There is a running joke among clergy that when people find you in unusual situations or doing very ordinary things such as taking a pie in the face for a charity or stacking chairs, they ask you if they taught classes in that, or if you ever imagined yourself doing that when you were in seminary? I have had my share of these questions or reflections during my ministry. The latest is perhaps the most surreal. Never in my imagination did I think I would one day be interviewing Warren Beatty about sexual mores through the years and Judeo and Christian theology. While one of the great joys of ministry is the unexpected, my recent interview with Mr. Beatty was most unexpected and a great pleasure and privilege.
I spoke with Warren Beatty during a press junket in support of the release of Rules Don’t Apply, his first film in sixteen years. As organizers of the tour had told us before we met with him, Warren certainly enjoyed talking with and learning about those he talked to. I had the pleasure of visiting with him for 45 minutes in a spacious suite in an upscale Dallas hotel. Throughout the interview, Warren was very charming gracious, and inviting which immediately put me at ease.
As a former film student I was certainly familiar with the importance of Warren Beatty’s work, however, in preparing for the interview, I was struck at his place in film and cultural history beyond his filmography. Warren Beatty’s arrival in Hollywood in the late 1950’s coincided with the transition from the early days and ways of Hollywood where the studios and studio heads ruled, to the “New Hollywood” and the rise of stars and star power. As an up and coming Actor who had proved his acting chops on Broadway and had a critically acclaimed film, Splendor in the Grass, to his name, the strikingly handsome Beatty quickly became a fixture in popular and political culture. In the “Degree of Separations Game,” I was excited that in meeting Mr. Beatty, my separation from Charles Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, John Kennedy, just to name a few, was now one.
In the conversation with Mr. Beatty, we discussed extensively his being raised in the Baptist church in Richmond Virginia, and the impact it had on him. Given that Warren Beatty had a 30-year reputation as an ultimate Hollywood playboy, many are surprised to hear the seriousness of which he has considered sexuality and relationships through those years. Beatty has been open in recent interviews to talking about his dating history and how the church influenced his views on sexuality. Certainly Warren Beatty dated many of the most successful and beautiful women in the world and in Hollywood, though he states that most of what was written about him were heavily exaggerated, yet it took him some time to assuage his guilt toward sex.
In addition to his reputation of dating famous, beautiful women, Beatty was also famous for his refusal to get married. While other famous leading men would marry, more often than not divorce, then often repeat the process, Beatty stood alone in his refusal, for the first 30 years of his life as a movie star, to get married. While most assumed this was the result of his not wanting to give up the playboy life and settle down, in reality, it was out of his respect for the institution of marriage. He would rather have not married then get married and then get divorced, as so many in his circle did. In short Warren Beatty waited until he knew it was time, and that Annette Bening, his wife of 25 years, was the person he was to live the rest of his life with. As a clergyperson, I have known many who succumbed to the pressure of family, friends, and or society to get married rather than waiting for the right time and or person they were to marry. All too often this resulted in divorce or difficult marriages.
In preparing for my interview after screening the film, I thought about the place of rules in the film and the connection between the rules of Howard Hughes for his employees and those of the Church, and why Beatty was making them a central focus of his film. Through this process, I had a-ha moment that I shared with Warren who graciously listened and discussed my thoughts with me.
It is no surprise that rules and laws play a big part of scripture, theology, and the history of the people of God. Yet, what was their purpose? When considering from a Judeo/ Christian perspective, a major, perhaps the primary purpose of the Law was to establish, foster, and protect relationships. The first objective of the Ten Commandments was to set the relationship between God and Israel. The next was to strengthen this relationship further by developing guidelines for how people were to relate and treat one another in ways that would make Israel stronger. Eventually however the number of Laws increased from 10 to over 600, many of which had little to do with and actually negatively impacted relationships.
In the New Testament, Jesus fulfilled the Law and condensed them into his double commandment, to love God with all one’s being, and then, also love all others as one loves themselves. In doing these two things, all of the Law would be fulfilled. Again, the center of the two commandments of Jesus is relationship. When rules are added that negatively impact relationships, such rules too often become tools by one group to control behavior and in doing so, control people, rather than foster and protect relationships.
Such questioning of the efficacy of rules regarding sexuality does not include laws aimed at preventing sexual abuse of children or persons who in other ways are not able to offer consent. Sexual relations in these circumstances threaten the physical and emotional health of the persons unable to give consent. Also, promiscuity is something that should be counseled against as it almost always damages current or future relationships. Lastly, it is true that sex complicates relationships and often sabotages them if entered into too early.
After filtering out the above circumstances, a question played out in the film is whether blanket rules against sex between consenting adults are efficacious or even plausible? And, if or when they aren’t, how does the resulting guilt or shame associated with sex impact the individuals and their current or future relationships? Do such rules protect or harm?
Theological reflection regarding the purpose and consequences of societal rules regarding sexuality between consenting adults should include reflection on same-sex relationships. If fostering relationship is a, if not the primary purpose of scriptural and religious institutional law and teaching, how do church or societal laws that bar relationships reflect the desire of God? If relationships are a gift from God to be protected and nurtured, and entering into such relationships through marriage is a natural desire for most people, how does denying to some people what others have speak to the importance God places on relationships, and the command of Jesus to love others as one loves oneself? ln the film, relationship is presented as a saving grace and avenue to a fulfilled life. If relationships are such, how can such an instrument of life and grace be denied persons seeking such? These were some of the questions Warren Beatty’s film brought to my mind after my viewing. I think he was surprised when I told him that, in addition to sharing with the audience the impact growing up in the Church had on him, he offered a surprisingly nuanced theological statement into the nature and purpose of God’s Law in light of, and at times in contrast to, Church teaching and expectations.
Depth is always a sign of a good film and conversations are always an indication of depth. While Rules Don’t Apply is a well-made, funny and entertaining film, it is also a film of nuance that can lead viewers to consider and discuss elements of society and life beyond the screen. As is often the case, the answers one has to the issues or questions brought out in this film regarding the nature and place of rules in society and the impact they have on relationships, are less important than the process of true discernment.
Rules Don’t Apply is rated PG-13 for some adult content and language.
Please see my review of Rules Don’t Apply on this website.