At Harvard, Class of 1906, John Reed, impetuous
freshman from Portland, Ore., was snubbed by the
Eastern aristocrats, but he wasn't fazed. He charmed
them with a burlesque opera. "The Girl of the
Golden Toothbrush." Irrepressible, he left his
card on the tombstones of Boston's Best Families,
with a note: "Sorry you weren't in when we called."
He occasionally turned up at Walter Lippmann's undergraduate
Socialist Club, pondered the ideas and then poked
poetic fun at his distinguished classmate's solemnity.
he mockingly bemoaned his own dilemma as a budding
writer: "How can an artist create his
Utopia: With his best eye on the World's cornucopia?"
bring the question up to date: With Hollywood's eye
focused on every million ($33.5) poured into "Reds," can
Warren Beatty actually pull off a starring movie
about John Reed and that old Bolshevik revolution?
Yes. He did it! Talk about miracles! "Reds" is
a great movie about a great reporter, his tempestuous
marriage with another free spirit, Louise Bryant,
and the birth of the revolution he was witness to
in his classic book "Ten Days That Shook the
"Reds" is a tour-de-force on
every level: beautifully, snappily integrated into
a 3 1/2-hour montage that goes by like lightning,
flashing with wit and song, provocative talk and
stunning vistas. It has the tightly knit, unified
tension and impact about people swept up by history
that eluded Bertolucci in "'900" and Coppola
It is an epic with a human face - funny,
passionate, poignant, tragic - from the Reed-Bryant-Eugene
O'Neill triangle in Provincetown to the revolutionary/radical
turmoil and Reed's death by typhus in Russia, just
short of his 33rd birthday.
"Reds" is Oscar-class teamwork all around
and Diane Keaton is Queen Bee Louise, finally showing
the fire and ice that been smoldering under that
old comic dither. Beatty's a winner on every count:
as producer, director, co-writer and star. He had
the courage to gamble on a risky subject and the
vision to find an exciting new way to tell an old,
largely forgotten story.
He has woven a unique tapestry, with the finest
of actors giving the best performances in memory
and the lively recollections of real, honest-to-God
old-timers who either knew Reed or were part
of the action then.
It is maddening not to recognize
all the witnesses, but some of the names aren't so
important. There is Henry Miller in his ineradicable
Brooklyn accent, mincing no four-letter words as
he says there was just as much of "it" going
on then as now, but now "there's a lot less
love." Or George
Jessel, singing a bit of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and
saying he was influenced by Emma Goldman. Imagine!
Or Dame Rebecca West grandly putting down her fellow
Britisher Beatrice Webb.
The center of the drama is
the love that holds together Reed and Bryant, two
unusually headstrong people, no matter how many other
men and women come into their lives, no matter how
separated they are by work, politics, war or revolution.
Bryant and John Reed start out gaily enough when
the film opens on their meeting in Portland in 1905.
At that time, she's married to a dentist and exercising
her creative side. Reed's on the rebound (from the
rich, possessive Mabel Dodge). Louise looks wickedly
demure in black, broad-brimmed hat and black frock
at her first picture exhibition, which features a
At 28, Reed was a dynamic, restless,
fun-loving, justice-seeking writer. He had soared
to instant fame after his arrest in the long Paterson,
N.J. textile strike. His articles broke the press
wall of silence on the two -month-old strike, and
soon he was producing an unprecedented pageant starring
the strikers in a packed Madison Square Garden. It
set an example for "Living Newspaper" theater-to-come.
Reed's fame increased as his stories appeared about
riding with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution.
His vivid, poetic imagery about the life he shared
with the rebels, the underlying good humor without
heroics, was a new kind of journalism: committed,
but intellectually honest.
When he went to the Balkan
front early in World War I, he developed a deep hatred
for the brutalities of the war and a contempt for
the parliamentary European socialists who had toed
the line by voting for war credits against all their
convictions. He has only one word to describe the
war in an early scene at Portland's elegant Liberal
Club where Louise sits poised to take notes, but
he talks all night in an interview she had requested.
Her breathless non-stop questions hooks him for life.
As director, Beatty touches on Reed's still evolving
beliefs with buoyancy and sparkle, never lingering
to press a point. Whenthe first half of the film
culminates in the overthrow of the Kerensky government
and triumph of th Bolsheviks, it is an astonishing
re-creation of history.
Beatty is superb catching
Reed's charm and warmth, his poet's sensitivity and
the quality Reed had of rigorous soul-searching,
particularly in his silent struggle when he suspects
Louise's affair with his friend O'Neill. As the playwright
fascinated by Louise, Jack Nicholson drops all his
usual shticks. He is shaken by her, but he's finally
dour, tough and caustic about her radical beliefs "like
a new-found Catholic religion with all the answers," he
sneers at her. He was later to use her as the model
for the woman torn between two men in "Strange
Interlude." It was not O'Neill, but another
lover, not mentioned in the film, who came to her
aid when she had to travel on a false passport to
find Reed when Revolutionary Russia was blockaded
and Reed was sick in a Finnish prison.
always has been a neglected, put-down figure, but
Keaton gives her the full measure of a woman fighting
for her own journalistic career, fighting for and
against her own sexual and emotional needs in terms
of other men, hating her own possessiveness when
she hears from Reed about his meaningless falls from
faithfulness. Although Bryant could not measure up
to Reed as a reporter, few could.
There are some wonderful
brief scenes showing his professional help to her,
but the film fails to indicate that she was a competent
reporter, covering the role of revolutionary women
in Russia for the Philadelphia Ledger and the Hearst
papers. Because the U.S. government confiscated for
six months all of Reed's papers and notes for "10
Days," she was able
to get her reports from Petersburg out before he
could even begin work.
Her travels around the Arctic
Circle until she finally gets back to Russia are
magnificently photographed by that great cinematographer,
Vittorio Storaro, who is as marvelous lighting a
middle-class parlor in Portland as the white nights
of Norway, a herd of stampeding reindeer, the Capitol
in Washington, D.C., or the faces of sick Russians
in a hospital.
Beatty has condensed, pruned and taken
some literary/cinematic/political liberties, but
stays true to the pungent spirit of Reed, Bryant
and those turbulent times. There is inevitably a
whiff of hindsight about the Russian revolutionary
realities. Whether Reed who helped to found a faction
of the American Communist Party, had died with his
illusions intact, always has been the subject of
much conjecture and speculation. The arguments he
has with anarchist Emma Goldman (a tough-minded role
by Maureen Stapleton) who is disillusioned by the
new government's purges, are stimulating . In his
bouts with the vividly opinionated Goldman, Reed
defends the necessity for the new Bolshevik government
to protect itself against the Allied blockades.
his confrontation with Zinoviev (the Com intern head,
sharply and fiercely hawklike in novelist Jerzy Kosinski's
memorable portrayal), Reed seems to be talking more
like the unaligned reporter he once was, arguing
for the necessity of dissent in revolution. My hunch
is that such a conversation never took place, although
Reed and Zinoviev were antagonists. At this late
date, it doesn't seem to matter much, except to historians,
whether Reed died in 1920 still believing in the
revolution, since almost everyone has fallen off
that train of history in every conceivable manner
in all the years that followed, including Zinoviev,
who was executed in Stalin's purges.
What is remarkable
is that Beatty has achieved an upbeat film, despite
all the horrors of the history still to come after "Reds" ends
with Reed's death. There is a tone of affirmation
in the voice-over comments, as though life does indeed
go on. And Beatty has returned a vivid slice of ignored
American and Russian history for a new generation
to mull over, enjoy and debate.
San Francisco Chronicle December 4, 1981