Stephen Sondheim once said that the purpose of art was to create order out of chaos. Well, we certainly are living in a chaotic time right now, so this is a good time to look for a work of fiction that might put some perspective on last weeks election.
First, at the risk of alienating some readers, let me just say that I voted for Hillary Clinton and that I have found Donald Trump to be repugnant for as long as I’ve known who he was, which is most of my life. Like many I watched the election results first with optimism, then apprehension, then disbelief and finally shock and despair. Almost every major scientific poll (a bit of an oxymoron given the fact that polling is not an exact science) predicted Clinton the winner, with Trump’s chances of pulling ahead virtually non-existent. His convention was a disaster; his performance at the debates appalling and his rhetoric angered and isolated a huge chunk of the populace. Yes, Clinton got an unwanted “October Surprise” when James Comey announced that he had found some of Clinton’s e-mails, sending the false impression that they were re-opening the investigation. Comey later admitted that they were of no significance but the damage was done. Still, could this false accusation have greater consequences then a man bragging about sexual assault to the host of a tabloid talk show? Apparently it did.
As it so happens the election has more or less coincided with the release of Warren Beatty’s first new movie in well over a decade, the now ironically titled Howard Hughes biopic Rules Don’t Apply. I didn’t know that Beatty had a new film in the works but learned of it in an interview he gave for the New York Times. They mentioned how the last film he had directed was the outrageous political satire Bulworth; a film that the author of the article pointed out seems rather prophetic today. The only other film that he has appeared in since then was the 2001 disaster Town and Country.
I really hadn’t thought about Bulworth and it’s parallels to the 2016 election until that moment. After the election I was in a daze. But once I snapped out of it I decided to re-watch Bulworth and make it the subject of my blog. I must say that I found some striking similarities.
First off, we must examine Mr. Beatty and Mr. Trump. On the surface they might seem like polar opposites. Warren Beatty is an actor who quickly rose to stardom when he starred opposite Natalie Wood the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass. While his chiseled good looks certainly didn’t hurt his chances of getting juicy parts, Beatty quickly achieved acclaim as an actor and later moved into producing with Bonnie and Clyde, a film that is often sighted as one of the first major works of the “New Hollywood” that arrived in the late-sixties and the seventies. He later branched out into writing with Shampoo and directing with Heaven Can Wait.
Mr. Trump of course made a name for himself in New York’s competitive real-estate market. He was given a major leg up by his father, who was already a real-estate mogul, albeit one who concentrated on middle class apartments in the outer-boroughs and not luxury condominiums, office buildings and hotels in Manhattan. Like Beatty he quickly became a media personality and a source of public fascination. Beatty’s public persona has been that of a smooth talking charmer. His friend Jack Nicholson nicknamed him “the Great Seducer”. Trump on the other hand seems to have created an image of him based entirely on ego, intimidation, anger and hubris.
Whereas Beatty is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat who was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, openly campaigned for George McGovern and expressed his political views in movies such as Shampoo and his Oscar winning film Reds, Trump has never been a political activist. He ping-ponged back and fourth between the two parties, arguably supporting whichever one favored his business interests at the time. When he did vocalize his political views they tended to lean to the right. He took out a full page ad in New York’s four major daily newspapers calling for New York Sate to reinstate the death penalty after the case of the Central Park jogger broke,* he supported the War in Iraq (which he later denied) and of course there was his outrageous and baseless claims that President Obama was born in Kenya.
And yet, the two larger-than-life personalities do have some things in common. In a world where fame is fleeting, both of them have managed to hold onto their celebrity status for decades. Beatty has a good twenty years on Trump but then again he’s pretty much been out of the public eye for the last fifteen. Since he first started making headlines in the early eighties, Trump has never been out of the limelight for one reason or another. Both men have reputations for being Lotharios. For decades Beatty was Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor, having affairs with such beauties as Julie Christie, Diane Keaton and Madonna before settling down with Annette Benning. The two of them have been married for over twenty years now, have four children and by all outward appearances are a happily married couple. Trump on the other hand has been married three times, has favored subservient women whom he has been unfaithful to. And while Beatty could be (and often has been) described as a womanizer, Trump has been accused of downright misogyny for years, a fact that has been given a great deal of credence during this campaign season.
Finally, both men are notorious narcissist. Carly Simon, one of his many romantic conquests, claims that her song “You’re So Vain” was about Beatty (he probably already thought it was). When Paul Thomas Anderson approached him about playing Jack Horner, the pornographic film director ultimately played by Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, Beatty wanted instead to play Dirk Diggler, the twenty-something leading role ultimately played by Mark Wahlberg. In Town and Country (which I saw and didn’t think was that bad) Beatty finds himself being pursued aimlessly by several beautiful women. Even in the upcoming Rules Don’t Apply the seventy-nine year old Beatty plays Howard Hughes when he was in his mid-fifties. True, Beatty has aged with impeccable grace, no doubt with the aid of a plastic surgeon (Trump….not so much), but why is he so obsessed with playing men who are nearly young enough to be his grandchildren? Both narcissism and insecurity can infect even the most talented of us.
And that leads us to Bulworth.
The film takes place in mid-1996. It’s two years after the so-called “Republican Revolution” allowed the G.O.P. to regain control of both the House and the Senate. Newt Gingrich had become the first Republican Speaker-of-the-House in over forty years. President Bill Clinton, a center-left candidate to begin with, started moving more towards the center, even declaring, “the era of big government is over.” Many felt that he was waffling, though he took the hard line approach when Gingrich tried to put forth his “Contract For America”, even shutting down the federal government when Clinton didn’t cave. By the time he was up for re-election in ’96 there was no real suspense over whether or not he’d be re-elected, partly because voter apathy was at an all time high and voter turnout was at an all time low. If there’s one positive thing one can say about this country in the new millennium it’s that voter turnout has increased over the last five presidential elections, even if 46% of eligible voters still don’t vote.
At the start of the film Jay Bulworth (Beatty), a Democratic Senator from California, sits in his Capitol Hill office. On the wall are photographs of him in the sixties with such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King, Huey Newton and Robert Kennedy. On the TV we see a commercial for his umpteenth re-election campaign. It’s your typical mawkish piece of propaganda, showing Bullworth sitting around a dinner table with his family as he talks about cutting money for welfare and doing away with unnecessary Affirmative Action programs. Clearly, his years in Washington have compromised his ideals, a fact that he seems painfully aware of as he weeps while watching the videos. In front of him is a congealed pizza plus other take-out items that don’t look like they’ve been touched.
When the sun comes up his office starts to fill. There’s his Chief-of-Staff Dennis Murphy (Oliver Platt) a typical behind-the-scenes Washington wonk who tries to make sure the trains run on time and the campaign checks clear. It’s two days before the California primary and Bulworth is due to head back west to do some last minute barn storming and fundraising in L.A. He gives an obligatory press conference then meets outside of the capitol with his wife (Christine Baranski) for a photo-op. They clearly are estranged but go through the act of being a happy couple for the good of the campaign.
Back inside the Senators office he meets with an insurance company executive (Paul Sorvino). There’s a bill that’s working it’s way through the Senate that would make it easier for the disadvantaged to get insurance. That doesn’t sit well with the insurance industry. “I’ve got no problem with the African Americans,” says the executive. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Colin Powell, Michael Jordan, I’ve got no problem with these people. These people have good jobs.” He seems to forget that one of them hasn’t been at work, or been alive for the past twenty-eight years. “But you’re telling me that I have to give a policy to some lazy, rap singing punk so he can burn down his house and smoke crack and get AIDS?” Bottom line, he wants Bulworth to make sure the bill never makes it to the Senate floor. While it’s illegal for Senators to accept bribes they often do receive certain “gifts” along with their campaign contributions. In this case Bulworth wants a very generous life insurance policy worth ten million dollars to be payable to his daughter should anything happen to him.
Next the Senator meets with a shady character named Vinnie (Richard C. Sarafin). He claims that they’re meeting for a “weekend research project” but in the privacy of his office it turns out that Vinnie’s actually arranging a hit for Bulworth. He gives Vinnie a photograph of the guy the Senator wants killed. It’s a photo of him. “If I’m not dead by Monday I stop payment on the check.”
Bulworth then flies into LAX; guzzling the little bottles of Jack Daniels they give you on the plane (He flies commercial. Today a lobbyist would probably let him use their private jet). He meets up with Chief-of-Staff Murphy, who has arranged to have C-SPAN follow the Senator on the campaign trail. Even though he’s arranged for his own death he’s still human and hared wired for survival. So when he hears a loud noise at LAX he instinctively starts to walk faster.
The first stop on the campaign trail is a black church in South Central. Bulworth enters. The parishioners politely applaud. Then he goes to the pulpit. He begins to read the speech his staff has prepared but stops and asks if there are any questions.
One parishioner points out that they were supposed to receive federal aid after the L.A. riots. What happened? He’s already signed his death warrant. What has he got to lose? “What happened,” Bulworth responds. “Is that we knew it was going to be big news for a while so we all came down – Bush, Clinton – and then we went home.” Needless to say this was not the answer the congregation was looking for. Another parishioner complains that they can’t get any insurance and why he hasn’t come out in favor of the insurance bill to help the poor. “Well you haven’t contributed much to my campaign, now have you?” More uproar! “Are you saying that the Democratic Party doesn’t care about the black community?” asks an angry woman in the audience. “Well isn’t that obvious?” asks Bulworth. Murphy pulls the fire alarm before things get out of hand.
As the Senator is escorted to his limo a trio of young black women approach him saying that they want to volunteer. One is a girl named Nina, played by Halle Berry. She catches Bulworth’s eye because, well, she’s Halle Berry. He asks Murphy to give the ladies jobs as volunteers.
Amazingly, Bulworth feels liberated. After driving through a KFC (he hasn’t eaten in three days) they head to a Beverly Hills mansion to meet with various members of the entertainment industry. While scarfing down hors d’oeuvres a guest asks him about censoring movies. “I think the problem is that so many of the movies you make are just really bad,” he says. “My guys aren’t stupid,” he adds. “They always put the big Jews on my agenda. I mean, you’re all Jews here right? At least three out of four?” He then looks through his speech, “there’s got to be something bad about (Louis) Farrakhan in here.”
Once again, he is hurried out. He invites Nina and her two friends to hop in the limo and asks where they’re going. They take him to a hip-hop club back in South Central. Bulworth and his aids are of course fish out of water at the place, but while Harris looks around fearing for his life, the Senator tries to blend in…as best he can. He stands next to a muscular looking fellow who gives him a menacing look. He then passes Bulworth a blunt, which the Senator graciously accepts. One of the bartenders mistakes him for George Hamilton. Soon he gets into the hip-hop music and even makes up his own freestyle rhymes. He sees Nina on the dance floor and the two of them begin to boogie. His moves look like Carleton Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air but hey, he’s having fun.
At sunrise Harris wakes up (having fallen asleep on the clubs sofa) and sees Bulworth playing with the turntables. “We had fun, we had fun!” the Senator says enthusiastically. Harris thinks that he’s gotten it out of his system. He also suggests that he get some rest rather then going to a fundraiser at the Wilshire Beverley Hills. “Nonsense,” says the Senator. He may have a five o’clock shadow and his suite might not be laundered but he at least seems more focused.
He arrives at the Wilshire and begins to work the crowd, hugging and shaking hands with his various campaign contributors. He walks up to the dais and begins to give a typical speech filled with the usual political BS “It’s up to the people of California and the nation to decide what to do.” He then stops. Nina walks in. He then throws out the script and starts freesyling. He’s no Lin-Manuel Miranda but he sure does get his point across, happily moving amongst the tables of the various industries that fund his campaign and telling them some of the awful truth about American politics.
As lon as you make your contribution
you get your solution.
As long as you pay
I’m gonna do it all your way.
We all got our problems
The haves and the have nots
but the ones who make me listen
pay for thirty-second spots.
While this is going on we see a mysterious figure (who’s face we cannot see) sneaking into Sen. Bulworth’s suite. He puts some poison into a bottle of champagne and also unbolts the balcony. Nina suggests that they go up to his room, but when Bullworth sees a shadowy figure in sunglasses amongst the people in the hotel lobby he immediately gets frightened. The fact that he was going to die liberated him and allowed him to go rouge. Now that he’s been reinvigorated and met a young woman that he likes he realizes that he has to stop his own assassination.
Bulworth is a wickedly funny film. The image of a white man reaching social security age trying to freestyling and trying to re-invent himself as a b-boy politician is very funny. The film is merciless in its attack of the political system. Certainly one of the funniest characters is Oliver Platt as Bulworth’s chief-of-staff, trying to coax him in the right direction, spinning things when he gets out of hand, angrily criticizing him behind his back and then doing a 180 when the Senators candor gets a positive reaction. A particularly hilarious scene has Platt’s character angrily ranting while he snorts a heroic amount of cocaine from a small vile while his assistant (Joshua Malina) looks on like a hungry puppy hoping that a meatball will fall from the dinner table.
But of course this film has a lot to say about how our political system has been corrupted, how lobbyists and big campaign donors essentially have politicians – Democrat or Republican – in their back pocket. And it’s gotten worse since then. Lobbyists have literally been writing some of the laws that get passed and the Citizens United decision has made it so that corporations, now recognized as a “people”, can donate as much money as they want to a political party or campaign, all but assuring a conflict of interest.
The film also focuses good and hard on the racial and economic division in this country that has also arguably gotten worse. In one scene Bulworth talks to Nina about his experiences with Huey Newton and wonders “why there aren’t any black leaders today?” She gives him an extremely insightful lecture on how the decline of the manufacturing base has lead to the death of the middle class and that the post-war economy made it possible for African-Americans of modest means to receive a good education and mobilize an informed community. In one scene Buloworth is taken to Nina’s house in South Central. He probably spent a good deal of time down here in his more idealistic days. Now he looks at all the urban decay around him, the sound of helicopters overhead. Black Californians make up a big block of the electorate, but he hasn’t really seen what a sizable percentage of them have to live with on a daily basis.
Not that Bullowrth (or Beatty) lets the black underclass off scott-free. In one scene he meets a local drug dealer played by Don Cheadle. He has a bunch of young kids selling drugs for him. He calls them his “little soldiers” and explains how he’s “looking out” for them because he controls the only “growth industry available to them right now.” He then gives a lecture about how politicians have gutted the education system and send young men off to die for oil money. Maybe so, but Bullworth flips the script on him, pointing out that he too is essentially just looking out for his own self interests.
(I must say that while I think Don Cheadle is one of the finest actors working today I’ve never quite found him convincing when he’s playing a guy from the streets, such as here and in the film Talk To Me. He can play an African hotel manager with perfect ease in Hotel Rwanda but when playing someone from the hood he can’t quite shed his refinements.)
The very first movie that I wrote about on this blog was Billy Wilder’s misunderstood masterpiece Ace in the Hole, about a reporter who deliberately keeps someone trapped in a mineshaft underground so that he can milk the story for all it’s worth. It was one of those prophetic films that accurately predicted the way America and its media would be headed. Others would come later. A Face in the Crowd showed us what happens when a television personality becomes a demigod. The Truman Show predicted the rise of reality television. Some say that Hal Ashby’s Being There predicted the rise of George W. Bush. And of course there’s Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, a savage attack on the TV industry that basically predicted how the news media would be replaced with sensationalized entertainment and how the public would embrace a madman so long as he tapped into their fears and base desires.
Right now the Clinton years almost looks like halcyon days compared to today. Then again the past always looks better when filtered through the lens of time and compared to our present, highly imperfect world. Bill Clinton was our first president born after World War II. He was a product of the “New South”, a child of the Civil Rights movement who connected with the African-American community in a way that no president until Obama was able to. Yet Clinton quickly learned how to play Washington politics and while he oversaw a period of dramatic economic growth he was still more then willing to snuggle up to big campaign donors, a fact that certainly hurt his wife’s own chances of winning the White House this month.
On the right there was a genuine hatred of Clinton and what he stood for. The G.O.P platform of “family values” didn’t really sell in 1992 but in the interim people like Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott and others tapped into the anger of the “endangered” white man and the middle class that was under assault. And lets also not forget that when Clinton ran in 1992 he was running the first genuine three-way race since Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket back in 1912. Ross Perot, a self-made billionaire from the tech industry ran as an independent with a very populist message. He bought up hours of airtime where he explained our countries precarious economic state with a series of pie charts and what he called a “voodoo stick” because “as you all know, we’re in deep voodoo.” Perot warned of a “great sucking sound,” referring to the jobs that would be outsourced to Mexico if the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, were signed into law. Both Bush and Clinton supported the program. It was drafted under Bush and signed into law by Clinton. His hope was that the growing tech industry would create new jobs to supplement the ones that were outsourced. This did happen, to an extent, and a record twenty-two million job were created during his presidency. But those who were unskilled and didn’t have a college degree had to make due with minimum wage jobs at Wal*Mart and McDonalds, not nearly enough to supplement the income made in an auto factory. Ironically, it might have been the Clinton impeachment that rekindled his faith with the people. At the height of the proceedings he had a 65% approval rating.
Obviously, this anger hasn’t gone away. Trump managed to insult blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the physically challenged and women (and yet 42% of women voted for Trump. This I just can’t understand). Yet the angry white man has continued to wield enough power and cover enough territory so that on Election Day Trump was able to win the bulk of the electoral map, if not the popular vote.
It’s also worth noting that Trump wasn’t the only populist candidate in the running. I remember driving home after the Iowa caucus. Trump was the Republican victor while Hillary beat Vermont Governor Bernie Sanders by just a fraction of a percent. “Populism has both a right and a left,” the radio announcer pointed out. That’s very true, although I felt that Sen. Sanders was really trying to start a movement. His campaign was about the people. Trump’s was largely about him and yet somehow the disenfranchised working class connected with (or were duped by) him. Bottom line, the public is angry with career politicians. That’s who the Democrats ended up nominating. The Republicans meanwhile went against the will of the establishment and nominated a self-aggrandizing egomaniac that, inexplicably, is now the president elect.
I think there’s another factor one must look at. The 1990’s were an era when political correctness was on the rise. Books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that had already suffered it’s share of censorship problems over the years, was again being banned for it’s use of the word “nigger”, this despite the fact that it’s probably the greatest anti-bigotry story ever written. The Little Rascals disappeared from the airwaves, Actors Equity refused to grant a Visa to Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce in order for him to recreate the role he originated in the London company of Miss Saigon. Michael Jackson was forced to recall copies of his single “They Don’t Really Care About Us” over supposed anti-Semitic lyrics. Even Ross Perot was taken to task for addressing an audience of African Americans as “you people”. It was a time when calling Native Americans “Indians” or East Asian people “Oriental” were likened to racial slurs. As George H.W. Bush said while running for re-election “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.” How many of the people who preached “political correctness” were aware that the term was originally coined by the Bolsheviks who declared anything that wasn’t in tune with the Soviet ideology to be “politically incorrect” and therefor had to be censored, often by violent force.
It wasn’t too long before there was a backlash. Bill Maher began hosting Politically Incorrect, comedians like Chris Rock, Dave Chappell, Dennis Miller and a young Sarah Silverman were joined by old hats like George Carlin and Jackie Mason in thumbing their nose at what was appropriate. And while TV shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld attacked social taboos in a very subversive way (not that there’s anything wrong with that), new programs like In Living Color, South Park and Family Guy tackled any and everything head-on, equally offending everyone and everything.
Lately, there’s been another wave of political correctness. Last year the Huffington Post created a list of “most inappropriate Halloween costumes,” one of which was Katelyn Jenner, someone who unabashedly hogs the spotlight. Why is it okay for a man to dress like Lady GaGa and not her? This year Hillary Duff caused an uproar because she dressed like a pilgrim and her boyfriend like an apache warrior. They were both accused of being “racist”. Frankly, I think calling someone “racist” for something that’s even the tiniest bit offensive is far more insensitive. Even Jerry Seinfeld, easily one of the least taboo tackling of comedians caused a minor stir when he made a joke about someone who looks like a “gay king” when he scrolls through his phone.
Obviously, I’m no fan of political correctness, and when I’m accused of being politically incorrect (and there have been quite a few times) I often retort that I’m not a politician.
I’m not but the moment he announced that he was running for President Mr. Trump became one. He might be an entertainer because of his TV show (I’m happy to confess that I’ve never seen it. Frankly I can’t imagine someone competing to work for that guy), but running for office is another manner. I can laugh at the episode of South Park titled “Do the Handicap Go To Hell” but I find it impossible to laugh at his mocking a physically handicapped reporter. I think it’s ridiculous that terrorists would go on a killing spree in Paris over an offensive cartoon but I think that calling all Muslims “terrorists” and trying to ban anyone who may be Muslim from entering the country (this despite the fact that it’s unconstitutional to make any law regarding religion and that it’s against the law to ask someone what religion they are when entering the country) is as un-American as you can get. And while I find the humor of people like Howard Stern and Andrew “Dice” Clay to be both sexist and unfunny I respect their right to say it. But when a man who is the Republican nominee for President is overheard saying he likes to “grab (women) by the pussy,” that should immediately disqualify him from holding any higher office.
Bulworth didn’t get much of a release when it came out. Supposedly 20th Century Fox only green lit the film because of a lawsuit Beatty won regarding Dick Tracy, a film that was originally supposed to be made at Fox. They gave him carte blanche freedom to make the film but only gave it a limited release. The hideous poster for the film probably didn’t help matters. Bulworth went on to achieve a cult following. Once in an interview President Obama even said that he was tempted to go “full Bullworth” during the campaign. In other words, just throw out the script and speak from the gut regardless of the consequences.
Clearly, Mr. Beatty understood that there was a great deal of discontent with the political system and a great deal of anger with the status quo. Two years later we would have one of the most hotly contested elections in our nations history, with Al Gore winning the popular vote but the Supreme Court ruling in favor of George W. Bush. Congress meanwhile was virtually split down the middle. The election of Obama galvanized the left but while he has many accomplishments he can point to, uniting the country isn’t one of them. No sooner was he elected then the whole Tea Party movement started up and wrestled Congress away from him. And this year we saw two candidates, one who is quite easily the most qualified in our electoral history and the other so unqualified that every living president has failed to endorse him, along with every major newspaper in the country, countless world leaders and other people of note. And while Clinton won the popular vote by a significant margin, she failed geographically to win the Electoral College and, in turn, the presidency.
A teacher of mine once said that a theologian gives answers, an artist asks question. I think it’s fair to say that in 1998 Warren Beatty was asking the right questions. Whether we were looking for the right answers is another story.
Bulworth is now streaming on Netflix.
*In 1989 a female jogger was assaulted and rapped in Central Park and spent twelve days in a coma but survived. Five young men, four of them black and one of them Hispanic were arrested and charged with the crime. Donald Trump took out an ad in New York’s five major daily newspapers, not only prematurely judging them as guilty but also calling for re-instating of the death penalty in New York State. The five men were ultimately found guilty. In 2001 a convict serving a life sentence for an unrelated crime confessed to being the actual rapist. DNA evidence corroborated his claim and the “Central Park Five” had their convictions overturned. In October 2016, right before the infamous “Access Hollywood” recording surfaced, Trump said in an interview that he still believed that the five men were guilty.