Slumming

Bulworth

a film by and with Warren Beatty

The New York Times Magazine for May 10 ran the picture of a meditative Warren Beatty on its cover, hand propped on fist like Rodin’s Thinker. The story inside, by Lynn Hirschberg, stressed the political seriousness of Beatty’s new film Bulworth, and the cover itself proclaimed that it is “a movie espousing Jesse Jackson’s politics.” That sounds plausible. After all, an early pan shot finds a Jackson sticker among the title character’s political memorabilia. Before long, Senator Jay Billington Bulworth starts speaking in rhymed political slogans, which used to be a Jackson trademark. And some of the ideological points made sound like Jackson’s—e.g., that economic disparity is growing in America while jobs drain off to other countries.

People whose judgment I respect have endorsed the idea of Bulworth‘s profundity. Jules Feiffer, who has written some good movies himself, calls it “the only truly radical film to come out of mainstream Hollywood.” If that is true, the wonder is that Beatty was able to make and release the film through Twentieth Century Fox, not that Rupert Murdoch’s company has shown little enthusiasm for advertising it. “How could Murdoch care for it?” Feiffer asks. “It’s pure Wobbly. That’s the wonder of it.” Margo Jefferson, in her cultural column for the Times, finds it a “passionate, intelligent work.” So what’s not to like?

Jesse Jackson, of all people, finds plenty not to like. Though he does not go to movies very often, he had heard about Bulworth from his son, the Illinois congressman, who gave it an unfavorable review on television. A Chicago publicist arranged for Beatty to lend the senior Jackson a print of the film so they could discuss it. The special screening was set up for Pentecost Sunday. My wife and I attended the First Methodist Church in Chicago, a large structure just across from the city’s signature Picasso sculpture, to hear Jackson preach. After the service, he invited a group of us to go with him to the screening room. Jim Wall, the editor of The Christian Century, was in the group, but he begged off, since he had already seen Bulworth. But since Wall is a movie reviewer as well as his magazine’s general editor, he gave me an important tip. Others have referred to Beatty’s earlier political film, Reds, in discussing Bulworth. Wall said I should think, instead, of Mickey One, the Arthur Penn movie Beatty starred in back in 1965.

Mickey One presents Beatty as a stand-up comic and jazz musician (Stan Getz supplies some solos). Mickey is caught in a Kafkaesque situation. The mob has put out a contract on his life, but he is not sure why. “All I know is I’m guilty,” he says. Asked what he is guilty of, he replies, “Guilty of not being innocent.” On the run, he becomes shabby and unshaven, till he meets an impecunious but stylish Polish woman. He keeps encountering …

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