Reds (1981)

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*. For a long time in the world of painting there was a hierarchy of genres, with large canvases of historical or mythological subjects taking pride of place and still lifes at the bottom. Sometime in the nineteenth century, with the rise of Impressionism in France, this hierarchy was thrown out and history painting has largely disappeared from the art scene.
*. You know what I’m going to ask next. What happened to Hollywood’s historical epics? At one time they ruled the roost, the studios’ go-to prestige projects and Oscar bait. There was Doctor Zhivago and Gandhi, and Dances With Wolves. Then something changed. David Lean died. Attention spans shortened. People (at least the masses of people that big-budget films depend on) lost interest in history.
*. Instead of the traditional (fuddy-duddy) roles of art to instruct and to delight, audiences only wanted to be delighted. Instead of history lessons they wanted comic books and fantasy. CGI gave a lending hand. The final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy would win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
*. This is a roundabout way of saying that they don’t make movies like Reds any more. It was bold, and to some extent quite original for its time. The story of a doomed love affair between a pair of American communists could never have been considered high concept. It’s still shocking to me that Paramount signed off on it. Not because of political or ideological reasons, but because the public was never going to embrace it.

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*. The Witnesses were also something new, and were a gamble that I think really pays off. Then Ken Burns came along and wrecked it, making us feel today like we’re just watching another PBS documentary.
*. It’s a very personal project, though initially Beatty didn’t want to star in it. I think his playing Reed was probably inevitable. And I think he does well, in part by staying true to form.
*. What I mean is that Beatty is a clown. He is seemingly compelled to include comic bits in most of his performances — doing an entire scene in a ridiculous chef’s hat in Bugsy, even putting on the sunglasses with the one missing lens at the end of Bonnie and Clyde. Here the movie is full of them: doing a scene with his face lathered for shaving, putting on a dog costume, banging his head repeatedly on a low-hanging chandelier, riding a hand cart on a railway, burning dinner in the kitchen.

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*. As I’ve said before, Beatty is an odd leading man in that he has a comic face and funny voice. And Diane Keaton has always specialized in playing kooky parts. Casting them as the leads here might seem a stretch, but the thing is they’re both playing somewhat naïve idealists with an air of childishness about them. That’s not to belittle either the content or the strength of their political convictions, but it emphasizes their vulnerability. We take Reed’s side against Zinoviev (a very effective Jerzy Kosinski), of course, but at the same time we know it’s an argument he’ll never win. It’s not just the soulless Soviet bureaucracy he’s up against, but a whole different cast of mind.
*. That said, it was nice to see Beatty not backing down on Reed’s own revolutionary intensity. When Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) confronts him with the manifest failure of the Bolsheviks he admits as much but offers up the defense that you can’t make a revolution without breaking some heads. For him, the ends justify the means.
*. Keaton’s Louise Bryant is less well drawn. In the first half of the picture she looks like she might be developing into as full a character as Reed, but in the second half she disappears, her face mainly being used for cutaway reaction shots.
*. I don’t care at all that Jack Nicholson doesn’t look like the real Eugene O’Neill. Leaving appearance aside, I still think he’s badly miscast. He just doesn’t belong in a historical drama.
*. What is the significance of Reed joining the cavalry charge when the train is attacked? Does he know he’s dying anyway and so is trying to get killed? Has he given up on the revolution? Is he frustrated with being a man of words and now wants to go out in a blaze of glory as a man of action? I’m guessing a bit of all three, but despite being nicely filmed it also comes across as another quasi-comic bit. He’s wearing a suit, for heaven’s sake.

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*. The film was shot on locations all over the world, but it’s really worth noting how well they incorporate famous landmarks in a few brief scenes. Lessons to be learned: go for short takes and a low camera angle (to make the streets disappear).
*. Reed’s death is introduced in a heavy-handed way, what with the symbolism of the dropped cup being picked up by the boy, but I thought the final shot worked very well, seeing him lying on his death bed through a narrow frame, with Keaton’s silhouette exactly blocking out his head.

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*. But . . . no, they don’t make them like this any more. Neither studios nor audiences have the patience. You could greenlight a project like this for a television miniseries, but that’s about it. Unless you could find some way to introduce orcs. Or zombies.

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