Attempting to explain the fascination “movie people” have with Howard Hughes, David Thomson puts it best: “the daft wealth, the amazing fame, and the yearning to be nothing; the obsession with flying; the taste for hotels, Las Vegas, and bloodless food delivered in plastic bags—this is the little boy’s kingdom; the foolish resort to movies, to running studios, to brunettes, blondes, and breasts. He is the fan who walked in off the street, who made movies and bossed a studio, and who was crazy and hopeful enough to think of having Jean Harlow, Jane Russell, Katharine Hepburn… [the list continues] and so on, into the night. Hughes did what every shy, lonely moviegoer dreams of doing. And he went as mad as a hatter, leaving the legend to Clifford Irving and the rest of us.” Like so many others, Hughes arrived in la-la land with stars in his eyes. But he soared—and crashed—like no one else. This is the stuff movie dreams are made of.
Surveying portrayals of Hughes, Thomson praises Jason Robards, Dean Stockwell, and Tommy Lee Jones, but, “Over all of these has hung the chance that Warren Beatty will one day play Howard Hughes. That prospect is legendary, or airborne, and it reminds us that Hughes came very close to contriving his own death in his favorite, infinite setting, the sky.”
Beatty first signed a contract to make a movie about Hughes in the mid-70s. That movie was to function as half of a diptych portrait of preeminent American playboys from opposite political perspectives. The John Reed biopic Reds won Beatty the best-director Oscar, and although Beatty’s politics aligned more closely to Reed’s, his personality—cerebral, compulsively seductive, withdrawn—seemed a touch closer to Hughes’s, especially following his retreat from stardom in the ‘80s. Until it was unexpectedly announced last year, Beatty’s Hughes project earned a fitting air of elusiveness; on a visit to the set, the New York Times suggested Beatty had been shooting in secret for over 40 years. What secrets would this filmmaker-playboy-turned-recluse, after decades of withdrawal, finally reveal?
Unfortunately, the hype is as false as Irving’s biography. Rules Don’t Apply is a slight, amiable little movie. Beatty plays Hughes with his trademark bumbling charm, leaving the heavy lifting to Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, and a parade of star cameos. Collins (a primly sexy screen presence) and Ehrenreich (channeling the dim-bulb swagger of Beatty’s early work) play low-level cogs in Hughes’s labyrinthine wheel, and the movie rambles between their screwball romance and its subject’s biographical highlights, repurposing much of The Aviator as light farce. (Its manifestation of Hughes’s illness is uncomfortably familiar.)
That’s not to say that it’s dumb. From the beginning, Beatty was never content to be a pretty face; he was the significant creative force behind Bonnie and Clyde, almost single-handedly positioning that movie as a key expression of late-60s tumult. Beatty is still an artist, and under the effervescent sun of Rules Don’t Apply’s kicky, Eisenhower-era L.A. the movie offers an unconvincing objection to exceptionalist thinking and, more pointedly, patrimonial legacy. There’s no doubt Hughes was fixated with his popular image, but Beatty is so publically and artistically disengaged that he seems more interested in deflating expectations than meeting them. After all these years, he knows that great legends rely on elusory projection. Reality and myth are a poor fit, especially in Hollywood.
Rules Don’t Apply. Directed and written by Warren Beatty. Starring Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, and Alden Ehrenreich. Opens in Kansas City November 23, 2016.