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Bulworth Jack

[whitespace] Bulworth LL Cool Jay Billingston Bulworth: Warren Beatty goes to earthiness in the hood as a liberal politician reborn.

Liam Daniel

Why do all the populist fantasies of rebel politicians have the same ending?

By Richard von Busack

THE WAVES of déjà vu lapped heavily while I was watching Warren Beatty's Bulworth, and as usual, the waves broke in the parking lot after the film was over. The plot: a bad thunderstorm, as bad as the storm that lashed Peter Finch's Howard Beale into madness in Network, is raging over Washington. The storm symbolizes the breakdown of Sen. Jay Billingston Bulworth (played by Beatty, who also produced, co-wrote and directed). After preparing a nest egg for his family, Bulworth runs away from his life and a career far too mortgaged to special interests.

Bulworth goes to earth, or earthiness, in South Los Angeles, led there by a bewitching club girl named Nina (Halle Berry), where he meets black people who help him bust loose from his neoliberal straitjacket. In one crowd-pleasing scene, Bulworth, outfitted in baggies, shades and a toque, grinds an ice-cream cone in an L.A. cop's nose--to pay the officer back for having busted a vanilla cone in the face of a ghetto child.

Déjà vu, déjà vu--and anyway, where does a minigang of ghetto children get ice-cream cones in the dead of night in a crack-ridden neighborhood? Of course, I thought, pounding the steering wheel. It has to be a reference to the "ice-cream cone" scene in Billy Jack.

In that 1971 hit, a Native American kid named Kit asks for an ice-cream cone in a whites-only small-town soda shop. At first, she's denied an ice cream, and then the villains dump flour on her head "to make her white." The trouble is intercepted by the flying bare feet of Tom Laughlin as the Native American avenger Billy Jack.

"When I see this girl of such a beautiful spirit so degraded," Billy Jack says, working himself into a lather, "this little girl that is so special to us that we call her God's little gift of sunshine . . . I just go . . . berserk!" (from the published screenplay by "Frank and Teresa Christina," an alias for Laughlin himself; Avon Books, 1973).

For all its liberal trappings, Bulworth is really the Billy Jack of 1998--a populist political fantasy for aging liberals like Beatty himself. Like Billy Jack, the film is proactive enough to be enjoyed by certain action-loving members of a right-wing audience as well. It boasts, after all, crazy car stunts, and gunmen and cops getting it in the face.

And just as Billy Jack mixed the preaching of love and martial arts, so does Beatty's film mix messages: it's free love and economic reform all at once. Even better, the message is wrapped in rap, the way Billy Jack wrapped its message in the laments of guitar-strumming singer-songwriters.

WHEN BULWORTH, freed at last to speak his true mind, cries, "Socialism, say that bad word!" to a shocked crowd of supporters, the forbidden word sticks out with an even greater trangressive power than do the other, more conventional "bad words" that Bulworth uses. Yet Beatty's star power, which gives him the ability to mention socialism in a 20th Century-Fox movie, also makes the idea ephemeral. It's one more crazy thing a crazy man does for laughs.

At 61, Beatty is becoming something of a codger; he plays his role with whiskery beard stubble. His age helps him get away with gags and words that might be considered racist, just as Carrol O'Connor's avuncularity helped him get away with the remarks he used to make on All in the Family.

Back when All in the Family was a hit, it was impossible to guess whether an audience was laughing with Archie Bunker or at him. When Bulworth derides the members of a black church for their consumption of "chicken wings and malt liquor," the moment is pure Bunker.

Bulworth, however, is often vague enough about its social dissatisfaction that conservatives can like it as well as liberals. The film charts a Venn diagram of discontent, including crescents of opinion from the right and left.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, closet-right-wing centrist columnist Morton Kondracke liked parts of the movie (especially the spectacle of a hypocritical liberal) but cringed at the idea of socialized medicine and condemned the "glorification of ghetto culture" and "the implication that society's dregs are a source of profound wisdom."

Quoting Bulworth, Kondracke says, "One thing I strongly believe--that America would be best off if its racial groups were amalgamated by intermarriage, but 'everybody should f--everybody,' makes an obscenity out a noble idea." How does Kondracke proposes race-mixing without sex? Hope he's not opposed to test-tube conception.

Bulworth has a real-life counterpart in the newly elected mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown, a connection that Joe Klein, author of the vastly overpraised Primary Colors, was quick to point out in The New Yorker. Still, Brown's aesthetic (not to say prudish) public persona couldn't be further from Bulworth's sex-positive style.

For a better example of early Bulworthism, read A.J. Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana, about Earl Long's true-life fox-crazy run for the governorship of Louisiana in 1960. Long spent a stretch in a Texas sanitarium just before his campaign, and aspects of Long's madness can be seen even in a much cleaned-up film version of the story, Blaze (1989), with Paul Newman as Long.

Like Bulworth, Long took up with a younger woman, the stripper Blaze Starr. Blaze includes a true story of how Long's "madness" was seen in his outspokedness about desegregation. "One of these days, you're gonna realize that niggers are human beings!" Long told a racist state senator in the middle of a legislative session. This then-bold statement cost Long more than a few votes.

Of course, Bulworth goes farther than just acknowledging the humanity of black folk. Bulworth is accepted into an extended black family of about 20, grave and dignified and chomping down on comfort food. His warm reception occasions the punch line "Everybody should fuck everybody until we're just one color." I hate like hell to generalize about black people, but I'd suggest it's racism they want to get rid of and not their color.

In the end, Bulworth's flirtation with black life, youth culture and speaking his mind is played out as a kind of nervous breakdown. His trip to the ghetto is a long dream state from which the senator awakes at the end: commanding, power-suit clad, ready to take on the world of party politics. And ready, as plain-speaking politicians of the movies always are, to suffer the ultimate penalty for taking on that world.

LET ME TELL YOU about this other movie I saw recently, a little-known picture from 1933 titled Gabriel Over the White House. Made during the bleakest years of the Depression, Gabriel Over the White House begins with the election of President Judson E. Hammond (Walter Huston).

Judson is a corrupt, Warren Harding-style party hack. Knocked on the head in a car accident, he's laid out cold. The presence of the angel Gabriel played by some raised stage lights and a fluttering curtain turns Judson into a new man, "a gaunt, gray ghost" who revives into greatness. When it's suggested that Judson is mad, his loyal girlfriend counters that it's "a divine madness."

This divinity is expressed by Judson's public-works program "The Army of Construction." Judson tames Congress by threatening the members with martial law; called a dictator, he replies, "Words do not frighten me."

Later, quoting Jefferson, Judson claims that he is aiming for "a government for the greatest good to the greatest number of people." (It may be vague, but Jefferson said it, and that settles it.) Forming a Federal Police, Judson enlists firing squads for gangsters; his assistant Beekman (Franchot Tone) claims, "We've eliminated the red tape to get us back to the first principles: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Director Gregory La Cava, an ex-political cartoonist, stamps his approval on this dictatorship by framing the firing squad under the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

What begins as a left-wing fantasy ends with a patriotic firing squad. Thanks to numerous close-ups on a bust of Abraham Lincoln (whom Huston played, under D.W. Griffith's direction) and much use of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," we're way ahead of the ending.

Yes, death comes to Judson. It comes to Paul Newman's Earl Long and to Peter Finch's Howard Beale; Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack is hauled away in handcuffs to face a capital charge; and the inevitable also arrives for Bulworth. Why is this such a powerful motif?

Maybe it's the inescapability of history that makes these last acts always the same--the tragedies of Lincoln, JFK, King, RFK. It's rousing to hear "socialism" hollered in a mall theater, no matter what the circumstances, but what fun is it if the hollerer has to pay the ultimate price? In these populist political fantasies, it's always the same: those who speak the truth must die.

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From the June 11-17, 1998 issue of Metro.

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