[EDITOR'S NOTE: In a yearly feature titled "Oscars Revisited," Press Play takes a look back at the Academy Awards race from earlier eras. Our inaugural series focuses on the five Best Picture nominees from calendar year 1981: Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chariots of Fire.]
At 3.5 hours, it was the last Hollywood movie to be made that required an intermission. It cost Paramount roughly $91 million ($33 million in 1981 money). And it focused mostly on American communists and anarchists in the shadow of World War I, as viewed from the perspective of super-red American journo John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World. In retrospect, it’s not shocking that a film like Reds was never made again. It’s shocking that at some point in American history, such a film was ever made.
Chalk it up to the power of Warren Beatty. Coasting on the success of such mega-hits as Shampoo – which he’d produced and starred in – and Heaven Can Wait – which he’d starred in, produced and co-directed – he was ready to make the ultimate “one for me.” And what a one it was. He’d been fascinated with the journalist since the mid-60s, and, with his typical slow burn, had started filming interviews with old-time lefty heavy hitters like feminist author Rebecca West, playwright Arthur Miller and ACLU founder Roger Nash Baldwin as far back as 1970 on the off chance that he'd gain funding to make a film about Reed and his comrades. Somehow he convinced Paramount of the feasibility of the project – though soon after signing on the dotted line they reportedly offered him $1 million to not make it – and it not only scored the brother four Oscar nods and one actual statue, but made $41 million, which was a highly respectable box office return for the time.
For all the hoopla it garnered in 1981 – it also nailed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Maureen Stapleton much-deserved Academy Awards – the film has since largely disappeared out of the public consciousness. In fact, it was only released on DVD in 2006, at which point Beatty finally consented to publicly discuss the film for the first time. (At a New York Film Festival screening I attended that year, he could scarcely shut up on the subject, although he mostly decried his funding difficulties.) But does it hold up?
Yes and no. I confess I’m most partial to Reds for the miracle of its very existence, for the fact that it managed to put the mishigas of 1910s trade unions and two warring factions of the American communist party on a big screen for all the world to see, for how it breathed life into such increasingly obscure characters as anarchist Emma Goldman (Stapleton) and American Communist Party founder Louis Fraina (a wonderfully slim Paul Sorvino exhaling great gales of Italian). And in general, the performances are wonderful. As Reed’s editor, Gene Hackman fumes with a half-grin; he should add a rider to all his contracts that ensures he gets to bellow “Dammit” at least four times, as he does here. And Reds may be the last instance in which Jack Nicholson truly disappeared into a different character. As playwright Eugene O’Neill, he radiates a booze-soaked unhappiness that is as subtly sinister, as uncharacteristically passive-aggressive, as his more recent performances are predictably bombastic.
At the film’s center lives the fraught romance between Reed (Beatty) and socialite writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton); Beatty had to maintain that aspect of the sweeping historical epic tradition, after all. I’d never really grokked Keaton’s much-touted beauty before. Above the high lace collars of that era, though, her grey eyes widen and narrow with a sensuality that’s hard to deny, and she speaks with none of the stammering affectations that muck up so many of her performances. But because the star-crossed lovers proclaimed a “free love” relationship – an eternally naïve concept if there ever were one, and one destined to appeal to well-known lothario Beatty – scene after scene sounds the soap operatic notes of their off-and-on relationship, including some gratingly if convincingly moony love scenes (Keaton and Beatty were reportedly involved off screen) and some awfully wooden dialogue (“I'm just living in your margins! No one takes me seriously!” “Well, what are you serious about?”). In general, dialogue has never been Beatty’s strong suit; everyone tends to rat-a-tat-tat in bumperstickese here (except for him; the man is a hopeless mumbler). There’s something charming about all that ideological jargon, though. So earnest. So unfashionable, at least until recently.
For Americans in this decade have once again become a people inured to wartime, as they were in the 1910s. More, a recent Pew Research Center poll states that for the first time more people under 30 view socialism positively than view capitalism positively, a statistic certainly borne out by the insurgence of Occupy Wall Streeters, though that movement has yet to fully identify its objectives. Instead, OWS is slowly building with equal parts whimsy and will – not unlike Reds itself, whose relevance has thus finally been resurrected.
Herein lies a film – a movie, really – that builds glacially and with an elephantine grace, that lingers a deliciously long time on conversations held in the velvet-draped saloons and drafty wooden halls and plum-colored parlors of the time, and then breaks out with a sudden lightness in a revelation of mass communion and political comedy. In the tradition of all the very best American endeavors, the messiness of this film’s big aims proves most integral to its success. Boosted by its terrific visuals (all dusty refracted sunlight and lonely crowds of faces) and an original Stephen Sondheim score, Reds is a big sincere sprawl whose tragedy and ever-widening vistas will, somewhat inexplicably, always gladden the heart.
Lisa Rosman has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.