December 4, 1981—Warren Beatty’s Reds, a labor of love four years in the gestation, opened the day after its premiere. A throwback to epic films of the 1960s, this movie about Ten Days That Shook the World author John Reed and wife Louise Bryant also represented a veiled commentary on the New Left that marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War before losing energy and followers.
Recently, a post by fellow blogger “Real Delia” included Reds among its “Five Political Films Worth Seeing.” I had always thought of it as an historical film, because it is set in the late Progressive Era in the U.S. and the Russian Revolution, when John Reed and fellow radicals pressed for labor rights at home and looked (mistakenly, it turned out) to the Bolsheviks as a harbinger of a better world.
But Delia is right—
the film is political, and especially so in its second half, the portion that, to many reviewers, is most problematic. It’s not just that the differences between the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party of America become hard to follow (something that Bryant herself, as audience stand-in, acknowledges in dialogue with Reed), but that the triumphal energy that lifted the first half of the movie begins to ooze out.
But that is the nature of the real-life material that Beatty and co-screenwriter Trevor Griffiths were dealing with, as well as part and parcel of their commentary on the nature of politics. For a longtime liberal activist such as Beatty—
so heavily committed to the political process that he turned down The Godfather, The Sting, and The Way We Were so he could stump for George McGovern for President—
this represented a brutally frank acknowledgement of the price to be paid in private life for total devotion to a cause. (Even the conservative Ronald Reagan, offered a preview of the film before its opening by Beatty, joked that he wished the movie had a happier ending.)
Because the narrative is a love story set against the backdrop of revolutionary Russia, Reds has been likened to Doctor Zhivago. But it might be more useful to compare it to an earlier David Lean movie, Lawrence of Arabia, another epic that traces a hero’s movement, in the realm of international politics, from revolution to dissolution to disillusion.
And that brings me back to my opening point: the parallels between John Reed’s 1910s and the 1960s are impossible to ignore.
Often, novelists and screenwriters will offer the past as a mirror on the present. For instance, one novelist friend of mine, discussing why he set one of his books in 1860s New York, noted that with its racial and ethnic tensions, that decade had more in common with the 1990s than the latter era had with the 1960s.
Average film fans, particularly baby boomers, would have been highly unlikely to know anything about Reed and Bryant (played by Diane Keaton, at the peak of her career). But they would have found tremendous resemblances between the era of these radicals and the tumultuous age then, with Ronald Reagan ensconced in the White House, assuredly at an end:
* Progressives, led by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Robert LaFollette, had their counterparts in mainstream liberals in control of the White House 50 years later: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
* In the 1910s, a Democrat (Wilson) led the nation into a foreign war (WWI); in the 1960s, another (LBJ) did the same, with Vietnam.
* In the 1910s, suffragettes pressed for the right to vote; in the 1960s, feminists moved a broader agenda centered around the workplace and privacy issues.
* In the 1910s, the Old Left, epitomized by Reed and his colleagues, saw Russia as the wave of the future; in the 1960s, many on the New Left glimpsed it in Fidel Castro, Chairman Mao, or even both.
* Reed, Bryant and their friends centered around Greenwich Village believed in birth control, free love and an end to other restrictive social relations between men and women; the 1960s witnessed legislation permitting greater access to birth control and abortion, the rise of the gay-rights movement, and an at-times difficult renegotiation (even on the Left) between the sexes over relations at home and in the workplace.
* Louise Bryant and fellow bohemians in Greenwich Village often clashed with male partners over issues of independence and personal autonomy; the same happened in Hollywood and the music community (perhaps most memorably in the songs of Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon, long rumored a past Beatty conquest).
In both eras, the range of the changes envisioned by American radicals was breathtaking and the new world they glimpsed made them giddy. “What a time it was,“ Reed, dying in a substandard Soviet hospital, tells Bryant in the film. But, as the saltiest of Reds’ two dozen “witnesses” (surviving contemporaries of Reed and Bryant, offering commentary on the film’s events), novelist Henry Miller, noted, changing the world is well-nigh impossible: Even Christ was crucified.
In short, the 1960s, as described by singer Judy Collins in her memoir Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, sounds like a ringer for the bohemian culture of Reed and Bryant: “It was a time of tremendous hope and tremendous naivete,” one that also involved “undeniable destructiveness as the war raged and the young trashed their bodies and their lives with the drugs many of us thought were so cool.”
One character in the film notes that Reed’s commitment to Communism has become like a religion. The second half of the movie—
depicting a collapse over minor differences into fratricidal “sects”—
would have seemed painfully familiar to New Left members recalling how Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, and other organizations in the 1960s had splintered into self-destructive, even murderous factions. Likewise, the recreational substances used by the two generations--alcohol for the Greenwich Village radicals, drugs for the 1960s New Left--would, in time, exact a heavy toll.
Like Lawrence of Arabia, Reds is so crowded with people and events that, for all their bravura filmmaking, context and complexities become lost. One longs for the kind of program notes included in playbills for Tom Stoppard plays, offering further background on events. In particular, I wish that Reds had included a pre-closing credits epilogue that would have offered the following capsule summaries of some major characters after Reed’s death:
* Eugene O’Neill (played by Jack Nicholson), Bryant’s cynical ex-lover and fellow lapsed Catholic, became the only American playwright ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His last play to premiere on Broadway, The Iceman Cometh, featured a dozen boozy derelicts in a Bowery dive in 1912, including Larry Slade, whose sees his radical days as all a useless “pipe dream.”
* Max Eastman (played by Edward Herrmann), editor of The Masses, became, like anarchist Emma Goldman, convinced that the Russian Revolution bore the seeds of totalitarianism. By the time he died in 1969, he was inveighing against Communism in William Buckley’s National Review.
* Louis Fraina (played by Paul Sorvino), Reed’s friend-turned-enemy, broke with the American Communist Party in 1922, though he remained a Marxist. Teaching at Antioch College in the 1940s under the name “Lewis Corey,” he was once interrupted in class by several Communists with the taunt, “What did you do with the money?”--a reference to $4,200 that the ACP had accused him of embezzling during his time in the party. He died in 1953 under threat of deportation by the U.S. government for his radical past.
* Gregory Zinoviev (played by novelist Jerzy Kosinski), the party apparatchik who epitomizes Bolshevik fanaticism, fell victim to the terror he once advocated, executed in 1936 in one of Stalin’s early “show trials.”
* Louise Bryant led possibly the saddest of the lives of the Old Left bohemians in Reds. Continuing her journalistic career for a short time after Reed’s death (one scoop was an early interview with Benito Mussolini), she married her third husband, William C. Bullitt--a staffer in the Wilson administration she had once excoriated--in 1924. With this future Ambassador to Russia under FDR, she was able to have the child she did not have with Reed. But his discovery of her affair with sculptor Gwen Le Gallienne led him to deny access to their daughter in their subsequent bitter divorce. Stricken with Dercum's disease, a condition characterized by painful fatty tumors and/or fatty deposits, she lost her beauty and took refuge in alcohol, dying in 1936.
As imperfect as it was in suggesting the nature of these tangled lives, however, Reds was, as Griffiths put it, "the most important movie about politics ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system.” Or, as Norman Mailer put it in a 1991 Vanity Fair profile of the actor-hyphenate: "Who else in America had dared to produce and direct a film so monumental in scope and so avowedly sympathetic to the early aspects of Communism?"
Several months after its release, Reds was nominated for 12 Oscars, with Beatty himself receiving four--the only person to that point to receive four nominations for a single film in two different years (he had pulled off the same feat three years earlier with Heaven Can Wait, the commercial film he did as a favor to convince Paramount to back Reds).
Beatty walked home with the Best Director Oscar, but Academy voters awarded Best Picture to a small-budget, optimistic film that was the direct antithesis of the downbeat blockbuster about the Old Left: Chariots of Fire. The denial of the ultimate prize meant that Beatty’s dream project, which cost nearly $36 million, would barely make a profit.
The film’s underachievement at the box office also meant that Reds would represent the last gasp of the “New Hollywood” or the “American New Wave” that arguably began with Beatty’s own Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. Films that challenged the status quo with a new aesthetic and more challenging subject matter were already yielding to the summer blockbuster phenomenon that had begun in earnest with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975.