There's nothing staler than a swingin' bachelor actor whose on-screen reputation is pegged to his offscreen love affairs. Luckily, Warren Beatty got out of this pickle three years ago when the actor, then 54, married Annette Bening, then 33, the beautiful, refined actress who was his costar in his 1991 Las Vegas drama, Bugsy. But not without fanfare: If the press went crazy, it was because Beatty, more than any other star of his generation, has taken roles that have romanticized his persona. Warren Beatty, advocating the pleasures of domesticity? Cancel that Playboy subscription!
On the face of it, then, you'd think such close identification would benefit LOVE AFFAIR (1994, Warner, PG-13, priced for rental), Beatty's remake of the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr movie An Affair to Remember (which was, in turn, a redo of the 1939 Love Affair, starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer). After all, this weepy-mushy-girly-squishy romance is about how Beatty gives up his roving ways to settle down with Bening. Well, actually, it's about how a football star named Mike Gambril, with a reputation as a stud and a high-profile fiancee waiting for him to set the date, falls for Terry McKay, an interior decorator with a reputation for regal posture and a big-money fiance waiting for stock market news. But no one buys that ruse. What could be a smarter move for the canny Beatty than a subtext of reality on which to peg such a lathery plot?
As it turns out, anything would be more engaging than this manicured, overproduced keepsake attesting to the Very Special Love between the star and his bride. Directed by Moonlighting's Glenn Gordon Caron and steered at every turn by Beatty (who produced and cowrote it), Love Affair staggers under the weight of its own allusions. Like a wedding album in which all the joys of imperfection are airbrushed out, the movie showcases the happy couple, glamorously dressed, posed, and lit, in performances heavy with the responsibilities of posterity. He broods handsomely, she floats swannily, speaking in the disembodied, modulated tones of a diction-class graduate. For good measure (to bless the union?) Katharine Hepburn makes an appearance, in a performance painful for the discomforts the 87-year-old woman appears to be suffering. It's enough to make a viewer race back to the video store for nostalgic remembrances of Beatty when he was merely a contented womanizer.
For such an itch, there are two good remedies. Begin with SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961, Warner, unrated, $19.98), directed by Elia Kazan, to witness the movie debut of a born heartbreaker. With his ripe lips, flirty eyes, and pre-Calvin Klein-era androgynous appeal, the 24-year-old Warren is utterly believable as a boy who drives Natalie Wood plumb insane with sexual frustration in William Inge's overheated melodrama. Here was innocence, here was sexual power, here was the Casanova who would, over time, be linked with Wood, Joan Collins, Leslie Caron, Julie Christie, Isabelle Adjani, Diane Keaton, and Madonna, among others.
Almost 15 years later, that same lover-boy would be seasoned enough to make SHAMPOO (1975, Columbia TriStar, R, $14.95) -- the knowing, satiric comedy produced and cowritten by Beatty and directed by Hal Ashby, about lust, greed, and moral collapse in Beverly Hills. As a hairdresser who can't stay out of the miniskirts of the women whose heads he caresses (most notably Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn), Beatty is at his most mocking -- and, not coincidentally, in the thick of his Don Juan days. But there's a self-awareness to Shampoo that gives the movie a cleansing sadness and, oddly, makes Beatty an affectingly amoral roue. Two decades later, that supple self-awareness has calcified. Is the message in Love Affair (which Beatty cowrote with Robert Towne) that a married man must give up playfulness for the joys of permanence? Oh, Warren, baby, don't be cruel. Love Affair: D Splendor in the Grass: B Shampoo: B+