Watching my Ishtar Bluray the other night led me to Peter Biskind‘s September 2010 Vanity Fair piece about the making of that misbegotten (but now forgiven in most quarters) 1987 film. And while I’ve read Biskind’s Beatty autobiography and should have some memory of this, I came upon an anecdote that sank in because it contains — I’m not exaggerating — perhaps the most eloquent and half-touching rationale for promiscuity I’ve ever heard or considered. And conveyed in only four words.
Biskind got the story from Ishtar costar Dustin Hoffman.
“Despite his growing difficulties with [director Elaine] May, Beatty never complained about her — except once. He and Hoffman were in the desert, along with 150-odd extras. He took his co-star aside and started venting.
“‘Warren was going off about how painful it was to make this movie with Elaine,’ Hoffman recalls. ‘He said, ‘I was going to give this gift to Elaine, and it turned out to be the opposite. I tried this and I tried that…’ He was so passionate, but in the middle of it — it’s like he had eyes in the back of his head, because there was some girl walking by, maybe 50 yards away, in a djellaba. He turned and froze, just watched her. I mean, this was while he was producing and everything was going in the toilet. But he couldn’t help it.’
Finally, Beatty turned back to Hoffman and asked, ‘Where was I?’
“‘Warren, let me ask you something,’ Hoffman said. ‘Here everything is going wrong on this movie that you planned out to be a perfect experience for Elaine, and here’s a girl that you can’t even see a quarter of her face because of the djellaba — what is that about?”
“‘I don’t know.’
“‘Let me ask you something else. Theoretically, is there any woman on the planet that you would not make love to? If you had the chance?’
“‘That’s an interesting question: Is there any woman on the planet’ — Beatty paused and looked up at the sky — ‘that I wouldn’t make love to? Any woman at all?’
“Hoffman continues: ‘He repeated the question, because he took it very seriously. This problem with the production was now on the back burner, and it was like he was on Charlie Rose.’
“‘Yes, any woman,’ said Hoffman.
“‘That I wouldn’t … ?’ said Beatty. ‘No, there isn’t.’
“‘Theoretically, you would make love to any and every woman?’
“Hoffman: ‘He was thinking. He was searching for the right words. ‘Because…you never know.’ I thought that was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard a man say, because he was talking about spirits uniting. And then it was ‘Where was I? I just don’t know what to do about Elaine…’ But this took precedence.’
“Hoffman was right,” Biskind concludes. “Beatty was searching for perfection. It was the same passion that fueled his prodigious appetite for takes: ‘because…you never know.'”