Warren Beatty’s long-gestating film about Howard Hughes is still alive. Covering Tuesday’s premiere of the PBS American Masters documentary “Inventing David Geffen” in Beverly Hills on Tuesday, the Hollywood Reporter’s Merle Ginsberg noted that Annette Bening, Beatty’s wife, “was telling friends about her upcoming movies. ‘I’m not sure the Catherine the Great project I’m in will come together,’ she said sadly. ‘But there’s always ‘Untitled Warren Beatty Project.’ That’s the most important on my slate!’
The proposed movie, to star Beatty as the elderly, reclusive Hughes and to be written, directed, and produced by him, would also have major parts for Jack Nicholson and Owen Wilson, as well as Bening. It apparently spans two periods in Hughes’s life. Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”) was tipped to play the younger Hughes but dropped out of the running because of prior commitments.
Felicity Jones (“Like Crazy”) was lined up late last year to play a young woman who becomes involved with Hughes’s driver and confidant and then falls for the tycoon himself. “The story in part is about Howard Hughes, and Warren is Hughes, but the other aspect is two young people who work for him, one of which is my character, and their love story interweaved with their relationship with Hughes, and how he affects both of them,” Jones told The Playlist. Justin Timberlake and Alden Ehrenreich were mentioned as contenders for the role of the driver.
The project has proven difficult for Beatty to finance. After Paramount dropped out, Morgan Creek and New Regency agreed on a co-production deal, each contributing 45 per cent of the budget and Steven Bing’s Shangri-La 10 per cent. Assording to the Hollywood Reporter, it fell through last November when 20th-Century Fox, which distributes Morgan Creek’s films, requested that the budget be reduced from $47 million to $42 million. Morgan Creek pulled out when that proved unworkable. Bing subsequently announced that Shangri-La and New Regency would remain on board.
The Playlist tentatively speculates that Bening’s remark indicates the movie may be further along the road in securing its budget, but that could be spousal optimism.
As well as being a multi-millionaire businessman, industrialist, aviator, and aerospace engineer, Hughes (1905-76) was a maverick producer in Hollywood and twice dabbled in directing (“Hell’s Angels,” 1930; “The Outlaw,” 1943). He controlled RKO Pictures from 1948 to 1955. And, of course, he had multiple affairs with Hollywood leading ladies. His appeal to Beatty may be partially based on his elusiveness and recessive power – qualities mirrored by the enigmatic actor-filmmaker himself.
Hughes’s life from the late 1920s through the mid 1940’s was treated expansively in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” (2004), which humanized the tycoon (Leonardo DiCaprio ) while depicting him as a world-class neurotic. Robert Ryan (whose Smith Ohlrig was a thinly veiled Hughes) brought offered greater psychological insight into Hughes’s paranoia, sadism, and sexual possessiveness in Max Ophüls’s “Caught” (1949). Hughes had fired Ophüls from “Vendetta” in 1946; Ryan was an RKO contract player.
Among other films and TV dramas about Hughes, the most resonant is Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard” (1980), in which Jason Robards Jr. played him as the old motorcyclist who, having crashed in the Nevada desert, finds himself drawn to the Utah service station owner (Paul Le Mat) who rescues him – and who later claims to be Hughes’s beneficiary.
Image: Top: Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan in “Caught”/Still via Youtube Left: Annette Bening and Warren Beatty/Charley Gallay/Getty Images for LACMA