Since We’re All Talking About Warren Beatty, Go Watch McCabe & Mrs. Miller, His Best Movie

In the wake of a national embarrassment, a reflection on a great actor’s finest hour.

Warren Beatty's appearance at the 2017 Oscars still feels like a dream. We sighed when he presented the Best Picture trophy to La La Land, a musical that became a proxy for Hollywood's whitewashing, typecasting, awards show snubs, and back-patting milquetoast liberalism. Then, we rejoiced, as one of the film's producers announced that they had been awarded the prize by mistake, that Moonlight was the real winner. Beatty doddered meekly in the background, but it's only the second most embarrassing time he has been inserted into black American history — first place goes to the climatic scene in Bulworth, a 1998 film in which Beatty's titular rap-a-zappin' socialist senator is gunned down outside a motel, in a direct allusion to Joseph Louw's photographs of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

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I felt bad for the man, because he seemed properly mortified, and also because a few months ago I watched him for the first time in 1971's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a revision on the western genre by director Robert Altman. Roger Ebert called it "a perfect movie," and I agree entirely. Beatty plays John McCabe, a gambler who wanders into Presbyterian Church, a town little more than a few dozen strong. The inhabitants are richly detailed, with unique personalities displayed over Altman's trademark naturalism and curious camerawork throughout the film. It doesn't take much for McCabe to weave the inhabitants under his spell, just a few games of cards, a violent reputation, and his plan to start a whorehouse. In these scenes, Beatty plays McCabe not like the swaggering force of nature that's a trope of cowboy movies, but as a (possible) murderer who's up for a boozy night of poker. It's when McCabe starts his business that the cracks start to show, and Constance Miller (an equally transcendent Julie Christie) shows up, looking for and providing a better way.

Their relationship is a great tragic romance of cinema. They're star-crossed lovers, but unlike Romeo & Juliet, what's keeping them apart are the barriers they've put up for themselves. In Miller's case, it seems like self-preservation for her to charge McCabe a premium of $5 to sleep with her. But when she reaches out to McCabe to implore him to put away pride and escape when trouble comes to town, he takes it as an insult. The social and cultural implications of masculinity are observed and explored throughout the film. It acts like a virus, pulling in helpless bystanders like Ida Coyle, Shelley Duval's silent mail order bride, and corrupting the town's young men once a real villain arrives, seeming to reek of sulphur from spent bullet casings. There's so much conspiring to keep McCabe and Miller from truly connecting. That's why each bit of progress their relationship makes, as they move closer and closer to revealing themselves, keeps the film so full of hope and honesty. If that doesn't sound exquisite enough, consider this: Leonard Cohen did the soundtrack for the entire film.

So, after the thrill of photoshopping Crying Michael Jordan onto Warren Beatty's face wears off, go rent McCabe & Mrs. Miller and feel something.

February 27, 2017
Since We’re All Talking About Warren Beatty, Go Watch McCabe & Mrs. Miller, His Best Movie