I watched Bulworth in a nearly empty theater one evening in mid-May 1998 and while taking my seat, I wondered why there were so few people in attendance. When it was over I understood why. Bulworth was a movie that asked a lot of questions that there were no easy answers for. It was a comedy disguised as a searing scolding of social order. When it was over, I felt that Bulworth was perhaps the most brazen, bold and fiery cinematic indictment of politics, media and race since 1976’s Network (did I mention that Bulworth is a comedy?)
Warren Beatty portrays Jay Billington Bulworth, a California Democratic senator preparing for the Nov. ’96 primaries. Bulworth is not invigorated by campaigning. He is tired and depressed over everything – his wife, his career and even his life. Bulworth decides to put a hit out on himself while on the campaign trail. With nothing to lose, Bulworth, now unshackled by political correctness and sucking up for votes, lets it all fly to his shocked audiences as nasty truths about government, power, society and how the money people control everything, shoots like poison darts of reality from Bulworth’s mouth and mind.
In perhaps the movies most humorously scorching scene, Bulworth tells a church congregation of black citizens that unless they choose better role models and stop believing the lies of their elected officials (like him), their situations will never improve. Feeling a new sense of freedom, Bulworth embarks on a delirious lost weekend involving rap clubs, fundraisers, media interviews, debates and excursions into the inner city while falling in love with Nina (a wonderfully game Halle Berry) who in moments, even surprises the seen-and-done-it-all senator.
Bulworth’s message was scalding – even in 1998 when politics had finally entered the realm of hipness. According to “Star”, Peter Biskind’s biography of Warren Beatty, Bulworth was filmed in the summer of 1996, before that year’s November election. It’s evident the filmmakers were anticipating another Bill Clinton win, but one wonders how this movie would have played had Clinton not won? By the time Bulworth was released in spring ‘98, Clinton was deeply embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Perhaps this was why my theatre was so empty on that May 1998 evening. Why go to the movies to see warts and frailties of elected officials when it was being broadcast every night on CNN? Bulworth saw the rise of tabloid-nation a full decade before the likes of TMZ would emerge.
Even though Bulworth the movie fared poorly at the box office, Bulworth the soundtrack, soared on the charts. Featuring tracks by Dr. Dre, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, RZA, Ice Cube (with Mack 10) and The Black Eyed Peas, the album became a hit. “Ghetto Superstar” by Pras featuring Ol’ Dirty Bastard (and introducing Mya) became the album’s breakout hit (and my favourite track of summer ’98). The Bulworth soundtrack went on to become the tenth-best-selling album of that summer according to Billboard.
When it comes to the talent involved with Bulworth, let’s liken it to a bowl full of cinema’s finest talents. The script by Beatty and Jay Pikser (with an uncredited polish by Aaron Sorkin) is one of the sharpest written of the 90’s. It’s no wonder this material attracted the likes of Berry, Jack Warden, Oliver Platt, Christine Baranski, Joshua Malina, Paul Sorvino, Don Cheadle and Isaiah Washington. Vittoria Storao’s cinematography is rich in vivid colors that recalls his work for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Beatty’s Dick Tracy (I especially love the green light cast over Sorvino’s character representing corporate greed) and interspersed between the thunderous wall-to-wall rap tracks, is a beautiful score (actually written in 1988) by Ennio Morricone (featuring haunting vocals by Edda Dell’Orso).
Ever Since Bulworth’s release 20 years ago, pundits appearing on Sunday morning political shows have often referred to a candidate speaking off-the-cuff as having their “Bulworth moment”. A few of these pundits have even wished for a real-life Bulworth, someone who tells it as it really is and isn’t afraid to say what they really want to. Wow. Wouldn’t a candidate like that be refreshing? Perhaps.
Perhaps though, what most of these pundits failed to understand was that the main distinguishing characteristic that Jay Bulworth possessed was compassion for others. Bulworth didn’t look down on anybody. He didn’t care what colour you were or where you came from. Bulworth was listening to those around him (well, except to his poor aides who were just trying to get him to take a nap). Bulworth didn’t start out cold and uncaring and softened while learning life lessons along the way (which differentiates it from the influx of Regarding Henry’s we saw many of during the ‘90’s) I’ve always believed Bulworth was a man of decency when we first meet him. He was just tired and despondent and at the point, was wondering if anybody was even listening? It wasn’t until he spoke his mind that the answer was yes, they are listening – now. That’s the kind of Bulworth I would like to see emerge. That would be refreshing.
Bulworth was released 20 years ago this week and even today, I consider it to be the best movie of 1998 (my other favourites were The Truman Show, The Thin Red Line, Big Lebowski, Private Ryan and Ronin. I even liked Meet Joe Black – sue me). It was a joy for me to see Bulworth in an actual theatre, grinning like an idiot throughout. I mean, what studio would not only make a film like Bulworth today, but release it right at the start of blockbuster time?
Looking back, I remember one thing about that period – there were no superhero movies. Sure, superhero movies have their place and I do like a number of them, but man, what I wouldn’t give to be able to see more honest, moving and stinging movies like Bulworth made and released.
Especially in 2018.
Have you seen Bulworth? Let us know what you think of it.