PHOTO: FRANCOIS DUHAMEL/TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILMS
For the past three weeks, since the election of Donald Trump to be our next president, the media have engaged in an epic level of handwringing over how he did it. What seems quite clear, in hindsight, is that Trump subverted the commonly recognized political order and flouted expectations by cavalierly disregarding the rules.
And that prompts comparisons with Rules Don’t Apply, the new film that Warren Beatty wrote and directed, in which he plays the ultra-eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes.
There’s a very telling and on-the-nose scene in Rules Don’t Apply that speaks to this notion. Aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), one of several young starlets-in-waiting with “contracts” from Hughes, spends time with her driver, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), himself eagerly intent on pitching a business proposition to Hughes. The pair must maintain a respectful line of propriety in their exchanges, since their contracts with Hughes forbid the development of personal relationships. But they see something in each other, an undefined quality, and it generates a spark that simply cannot be ignored or extinguished.
After a particularly frustrating day, Forbes bolster Mabrey’s spirits, telling her to hang in there because she’s destined for greatness. “The rules don’t apply to people like you,” he says. Later in the film, she repeats this sentiment to him. They are special.
That unique sense of entitlement has long belonged to the Hollywood player and playboy Warren Beatty, whose mystique certainly rivals that of the late iconic billionaire Hughes. But in the wake of a box office response that borders on complete indifference to Beatty (a paltry Thanksgiving weekend tally of $1.6 million on 2,382 screens — a per-screen average of $667), film-world observers and insiders must be asking themselves the same questions as the political experts scratching their heads over Trump’s Electoral College election victory: What happened? And how were expectations for a new film from the 79-year-old Beatty, who has also directed and starred in Dick Tracy, Reds and Bulworth, so far off?
It might be instructive to take a look at the rules of the game as they were, and as they now are. Old Hollywood existed in a bubble akin to the perma-barriers that once protected politicians. Beatty, for example, enjoyed a certain level of celebrity based on the rumble of under-the-radar gossip about his romantic life, which helped his career. While taking nothing away from his multi-hyphenate talents (he earned a Best Director Oscar for Reds), that has helped create a mystique of box-office invincibility.
But in reality, he never had the body of work to support that, although he was in some films that were game changers, like 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Rules Don’t Apply marks only his 32nd credit as a film actor, eighth as a writer and sixth as a director. That’s since 1961, when he debuted in Elia Kazan’s successful Splendor in the Grass.
Current audiences, enthralled by the immediacy of social media, don’t want mystique. The rule of the day is exposure, or more to the point, over-exposure. We need to see and hear from our celebrities constantly. The idea of no news is good news is no longer true. If there’s nothing real to report, we will take fake news. Who needs privacy?
Beatty isn’t even a dinosaur, by this standard; he is a fossil under a rock that no one’s interested in turning over. Which is sad, because there is a curiously deranged energy to his performance as Hughes, an awareness and sensitivity to the man’s intelligence and how it alienated him from the rest of the world. It makes the film worth seeing.
The new rules benefit the brash and the bold, the trumpeters tweeting shrill, tuneless notes into the endless cacophony. Once upon a time, a special few could bend the rules, but they did so with a healthy respect for the greater good. One could argue that Hughes wanted to change the world. Beatty dreamed that stories mattered and that we could wait for a good one from him.
The reception to Rules Don’t Apply shows that he is no longer exempt from the new rules, in which quantity matters more than quality. (Now playing at area theaters.) (PG-13) Grade: B