33 years after its release, there is something strikingly wistful about Reds. A favorite at the Academy Awards the year it was nominated for a staggering 12 Oscars, it picked up a paltry three (Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography), losing its biggest prize to Chariots of Fire. In one way, it was a simple upset that is similar to other upsets we see every now and again. On the other hand, there was something greatly portentous about its loss. Reds failure to win the big prize signaled the beginning of the Reagan-era in Hollywood; after 1981, big movies took highly global subjects of astonishing importance and exchanged gloss for brains resulting in a decade of self-aggrandizing, mostly forgettable issue movies like Gandhi, the Last Emperor, and Amadeus (as my friend and I like to call them: “80’s Important”). But Reds, along with Ragtime, was one of the last of the New Hollywood epics. A big, bold, progressive movie with a mind-boggling cast of superstars and some of Vittorio Storaro’s best cinematography.
Reds tells the story of Jack Reed, an American journalist and progressive who, with his muse/soul mate/partner/wife Louise Bryant, witnesses the Russian Revolution and tries (and fails) to bring the same passion to the American laborers and labor unions. As the revolution’s foundational idealism fades into pragmatism and then, finally, into harsh realism, Reed comes to understand the flaws within himself and the mechanics of creating a utopia which almost certainly cannot ever really work, Politics and idealogical purity, in the end, end up being secondary to the individual.
Astonishingly enough, Reds is a wonderfully fun movie. Intercutting interviews with those who actually knew (or knew of) Jack Reed and/or Louise Bryant, the film feels like a warm, patchwork quilt folded over a wrought-iron bed frame. For a movie with heavy themes of serious gravity, Reds is not at all an arduous undertaking. In fact, it forces the viewer to understand the foundations of radical politics, framing each argument in real world terms. Everything from flawed capitalism, feminism, individualism, and even communism are examined both pro and con in pretty stark terms. As the movie closes in on its conclusion, the interviews take on a certain resonance; we feel that these very recognizable actors have become the historical characters with whom the interviewees interacted. It almost feels Doctrow-ian in reverse.
In retrospect, it’s amazing what Reds managed to accomplish when it was released. This was a film that was made after the horrific disaster that was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Say whatever you want about the merits of that film, it’s hard to dismiss what its failure did to Hollywood. Sure, Cimino wasn’t the only culprit as Scorsese, Altman, and Friedkin had made extremely expensive flops that created the cry for bean-counters to run Hollywood lest the shareholders flee en masse. But Reds was not only a critical hit but it was a financial one as well.
What makes all of this amazing is the timing of it all. With conservatism in America on the rise and with Reagan the newly-minted president, a three and a half hour period drama/romance about American Communists hardly seems like what folks were after. But, thanks to the star power of Warren Beatty and his amazing supporting cast, Reds was something of a transitional movie. The same people who lined up around the block to see it were the same ones who were 20 when the Godfather came out were now 31, still routinely seeing the Big Films with the New Hollywood casts and they were the same ones who would later line up to see stuff like Out of Africa and, finally, the Godfather Part III and the Two Jakes.
Warren Beatty, as a filmmaker, is quite underrated. He’s only made a few movies (Reds, Dick Tracy, and Bullworth; he co-directed Heaven Can Wait with Buck Henry) but all of them are fabulous. Here, he pulls off a mind-blowing historical epic that’s as beautifully shot as it is deeply felt. And it is here that I should admit that while Warren Beatty is the focus of Reds and he’s mighty good in it, this is most certainly Diane Keaton’s movie. Radiant and glowing at the beginning, dulled and broken by the end, Keaton traverses the emotional map throughout the movie and oftentimes does so within single scenes. Her scenes with Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O’Neill, also nominated for an Oscar) bring out a warmth in him that is rarely seen. She lost the Oscar to Katherine Hepburn whose turn in On Golden Pond was less a performance and more a heartfelt and beautiful “goodbye.” In a just world, Keaton would have won. But that’s neither here nor there.
So, in the end, Reds holds up both as a movie and as a testament to Hollywood in a certain place and time. It’s type of film was not long for the world. The Right Stuff, possibly the greatest of the American Epics of the 1980’s, was forged from a new metal and a new stone; a cast of mostly unknowns by guys who cut their teeth in the late seventies and early eighties and mostly had their lives and careers ahead of them. Reds was something of an eulogy of the New Hollywood that began in 1968 and was being corporatized in 1980. Just as John Reed witnessed a revolution which went bad almost as quickly as it ended, Warren Beatty witnessed a revolution that went bad 12 years later. All they could do was play their parts and document it from the inside.