BEATTY'S 'REDS,' WITH DIANE KEATON
By VINCENT CANBY
Published: December 4, 1981, Friday
THE Scott Joplin ragtime tune behind the opening credits of Warren Beatty's ''Reds'' recalls the sounds of pre-World War I America as they were heard then, when Greenwich Village was still a new Bohemia, free love was a way of life for the adventurous, new ideas were shaping the arts, and radical politics were more a matter of theory than practice. As the ragtime music fades out, voices fade in, contemporary voices that form a bridge to the past. ''Was that in 1917 or 1913?'' asks one. ''I'm beginning to forget.'' ''You know,'' another voice acknowledges, ''things go and come back.'' ''Were they Socialists?''
One by one the faces that belong to these voices appear on the screen, seen in close-up against a luminously black void. Some are familiar - Rebecca West's, Henry Miller's, Adela Rogers St. Johns's - and all are very old (some have died since the interviews were filmed). Some are lined with the cobwebs of long life. Other faces, like Miller's, are as wrinkle-free as stretched parchment. Each in some way remembers that earlier time, if only, like George Jessel, who wears his U.S.O. uniform, to become confused. Jessel cannot remember whether the great anarchist and anti-World War I activist was named Emma Goldberg or Emma Goldman.
These are the Witnesses - there are more than two dozen of them - who make up a kind of Greek chorus, the members of which appear from time to time throughout ''Reds'' to set the film in historical perspective, as much by what they remember accurately as by their gossip and by what they no longer recall. It's an extraordinary device, but ''Reds'' is an extraordinary film, a big romantic adventure movie, the best since David Lean's ''Lawrence of Arabia,'' as well as a commercial movie with a rare sense of history.
The focal point of ''Reds,'' which Mr. Beatty produced, wrote (with Trevor Griffths), directed and acts in, is the love affair and marriage of John Reed, the flamboyant American journalist and radical sympathizer, and Louise Bryant, the Portland, Ore., dentist's wife who, in 1915, fled from her husband and middle-class conventions to follow Reed to Greenwich Village and her own desperately longed-for emancipation.
The film, which begins with a montage of Reed's exploits while covering Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1913, moves from Portland to Greenwich Village; to Provincetown, Mass., where Reed and Louise helped form the famous Provincetown Players with Eugene O'Neill and others; to France, before United States entry into the war, and finally to Russia, where Reed and Louise were covering the successful Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Theirs is the kind of story that only a third-rate novelist would dare make up.
Though very long - more than three hours plus intermission - and broad in physical scale, ''Reds'' has at its center two remarkable characters -Reed, the perennial undergraduate who used wars and revolutions as his personal raw material, but whose commitment to social and political change led him to risk everything on behalf of the world Communist movement, and Louise Bryant, an incurable romantic who, in the course of her association with Reed, became her own tragic heroine.
Mr. Beatty is fine as Reed, full of youthful enthusiasm, arrogance and the dedication of a convert, but Diane Keaton is nothing less than splendid as Louise Bryant - beautiful, selfish, funny and driven. It's the best work she has done to date.
Most prominent in the supporting cast are Jack Nicholson as the young O'Neill, with whom Louise had an affair at the same time she was living with Reed; Maureen Stapleton, marvelous and earthy as Emma Goldman; Jerzy Kosinski, the novelist, who is very, very good as Grigory Zinoviev, the smarmy Bolshevik who may have helped push Reed to a disillusion with Communism never fully verified, and Edward Herrmann, as Reed's friend and editor, Max Eastman.
Most astonishing is the way the movie, which abounds with Great Moments of History, including the Bolshevik takeover of the Winter Palace in Petrograd, avoids the patently absurd, even as Reed and Louise, drunk on the excitement of the successful revolution they've just witnessed, make love in a cold Petrograd flat to the strains of ''The Internationale.'' The secret, I think, is that the film sees Reed and Louise as history's golden children, crass and self-obsessed but genuinely committed to causes they don't yet fully understand.
There are times when the movie falters - a reconciliation between Louise and Reed on a French battlefield, which never happened and seems drawn from an old Hollywood picture; a terrible decision by Mr. Beatty to cut to a close-up of a cute, sympathetic puppy when Reed is distraught and crying after one of Louise's periodic departures, and a long montage depicting the ''Doctor Zhivago''-like hardships of Louise's second journey to Russia to join Reed in 1920, the year of his death.
These, however, are minor faults in a large, remarkably rich, romantic film that dramatizes - in a way that no other commercial movie in my memory has ever done - the excitement of being young, idealistic and foolish in a time when everything still seemed possible.
The film's scenes of epic events (actually photographed in Finland and Spain) are stunning, but so are the more intimate moments, including a stuffy Portland dinner party where Reed and Louise are formally introduced; the Greenwich Village sequences in which Reed and Louise enjoy their newly found, mutual love, and a hilarious sequence in Provincetown in which Louise, not a born actress, plays the lead in the early O'Neill play called ''Thirst.'' Says O'Neill to Louise: ''I wish you wouldn't smoke during rehearsals. You don't act as if you're looking for your soul but for an ashtray.''
Students of history may argue over some of the film's ellipses, and film students may delight in pointing out cinema ''quotes,'' shots that recall scenes from other movies, but they will be missing the point of a film of great emotional impact. The technical credits are superior, including Vittorio Storaro's photography and the mindboggling editing job done by a crew headed by Dede Allen and Craig McKay.
Only the very narrow-minded will see the film as Communist propaganda. Though Reed remained at his death a card-carrying Communist and was buried in the Kremlin, the movie is essentially as ideological as the puppy that whimpers when Louise stalks out. ''Reds'' is not about Communism, but about a particular era, and a particularly moving kind of American optimism that had its roots in the 19th century.
The film, which opens today at the Astor Plaza and Coronet, sees this time as if through the wrong end of a telescope, the image being startlingly clear and distant and, finally, very sad. This mood is most effectively evoked in the testimony of the Witnesses, by one woman who recalls how Louise badgered her for a fur coat, by Rebecca West's talk of old lovers, by Henry Miller's suggestion that someone like Reed, who was so concerned with the world's problems, ''either had no problems of his own or refused to recognize them.''
Then there's the incredibly beautiful moment when the Witness Heaton Vorse, who looks as ancient as the sands of Cape Cod, jauntily sings the old song ''I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard,'' to cue in a Provincetown revel in which the youthful, incredibly beautiful Louise, surrounded by friends and lovers, sings the same song, which suddenly becomes a lament.
''Reds'' is an extremely fine film.