next film was the disastrous comedy Town & Country, which sat on the shelf for the better part of a year before being thrown into the cinematic garbage can in 2001, and he hasn’t been in a movie since. Beatty hasn’t retired: he tried to re-unite with Annette Bening for a film about aging astronauts that got stepped on by Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, he wanted to adapt the book which was eventually filmed by Steven Soderbergh in Beyond the Candelabra, and he turned down the antagonist roles in Kill Bill and Frost/Nixon. He’s said to be working on a film about Howard Hughes in which he would play the reclusive billionaire. But to date, Bulworth is the last film in which Warren Beatty was great. If we should not see another, it’s a fine film to go out on, a flawed-yet-honest artistic statement about what it means to be aging and idealistic in a world where youth is prized and money buys everything.
Mark Young in the editor of Cinephile City.