The cover of Esquire Magazine, Issue no. 414, in May 1968 featured Richard Nixon’s mug with a bevy of busy hands in the midst of applying an array of beauty products with the headline: “Nixon’s last chance. (This time he’d better look right!).
Seeking reelection, Richard Nixon’s campaign team could not afford to risk Nixon’s appearance influencing voters negatively and ultimately costing him votes. In a poll taken during the 1960 presidential election, it was reported that more than half of voters were influenced by the first televised presidential debates. How did John F. Kennedy nab 70 million viewers? His classic ivy-league looks? Those contributed in part to his success but the real kicker was his charisma onscreen. JFK made direct eye contact with the camera, which meant the viewer felt as if he was talking to them personally. Nixon, however, darted from the camera and thus failed to forge a bond with the viewer.
The Nixon-Kennedy debates marked the beginning of visual associations having significant impact on the outcome of a vote. Until that point, unless you caught it in person, the primary association voters had with potential candidates was their voice. It’s not a coincidence that Marshall McLuhan published a novel on media theory in 1964, which can best be summarized by his phrase “medium is the message”. Kennedy connected with his audience because he was aware of how his body language, facial expressions and cadence worked in his favor to convey his campaign platform.
Warren Beatty was hyper aware of the power of appearance, particularly in the context of mass media and politics. In 1972 Beatty served as chief fundraiser, communications and media advisor for George McGovern’s presidential campaign.
Beatty scoffed at political pragmatism and pushed McGovern to adopt an emblazoned persona filled with an unbridled and unfiltered commitment to his core principles. Although McGovern appreciated Beatty’s directorial cues, he could not muster a performance that satisfied Beatty. Already perceived as radical even to his fellow Democrats, McGovern feared such a display would scare off indecisive voters. Always the auteur, in September 1971, with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as his audience, Beatty took the stage in an attempt to profess his ideologies the way he thought fit. Beatty’s status as movie star gave him no credibility with the impressionable youth who booed and heckled the frustrated actor.
Although technically Beatty failed in molding George McGovern into a winning candidate (McGovern lost to Nixon by one of the largest margins in history), it’s obvious the effect it had on Beatty’s acting career. He was so smitten with politics he turned down lead roles in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, THE GODFATHER, THE STING, THE WAY WE WERE and THE GREAT GATSBY in favor of politically motivated films, particularly the ones in which he had primary artistic control. Beatty concluded, after his stint with politics, that the only way he could effectively convey his ideologies, without the constraints of the conventionality of campaigns, was to profess them convincingly through acting.
THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), a political thriller period piece,marked Warren Beatty’s return to acting. When compared with his early films, such as SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961),it is quite noticeable the difference in Beatty’s acting style. There is a significant improvement in ease of delivery, with a great sense of urgency and poignancy. Beatty’s performance feels more conversational and genuine. Like Kennedy, Beatty is assertive and confident, and at times, cocky. This matches perfectly with Beatty’s character in the film, a reporter whose mistrust of government brings him into a self imposed responsibility to figure out “the truth” on his own.
Warren Beatty the movie star was different than Warren Beatty the actor. Beatty realized his medium was acting, not political campaigning. Beatty’s ability to act and convince an audience momentarily that they are watching a different incarnation of himself and not what the media notoriously portrayed him as was the context necessary for his ideologies to reach an audience. Beatty would not have as much of an impetus to become a serious director if he hadn’t briefly tousled with a presidential campaign. What limited him ultimately became what liberated him: the greatest outcome of any art form.