Bank robber Clyde Barrow, Vegas mobster Bugsy Siegel, and radical journalist John Reed are some of the outsider, real life characters Warren Beatty has portrayed during his film career. Now, in “Rules Don’t Apply” (which Beatty wrote and directed), he plays eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.
Beginning in the 1920s, Hughes became involved in moviemaking, eventually becoming the majority owner of RKO Pictures. “Rules” catches up with Hughes in 1959 Hollywood when beauty contest winner Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and aspiring real estate developer Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) meet while working for the billionaire.
The reclusive Hughes provides housing, talent lessons, and a weekly paycheck to a bevy of hopeful starlets and employs young chauffeurs to drive the young women. In return, his employees must obey Hughes’ rule forbidding romantic entanglements. Frank and Marla, both of whom follow their churches’ ban on premarital sex, are fine with Hughes’ restrictions until their friendship turns romantic. At that point, Hughes’ presence and controlling rules create conflict.
Beatty assembled a strong ensemble cast and talented behind-the-scenes production team for “Rules.” Collins and Ehrenreich have genuine chemistry as Marla and Frank. They are joined by acting veterans including Matthew Broderick as Levar, Frank’s co-worker and potential business partner; Martin Sheen as Noah Dietrich, CEO of Hughes’ business empire; Alec Baldwin as adviser Bob Maheu; Annette Bening as Lucy, Marla’s protective and observant mother; and Candice Bergen as Nadine Henley, Hughes’ long-time aide and confidante.
Even in meetings, Hughes preferred to stay in the shadows. This quirk required cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to create a variety of dimly lit settings. Late night bungalow meetings between Hughes and Marla softly glow. Cool grey tints the oceanfront meeting between Hughes and Frank. And Hughes’ screening room scenes contrast bright white projector light with the velvet black of the theater.
Jeannine Oppewall’s production design reproduces late 1950s decor. She has recreated various luxury hotel suites where Hughes resided, including the Beverly Hills Hotel’s famous bungalows. The actual interior of iconic Musso and Frank Grill was used for filming. Hollywood Boulevard scenery incorporates ‘50s era landmark businesses including Pickwick Books, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and Hughes’ own TWA.
Marla’s progression from 1959 naive Bobby Soxer to 1964 independent young woman is reflected in Albert Wolsky’s costume designs. The beautifully jeweled, strapless blue evening gown she wears during her screen test especially epitomizes late ‘50s movie glamour.
Beatty’s stated goal in “Rules” is to present “the comical and sometimes sad consequences of American sexual puritanism in the 1958 to 1964 period in a town that sold sex.” His script partially reflects Beatty’s personal observations of the film industry at the time.
Like Marla, Beatty was a Baptist who came to Hollywood in the late 1950s to pursue acting. Although Beatty never met Hughes, he saw firsthand the “rules” imposed by movie studios and society. Beatty’s Hughes promotes the double standard of wanting actresses to appear sexy on-screen but expecting them to live by strict rules off-screen.
Once Hughes meets Marla and Frank, their love story is eclipsed by the plot’s unveiling of Hughes’ many eccentricities. So, is “Rules” a love story or a biopic? In interviews, Beatty has insisted he wasn’t making a picture about Hughes. But, Hughes’ issues dominate the second half of the film. The tone turns darkly comic and then tragic as Hughes’ paranoia, prescription addiction, unresolved issues with his father, and fears about aging and dying are revealed.
“Rules” would have been a satisfying romantic comedy if Beatty had kept Hughes’ role to a minimum and continued the film’s initially light take on Marla and Frank’s romance. Or, it could have succeeded as Beatty’s interpretation of Hughes’ life (as opposed to Scorcese’s in “The Aviator”) if the plot had focused solely on Hughes’ psychological unraveling and kept Marla and Frank’s romance as a side story. Instead, the film is a hybrid romance/ biopic with a top-rate cast but an inconsistent focus.