Wednesday, February 10, 2010

1981 - Reds

Today, I experienced my first New York blizzard. Snow, snow and more snow. There is now a blanket of white over just about everything - trees, houses, cars, pedestrians. Yes, pedestrians. I witnessed two young men throwing snowballs from the rooftop of the building next door on to unsuspecting passersby. Really? Do you have to? Thankfully, they had moved on when I eventually left the apartment to go to work. I also discovered the one benefit of a blizzard - there are plenty of seats on the subway.

It was also the perfect day to watch a movie, as I did with the next Best Picture nominee from 1981's contest...

Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffiths
Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Edward Hermann, Jerzy Kosinski, Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, Gene Hackman
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
3 wins, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Stapleton)

As relevant today as it was almost thirty years ago when it was released, Reds dares to feature a communist as its protagonist. Jack Reed is a writer and political activist who shacks up with fellow radical Louise Bryant. Their relationship is rocky, however, mostly because Jack's attempts to change the world result in neglect of his lover. Nonetheless, they travel to Russia together to write about and take part in the Revolution of 1917 that saw the communists take over the government. In an attempt to bring these socialist ideals to America, Jack finds himself torn between his love of Louise and his desire to bring about political change.

In an interview for the special edition DVD, Warren Beatty indicates that, with Reds, he wanted to address the "mistaken paranoia about communism" that pervaded American society. Communism, whether you agree with its philosophy or not, is a legitimate political movement. However, through some clever marketing, the words communism and socialism somehow became synonymous with evil. Of course, like any political ideal, it has its flaws and the idealistic and passionate Jack Reed tried his darnedest to make it work, seemingly misunderstood from all sides. The right wing hated him for obvious reasons, but even his own comrades took issue with him occasionally, as he watched the party lose sight of its initial intentions.

At its heart, though, Reds is a love story. For all their decrying of the culture of marriage, Jack and Louise quite obviously can't live without each other. They may advocate sexual freedom and denounce any sense that either belongs to the other, yet when push comes to shove, they need each other like a flower needs a bee.

Scattered throughout the unfolding drama are excerpts from interviews with some contemporaries of the real Jack and Louise. On paper, a bunch of elderly people reminiscing about old times seems more appropriate for a retirement home than a serious motion picture, but these fascinating characters are anything but old farts. Their insights and anecdotes, seamlessly integrated into the story, are utterly engaging. There's something about a wrinkled face that screams, "I've lived!"

Wearing four different hats, Warren Beatty is clearly the mastermind behind Reds. Along with Orson Welles, he holds the rare distinction of receiving Oscar nominations for acting, directing, writing and producing the same film. Unlike the Citizen Kane helmer, though, Beatty has done it twice - first for Heaven Can Wait, and three years later for Reds. And all four nominations are certainly well deserved here. His script with co-writer Trevor Griffiths is nothing short of superb. Witty and, if you can believe it, economical. Despite its almost three and a half hour running time, the story - the first half in particular - unfolds in a whirlwind of short scenes that deliver exactly the necessary information - no more, no less. Its wit is evident in such exchanges as the one in which Reed is asked his occupation by a threatening foe. After hearing the response, the man quips, "You write? Uh-uh. You wrong."

Beatty's direction, too, is a brilliant achievement, lending the film a real fly-on-the-wall feel, an attribute enhanced by the improvisational quality of the performances. Beatty, Keaton, Nicholson, Hackman - could you ask for more? Maureen Stapleton rightfully earned her Best Supporting Actress award for her fine portrayal of activist Emma Goldman. And 80s sitcom fans should keep an eye out for ALF patriarch, Max Wright, as one of Jack's bohemian colleagues.


  1. Warren Beatty's crowning achievement. It's funny how the topic of revolutions, anarchists and dissidence conjures up negative connotations for me, even though my own country was founded on revolution. Beatty film presents both the passion and futility of these movements in a compelling way. The idealism of Marxism needs an idealist to tell its story and John Reed is a great mouthpiece. His frustrations and failures are summed up by his in many ways better half, Louise Bryant when she tells him, "Jack your a writer not a politician." I don't know if Beatty's halting style of speaking is true to Reed or not, but it does make him less effective. Keaton has never been better. Her expressive eyes and face tell the story without words (she would have made an great silent screen actress as well). I think her character was strong enough without the lengthy montage of her trekking through the snow near the end. It seemed almost parody.

    On the other hand, Beatty's use of the witnesses was inspired, if again slightly overused. Seeing Georgie Jessel brings to mind a story that's too lengthy to go into here, when I met him around the time of this film.

    Beatty cast the film wonderfully with both Maureen Stapleton and especially Jack Nicholson in supporting roles.

    Watching it again after many years, nudged it up. This will be a difficult year to choose a winner.

  2. OK, while we are waiting for Matt to post the next nominee, I'll tell my George Jessel story.

    Back around 1980, I was a Lieutenant for The Miami Police Department. I worked off-duty as the head of police security for Gusman Cultural Center. One of the shows was a variety type modeled after The Ed Sullivan Show. The host was Donald "Singin' in the Rain" O'Conner. I was advised that George Jessel was scheduled to go on shortly, but hadn't arrived and there was some concern. I went outside the theater to look around.

    Now, downtown Miami at night is no Times Square. It is mostly deserted with some ne'er-do-wells scattered about. I waited a few minutes and saw a old rust-bucket pull up to the curb and out comes Mr. Jessel dressed in a white suit. As I was escorting him inside, he appeared old, frail and somewhat disoriented. He attempted to go behind the rear curtain which was against the ancient back wall, and would have made him look like a chimney sweep. I turned him over to Mr. O'Conner and left for the rear of the auditorium.

    As I got there, I could hear laughter coming from the audience. I went inside and there was Georgie Jessel on stage, telling off-color jokes and hoofing it up like a twenty year-old. Soon, he was shuffling back outside. I chatted with him for a few minutes, telling him I thought he did a great job. Then his ride returned, and I helped him back into the clunker, and off he went.

    Thinking about it later, I realized how performing was like opium for these entertainers, and not every celebrity arrives in a stretch limo. Mr. Jessel must have shot his 'witness' scene for Reds soon afterwards. He passed away in May 1981 at age 83.