If you’ve lived in Southern California for the last few decades, it’s hard not to become a little nostalgic watching Warren Beatty’s delightful “Rules Don’t Apply” which made its world premiere opening AFI FEST 2016, Thursday night. The movie is about a couple caught up in the sphere of Howard Hughes’ Hollywood, at a time when the studio contract system was dying and the aerospace industry was changing.
The movie begins in 1964. A man has written a biography of Howard Hughes, claiming to have been in contact with billionaire. A news conference has convened, with reporters waiting to hear from Hughes by 4:30 p.m., not even sure of his current location. Hughes’ aide, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), is monitoring the situation in a posh Acapulco hotel and talking to a curtain, asking Hughes to respond.
Flashing back to the 1950s, Frank is a new driver, just employed two weeks by Hughes (Beatty). He’s been sent to pick up small town beauty queen and songwriter, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), naively mistaking her mother, Lucy (Annette Bening) for the starlet at first. The Mabreys are devout Baptists.
Frank is a Methodist from Fresno (a three and a half hour drive from Hollywood). Raised by his grandparents, he’s engaged to his seventh grade sweetheart and because they’ve gone all the way, it’s like they’re married. Veteran chauffeur Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick) warns Frank that drivers mustn’t fool around with the bored and attractive contract actresses. At first, this rule doesn’t seem to apply to Frank.
Marla isn’t your typical young starlet. She doesn’t have a big bosom, she isn’t sexy, nor a good singer or dancer. She’s not sure what she’s doing in Hollywood as one of 26 women under contract by Hughes. Frank tells her, she’s an exception. “The rules don’t apply to you.”
Their ambitions tie them to Hughes. Lucy is suspicious and demanding but Marla isn’t ready to leave. Alone in her beautiful house above the Hollywood Bowl, Marla grows closer to Frank who reveals he hopes to convince Hughes to invest in a land development deal of Mulholland Drive.
Eventually, Marla finally gets a screen test. She’s awkward in her strapless blue gown. She then meets with Hughes. At first, she’s seated in the hotel restaurant, but eventually led into a darkened bungalow of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Despite the questionable nature of that night, in a room where a queen-sized bed dimly lit by four candles dominates, Marla stays. Her style changes. Inspired by Frank, Marla writes a song (music by Eddie Arkin and lyrics by Lorraine Feather):
One day I told my friend I was terribly blue.
Was it far too late to do what I dreamed I could do?
He thought for a moment, then he answered.
He said, “The rules don’t apply to you.”
He said it very simply, and quietly too.
But as if there wasn’t any doubt at all that he knew.
He gave me a gift that I would treasure.
He said, “The rules don’t apply to you.”
In the movies we see, in the shows on TV,
And in anthems passionately sung,
There’s a message that you’ve got to keep believing in yourself,
But they generally mean, if you’re young.
It it written in the air, as it seems to be,
That we haven’t long at all to find our destiny?
I’ll always remember to be grateful
That the rules don’t apply to me.
I wouldn’t like.
The rules don’t apply.
The rules don’t apply to you.
Frank changes, too, but those changes ultimately separate them. Marla sings her song to Hughes at her second bungalow date where she drinks a bottle of champagne, upset about Frank. Things happen and she leaves Hollywood. Frank stays, witnessing Hughes’ increasingly erratic behavior and reclusiveness. Hughes, Frank and Levar travel to different cities until they end up in Acapulco, Mexico. Although Hughes marries Jean Peters (1957) during this story, she is never shown. Instead, Hughes is accompanied by his trustworthy secretary, Nadine Henly (Candice Bergen), Frank and Levar.
Beatty’s interpretation of Hughes is more loopy than lecher turned hygiene-challenged lunatic. Hughes’ reported obsessive compulsiveness is benignly displayed in his six bottles of water from Maine at the Beverly Hills Hotel, his demands for Baskin Robbins’ 31 Flavors banana nut ice cream, and later, the inclusion of two body doubles in his entourage who don’t look like him, but do look like each other.
The authorized biography hoax did happen, but not in 1964. It was in 1972 that Clifford Irving made the claim and Hughes denounced him in a teleconference before publication. Irving was convicted of fraud and although he spent 17 months in prison, he did profit from it, publishing his version of the events, “The Hoax.” That book was made into a 2006 movie, starring Richard Gere.
Today, in Los Angeles, most of Hughes’ legacy is gone. The studio Hughes owned, RKO, was sold and eventually closed with its studio lots bought by Desilu Productions in 1958. Hughes Aircraft Company which was founded in Glendale, California was put under Hughes Electronics (now DirecTV) and sold to Raytheon in 1997. Before the sale, the company built the Galileo Probe (1995) for JPL-NASA. Hughes’ folly, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as Spruce Goose, was housed in Long Beach next to the Queen Mary, but in 1993, it was moved to McMinnville, Oregon, just southwest of Portland. And if you have a craving for banana nut ice cream, production of that has stopped as well.
Part of the pleasure of watching “Rules Don’t Apply,” is seeing so many familiar faces in this ensemble cast. That along with its rosy view of old Hollywood and the return of Beatty as writer/director/actor after 18 years (“Bulworth” in 1998) make “Rules Don’t Apply” a good choice to start AFI FEST 2016. The red carpet was surely glitzy and traffic snarled for miles, but without a gala seat ticket, I was relegated to a comfy studio screening. “Rules Don’t Apply” opens in theaters nationwide on Nov. 23.