30 September 2023

It’s very regrettable that so many people think of you as a special problem

The critically and commercially successful Splendor in the Grass (1961), directed by Elia Kazan and starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in the leads, was Beatty's screen debut. At age 23, Beatty was an ambitious young man who —in Kazan's words— "wanted it all and wanted it his way". Natalie Wood said in interviews that throughout production of Splendor she and Beatty had not gotten along, describing the actor as being "difficult to work with". Others shared her opinion, including Don Kranze, assistant director on Splendor. "Warren was a pain in the ass", recalled Kranze. "He was very young, anyway, but his emotional maturity was about thirteen... we all sort of felt about Warren that he's an immature boy playing a man's game." According to Splendor's production designer Richard Sylbert (a good friend of Beatty's), Beatty was going to do whatever he wanted to do, not caring what anybody thought.

Warren Beatty, Elia Kazan and Natalie Wood on the set of Splendor in the Grass. Long after production of the film had ended Beatty and Wood entered into a tumultuous two-year relationship.

A few years and a few films later, Beatty apparently hadn't changed his tune. During the shooting of Lilith (1964), co-star Jean Seberg wrote to a friend of hers: "Warren Beatty’s behavior is just unbelievable. He’s out to destroy everyone, including himself". While the entire cast and crew had to endure Beatty's behaviour, it was director Robert Rossen who received the brunt of it. Beatty was constantly arguing with Rossen, changing his lines, asking for his character's motivation and wishing to analyse each scene (which led Rossen to eventually remark: "I hired you because I thought you knew how to act, for Christ's Sake. Don't ask me how to play the part. You're supposed to know how to play the part."). Assistant cameraman Tibor Sands said that Beatty's behaviour grew increasingly worse "until Rossen slapped him in front of everybody. That calmed him down." 

At some point, word of Beatty's insufferable conduct on the set of Lilith reached Elia Kazan. Worried about what he had heard, Kazan next wrote Beatty a letter, addressing the actor's behaviour while also offering a bit of advice. Beatty was reportedly "upset" by the letter, seeing that the reprimand came from Kazan, whom he considered a mentor and a friend. (According to Beatty biographer Suzanne Finstad, during production of Splendor in the Grass Beatty and Kazan had actor-director discussions prior to every scene, something Beatty apparently wanted to have with Rossen too.)

May 22, 1963

Dear Warren:

Forgive the impertinence of a friend. I really do like you, and it disheartens me when I hear from the underground that you are giving everybody a bad time in Maryland. I know rumors are unreliable and it’s not right to repeat them. But, damn it, they dishearten me. I always say: "Warren at bottom is a damn fine guy!" But there’s some contradiction all through your behavior. On the one hand you say that you want to be a movie star. You’ve said it again and again not only to me but to lots of people. But I must tell you that becoming a first flight movie star depends, as you well know, on working with the elite directors on the real good stories. And when these director-glamour boys hear that you are being "difficult" their only reaction can be: "Who needs it?"

It seems to me that you must find a way of legitimately asserting yourself and even forcibly making your opinions and impulses felt. While, at the same time, being agreeable to work with, decent to deal with, fun to be with, and a contributor to an overall effort. It’s very regrettable that so many people think of you as a special problem. You have so much: intelligence, talent, sensitivity. You are handsome, vigorous, physically able. But all this can be nullified or badly handicapped by the kind of stories — true, part true, quite false, whatever — that have been getting back to me here.

As I said, it’s possibly impertinent of me to write you this way. I am not your father or your brother, only a friend. But think about what I say.


Source: The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan (2014), edited by Albert J. Devlin  

Warren Beatty, Robert Rossen and Jean Seberg during filming of Lilith. The film was to be Rossen's last film. Rossen had previously directed the now-classics All the King's Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961). The director reportedly said following the clashes he had with Beatty, "I was making Oscars when Warren was a baby pissing in a pot."

Warren Beatty (an actor I don't particularly care for) pictured here with Elia Kazan. Beatty later said that Kazan "had given him the most important break in his career." Once called by a journalist "the most enfant of the enfants terribles", Beatty eventually became —next to being an actor— a successful producer, director and screenwriter. His first achievement as a producer was the acclaimed Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in which Beatty also played the male lead opposite Faye Dunaway. Other successes include Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Reds (1981), both films as actor, producer, director and screenwriter. Beatty was nominated for an Oscar 14 times (in different categories) but only won for Reds, for Best Director.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a totally fascinating post -- I ate up every word like it was vanilla ice cream with pineapple on top. I have to assume that Warren Beatty got his act together after receiving Kazan's reproach -- surely he couldn't have been the multifaceted star he became if he'd continued on his previous path. Great stuff, this!!!!!