|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
REDS holds a very special place in my life. It was the first feature
film I saw in a private screening room. Back in 1981, I was acquainted with
the late Helen Deutsch, a screenwriter whose credits include LILI and
THE GLASS SLIPPER. In her youth, she had been associated with the
Provincetown Playhouse -- in fact, she co-wrote what stands as the definitive
history of that august theater. Since many of the "witnesses" included in
Warren Beatty's epic film were people with whom she was acquainted, Helen
wanted very much to see the film. So she arranged to attend a screening
of the film at the old Gulf + Western building in Columbus Circle. And I got to
escort her to the screening. What unfolded on screen was a magnificent,
yet flawed masterpiece. It always amused me to think that the late Charles
Bludhorn, one of the biggest capitalists in America at the time, had actually
allowed his company to produce an historical epic about American Communists.
Since 1981, I have seen REDS a few times. When it was on rotation on
cable, I would catch pieces of it, always marveling at the craftsmanship that
went into its making, from the detailed and gorgeous period clothes to the
amazing production design to the sublime cast. One might argue that both
Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton were a bit older than the characters they
were portraying, but they brought something special to the production. For me,
the eye-opening performance was Jack Nicholson's as playwright Eugene
O'Neill. This was a decidedly lower-key Nicholson than his usual manic wiseacre
characters that had become his stock in trade. I really was forced to reevaluate
and reexamine the man and his career and I went back and watched several
of his earlier performances with a new appreciation for his prodigious talent.
Now, thanks to Paramount Home Video Entertainment, REDS is being
released in a 25th Anniversary edition on DVD. It was also screened at the
44th New York Film Festival. REDS is the type of epic film making that has
become increasingly rare. It is a large-scale, sweeping love story set against
major events of the early 20th Century. The film earned 12 Academy Award
nominations and won three, for Maureen Stapleton's supporting turn as
anarchist Emma Goldman, for Vittorio Storaro's magnificent cinematography,
and for Beatty's adroit direction.
Watching it on the big screen for the first time in 25 years, I was struck
not only by how well the story has held up (in fact, it some instances it seems
prescient, like its discussions of patriotism in wartime and when Islamic men
call for a jihad against American oil interests in the Middle East -- in 1920!).
The use of the witnesses -- a group of elderly men and women who offer
sometimes conflicting recollections about Reed, Bryant and the times --
is also a stroke of genius. These people, who include writers Henry Miller
Will Durant and Rebecca West and actor George Jessell, among others,
serve as a sort of Greek chorus and keep the audience entertained with
their observations. (The technique has been used in several feature films
At the time, Keaton was still thought of as the flighty heroine from
the Woody Allen films (despite her fine work in LOOKING FOR MR.
GOODBAR, among other dramatic turns). She approached the role of
Louis Bryant with the right amount of flair, and was even willing to come
across as unsympathetic if necessary. Keaton enjoyed a wonderful on
screen chemistry with both Beatty and Nicholson and her scenes, making
the love scenes believable and moving. Beatty delivered a heroic turn
as John Reed, and watching the film again, one can appreciate the fine
work of Edward Herrmann, Jerzy Kosinski, George Plimpton, Gene Hackman,
Paul Sorvino, and others. Stapleton makes the most of her small role as
Emma Goldman and there's a striking physical resemblance to the real
anarchist. As I've mentioned above, Nicholson is in a class of his own,
practically stealing the entire film with his understated performance.
Even 25 years later, REDS continues to hold audiences in its sway.
It is visually stimulating and well-acted and almost proves the maxim that
they don't make 'em like they used to. Thank goodness for the DVD
format so that audiences can explore and enjoy this monumental film.
Rating: A -
MPAA Rating: PG (originally rated R in 1981) for violence
and adult situations
Running time: 194 mins.
Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill
in REDS. Directed by Warren
Photo Credit: Paramount Home
Warren Beatty as John 'Jack' Reed and
Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant in Reds
Directed by Warren Beatty
Photo Credit: Paramount Home Video