When it is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad … it’s not horrid, exactly. But it can be damn slow. Warren Beatty is one of those obsessed, perfectionist directors who can demand literally a hundred takes. During the filming of this one, when Beatty was about to order the 101st take of a simple scene, Gene Hackman said fuck this, and walked out. And he’s an okay director, but nothing special. Stanley Kubrick was famous for endless takes, but the end result always showed that it was worth the sweat and extra effort and frayed tempers. Not Beatty. I’ll wager the film would have been 100% as good if he had gone with Take Ten or so.
He is also a shit editor. It is an hour and a half before John Reed and Louise Bryant even get to Russia, which is what we have all been waiting for. We just did not need that much time to get to know them and their touchy relationship. The film is 3½ hours long, and I could easily cut forty-five minutes of that and actually improve it.
So what’s good about it? Jack Nicholson, for one, playing Eugene O’Neill, who Bryant had an affair with. Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman, “Red Emma,” who is largely forgotten today. Beatty and Diane Keaton are both quite good, too. And one must really take one’s hat off to the man for somehow getting Hollywood executives to pony up millions of dollars to make a movie about two communists! He must be one of the most persuasive individuals in the world.
There is some truly great stuff in the movie. But it has to be the talkiest movie ever made. Yes, I realize that watching these commies endlessly debating points that no one else but them could possibly care about is one of the points of the movie. Put three liberals in a room and within an hour two of them will accuse the other of apostasy. And Russian communism really was more like a religion than a political system. Agree with the almighty Party, or we will kill you, comrade. Pretty much like the Spanish Inquisition. Literally millions of people were killed in the Soviet days. Lord, I hate to agree with anything Ronald Reagan said, but he was damn close to home when he called the Soviet Union an evil empire. Just ask the Latvians, the Estonians, the Uzbeks, the Georgians. Ask the Ukrainians. But these points could have been made without boring my pants off.
Pet peeve: The show is peppered with interviews of people who were actually there, who knew Reed and Bryant. They were all quite old in 1981, and are certainly all dead now. Beatty should be commended for recording their testimony. But I sure as hell would have liked to have known which one was which. They are identified in the credits, but what the hell would have been wrong with naming them the first time they appeared? Most of them I had never heard of, but some of them were Hamilton Fish, Rebecca West, Will Durant, Oleg Kerensky, and Adela Rogers St. Johns. The only one I recognized for sure was George Jessel. There was one old fellow whose face was very familiar, and he had a wry outlook on the whole Reed-Bryant story. I just couldn’t place him. When I finally saw a list of the testifiers I realized at once that he was Henry Miller. I wish I had known that while I was watching the picture.