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Timing, as they say, is everything. In 1981, with the Reagan Era dawning, the American movie-going public might have been by and large disinclined to embrace an epic-length historical romance centered on two prominent radical socialists of the 1910s. The timing ultimately proved less than precipitous for Warren Beatty, who had nurtured the concept since the early 1970s, and whose belief in the project was sufficient to get the green light from the powers that be at Paramount. Ultimately, Reds (1981) would struggle to recoup its staggering production costs (an estimated $45 million) in theaters. The critical praise garnered by the film was considerable, however, and it stands as a work of considerable sweep and scope with a realistic and, at times, painfully honest love story at its core.
In the figure of John Reed (1887-1920), Beatty found a compelling paradox. Born to privilege and educated at Harvard, the experiences of his journalism career led him to leftist thought. Reporting from Russia as the Bolsheviks rose to power, he authored his best-known work Ten Days That Shook the World in 1919. The year after its publication, Reed, then in the employ of the Soviet propaganda ministry, took ill and died, becoming the only American laid to rest in the Kremlin. In a 1976 collaboration with British playwright Trevor Griffiths, Beatty fashioned a script that juxtaposed Reed's notorious public life with his ongoing affair with Louise Bryant, the Oregon housewife and amateur journalist who left her world behind to travel in Reed's circle of Greenwich Village intellectuals.
The screenplay would subsequently undergo tweaking by Elaine May and Robert Towne, and Beatty assembled a distinguished cast and crew, including his off-screen leading lady of the moment, Diane Keaton, to play Bryant to his Reed. The film's opening sequence establishes Reed's thirst to be on the cutting edge of history, depicting his reckless pursuit of frontline action during the Mexican Revolution. The following year finds Reed at home in his native Portland, flirting with Bryant as she tries to wrest an interview from him. His charisma leads her to follow him east, where she uncomfortably tries to hold her own with his formidable cronies such as Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann) and Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson).
To salvage the relationship, the couple set up housekeeping in Provincetown. It doesn't take long for the restless Reed to chafe under those circumstances, however, and he heads for Chicago, against Bryant's wishes, to cover the 1916 Democratic Convention. In his absence, she falls into an affair with O'Neill; the returning Reed owns up to his own infidelities once he learns of the truth. Bryant takes flight to Europe to work as a war correspondent; Reed, after a flare-up of the kidney disorder that eventually killed him, opts to take the same path. Reluctantly reunited as professionals, the two find their passion rekindled as they are swept up in the fall of Russia's czarist regime.
All these events merely take Reds up to the intermission. The second act follows Reed's short life in the wake of Ten Days' publication, and the growing disillusionment he suffered with both the American socialist movement and the bureaucracy that the Bolsheviks imposed on Moscow that he experienced firsthand when he accepted his political appointment.
In Reds, Beatty used an intriguing device to effectively lend his narrative a sense of time and place. Interspersed throughout the film is interview footage, shot against a simple black background, featuring the recollections of over two dozen of Reed and Bryant's contemporaries. Beatty opted against the use of superimposed graphics to identify his "witnesses"-- including Henry Miller, Adela Rogers St. John, Rebecca West, George Jessel, Will Durant and George Seldes-- in order to avoid giving the film an overly documentary feel.
The shoot for Reds spanned a grueling 240 days from August 1979 to July 1980. Beatty's request to the Soviet government to film in Leningrad was rejected, so he turned to Helsinki for its architectural similarities. The film would ultimately be primarily shot in England, with more location work in New York, Washington, and the Seville region in Spain, which was utilized to double for Baku in Russia. (In a famous incident, director Beatty sought to explain to his Spanish extras their motivation by playing out Reed's beliefs. They responded by holding out for a $20-a-day pay hike.)
Between Beatty's creative demands on his cast and crew, and the front office pressure he was feeling as the cost overruns continued to mount, tensions ran high on the set. The strains would ultimately take a toll on Beatty's relationship with Keaton. In Jonathan Moor's Diane Keaton: The Story of the Real Annie Hall mention was made of a photo journal from the set kept by the novelist Jerzy Kosinski, whom Beatty had very effectively cast as the martinet functionary Zinoviev. "[I]n many, many of these photographs a very angry Keaton is captured arguing with a scowling Beatty in front of the camera," Moor observed.
Whether the blame rests with prevalent political sentiment or an ill-conceived and executed marketing campaign, Reds struggled to find a popular audience. It was a tide that the film's considerable Oscar buzz-- 12 nominations overall, with three prizes going to Stapleton, Beatty's direction, and Vittorio Storaro's cinematography-- did little to stem. It's unfortunate, as the film plays far less like an endorsement of communist thought than as an indictment of Reed's shortcomings. At its core is a story of a man willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for principle, told in a fashion that transcends its political and historical context.
Producer: Warren Beatty, David L. MacLeod, Simon Relph, Dede Allen
Director: Warren Beatty
Screenplay: Warren Beatty, Trevor Griffiths, John Reed (book)
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Film Editing: Dede Allen, Craig McKay
Art Direction: Simon Holland
Music: Stephen Sondheim, Dave Grusin
Cast: Warren Beatty (John Reed), Diane Keaton (Louise Bryant), Edward Herrmann (Max Eastman), Jerzy Kosinski (Grigory Zinoviev), Jack Nicholson (Eugene O'Neill), Paul Sorvino (Louis Fraina), Maureen Stapleton (Emma Goldman), Nicolas Coster (Paul Trullinger), M. Emmet Walsh (Speaker at Liberal Club), Bessie Love (Mrs. Partlow), Ian Wolfe (Mr. Partlow), George Plimpton (Horace Whigham), Dolph Sweet (Big Bill Haywood).
C-194m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg