Howard Hughes was one of the towering figures of the 20th century.
He kept gossip columnists busy for decades, first, as a fabulously wealthy movie mogul and aviator who pursued many of Hollywood's great beauties. And then, as an eccentric who ended his days a strange obsessive recluse.
Now, Hughes is at the center of a new movie written, produced, directed by — and starring — Warren Beatty. It's called Rules Don't Apply.
"Don't expect a biopic of Howard Hughes," Beatty tells NPR's Renee Montagne, "because it really is not that." Instead, it's several interlocking stories of a man on the edge, trying to keep his empire together as his mind falls apart-- and a pair of young lovers, Frank and Marla. He's a driver for Hughes, and she's the "Apple Blossom Queen," one of Hughes' new contract players. They fall for each other instantly, but are held back by the repressed mores of the time, and their own religious upbringings.
On whether Frank and Marla's innocence reflects their creator's experience
Let's not go into innocence, that would be dangerous! I grew up in this Southern Baptist atmosphere; my mother and father were both, I guess you would say academics, they were both teachers. And I didn't have a rigidly enforced religious parental pressure, but I did have a few years in my mid-teens of turning to religion, and it was very meaningful to me.
On crossing paths with Hughes early in his career
I was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and it sort of bothered me that two guys were looking out through an open door in the hallway next to my suite, where I was staying. And then I thought, I think they're with the tabloids, so I called the desk and said, "I want to tell you how disappointed I am that you allow the tabloids to be spying on me here." ... And they said, "Those people are not with the tabloids, they're with Mr. Hughes." ... "Are you telling me that Howard Hughes is in the next suite from me?" And they said, "Well, we don't know. He has seven suites."
On his interest in Hughes
He was unusual, to say the least, but what began to interest me the most was, why was I so interested? I felt the same way about Greta Garbo — what I felt was that, in both cases, the staying out of sight completely is almost equivalent to being observed all the time. It's a way to attract attention.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Howard Hughes was one of the towering figures of the 20th century. He kept gossip columnists busy for decades.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
First, as a fabulously wealthy movie mogul an aviator who pursued many of Hollywood's great beauties.
INSKEEP: Than, as an eccentric who ended his days as a strange, obsessive recluse.
GREENE: Now, Howard Hughes is at the center of a new movie written, produced, directed and starring Warren Beatty.
INSKEEP: It involves two young lovers brought together and pulled apart by Howard Hughes. In New York, Warren Beatty sat down with NPR special correspondent Renee Montagne.
RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: The very first and the very last thing Warren Beatty said to me was...
WARREN BEATTY: Don't expect a biopic of Howard Hughes because it really is not that.
MONTAGNE: What it is is interlocking stories of a man on the edge trying to keep his empire together as his mind begins to fall apart. And the lovers - we first meet Marla and Frank when they meet each other. He is a driver for Hughes. She, the Apple Blossom queen, stepping off a plane in Hollywood, one of Hughes' new contract players. They are immediately drawn to each other. But it is the '50s, and they're both steeped in the sexual rules of the day and their Protestant upbringing. Here, they are on a chaste date at a Hollywood diner when she inquires about his girl back home.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RULES DON'T APPLY")
ALDEN EHRENREICH: (As Frank Forbes) Well, I - I don't know if Sarah and I are - she still believes that once you've been intimate or gone all the way with a person that, in the eyes of God, you're committed to that person for the rest of your life.
LILY COLLINS: (As Marla Mabrey) I agree with Sarah. That's why I've never done it. That's why I'm waiting - because I have to be sure.
EHRENREICH: (As Frank Forbes) Well, that's - I mean, that's a little - I'm not legally married.
MONTAGNE: Both characters embody, to some extent, their creator. Marla, played by Lily Collins, is imbued with details straight out of Warren Beatty's life. She's a Baptist from Virginia. Her father is a professor. And upon her arrival in Hollywood, the studio showers her with a house and a stunning salary - $400 a week. And Alden Ehrenreich as Frank is handsome in the earnest, intense way of young Warren Beatty.
How true is this to your own experience? Were you as innocent as Frank?
BEATTY: Well, I - well, let's not go into innocence, but...
BEATTY: That would be dangerous. I grew up in this Southern Baptist atmosphere, and my mother and father were both, I guess you would say, academics. They were both teachers. And - and I didn't have a rigidly enforced religious parental pressure, but I did have a few years in my mid-teens of turning to religion, and it was very meaningful to me.
MONTAGNE: Though Warren Beatty moviegoers came to know the glamorous lothario who seemed to own Hollywood, that life began with his first movie opposite Natalie Wood. Directed by Elia Kazan, "Splendor In The Grass" was also about young love and repressed desire, in that movie, leading to madness.
BEATTY: That movie was - whatever you call it - a hit. And I was - then became whatever you call - whatever you become when you're...
MONTAGNE: A star.
A movie star. That put him, at 22, in the same orbit as the by then infamous Howard Hughes.
BEATTY: And I was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And I - it - it sort of bothered me that two guys were looking out through an open door in the hallway next to my suite where I was staying. And I - and then I thought, I think they're with the tabloids. So I called the desk, and I said, I want to tell you how disappointed I am that you allow the tabloids to be spying on me here.
And they said, well, Mr. Beatty, could you hold on? And they said, well, those people are not with the tabloids. They're with Mr. Hughes. And I said, do you mean Howard Hughes? And they said, well, yes. Are you telling me that Howard Hughes is in the next suite from me? And they said, well, we don't know. He has seven suites. I said, seven suites? And confidentially, he also has five bungalows.
So now I thought, wait a minute now, seven suites and five bungalows? I would hear those stories about Hughes. They always made me laugh. He had his own way. He listened to his own rules. And he - he was unusual, to say the least. But what began to interest me the most was, why was I so interested? I felt the same way about Greta Garbo. What I felt was that, in both cases, the staying out of sight completely is almost equivalent to being observed all the time. It's a way to attract attention.
MONTAGNE: And it's not hard to see why Warren Beatty called his movie "Rules Don't Apply." After his star-making turn in "Splendor In The Grass," the young actor refused a slew of offers to play a confused teenager. Instead, he pushed mightily for the role of a gigolo in the film version of Tennessee Williams' "The Roman Spring Of Mrs. Stone." Then Beatty did something few movie stars even aspired to in the 1960s - the actor got behind the scenes for the groundbreaking movie "Bonnie And Clyde."
BEATTY: Whether you call them conventions or rules, I was - because of the people that I was lucky enough to be involved with in the beginning, allowed me to step up to do that with "Bonnie And Clyde" first.
MONTAGNE: You mean producing when you're...
BEATTY: Producing and...
MONTAGNE: When you might have just simply been the lead.
BEATTY: Yeah, kind of controlling what...
MONTAGNE: The whole...
BEATTY: Being in charge. And now lots of people do it. And I've never been one to shortchange the importance of actors. I always feel that I'm sort of co-directing with my fellow actors. And you can tell when something's going on that really interests them and they approve of. And then you can sort of tell when there's not. And that...
MONTAGNE: And then what do you do (laughter)?
BEATTY: Well, then you do it again, and you try to do it better. And - yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RULES DON'T APPLY")
COLLINS: (As Marla Mabrey, singing) Is it written in the air, as it seems to be, that we haven't long at all to find our destiny?
MONTAGNE: Hear the theme song of Warren Beatty's new movie, "Rules Don't Apply." I'm Renee Montagne, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RULES DON'T APPLY")
COLLINS: (As Marla Mabrey, singing) I'll always remember to be grateful that the rules don't apply to me.
INSKEEP: That's Renee in her new role as a special correspondent for NPR News. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
GREENE: And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.