By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 13, 2008 at 5:47AM
Yes, Jack Nicholson showed up after the Laker game, slightly hoarse, to honor his bud, Warren Beatty, at the 36th annual AFI Life Achievement fete. Count on Beatty, 71, to attract smarter-than-average tributes. "You drag me in with all these politicos," said Nicholson, who earned an Oscar nomination for Beatty's historic drama Reds. "I'm representing all the fair-weather friends you have in the city who went to the Lakers game."
"When I'm working, I have a group of people whose good opinion I'm always trying to win," Beatty said during a taped video interview. Many of that group were on hand Thursday night. "I'm still a liberal when it's coming back in style," he said after accepting his award from last year's honoree, Al Pacino, who starred in Dick Tracy. Beatty thanked his older sister Shirley MacLaine for leading him to Hollywood, which in turn brought him to his wife, Annette Bening. (Variety's Steve Chagollan profiles Beatty here.) One ex-girlfriend, Reds star Diane Keaton, made an emotional appearance, while another, Julie Christie, appeared on video, praising Beatty for choosing a mate, Bening, who was his equal, "after a fairly thorough search."
Ishtar co-star Dustin Hoffman teased his friend with google trivia, much of it not true, while constantly asking if Nicholson was in the house. "And I was here for dinner," he reminded his friend of 40 years. Hoffman praised Beatty for taking good care of his friends, such as cancer-ridden Hal Ashby, who Beatty flew via Warner Bros. jet to Johns Hopkins for treatment.
Beatty's frequent writing collaborator Elaine May did a delicious stand-up routine about Beatty's wacky ideas for such movies as Heaven Can Wait and Reds. May finally talked Beatty into directing Heaven Can Wait himself after no one else wanted to do it. It was the launch of a directing career. "Warren gives crazy a good name," she said. "I feel he is still crazy after all these years."
She was followed by her ex-partner, Mike Nichols, on video, who delivered an hilarious joke about Beatty being Jewish. On video, Barbra Streisand said of Beatty: "He's an incredibly gifted...gentile."
A luminous Jane Fonda started out the evening saying that she knew Warren longer than anyone, 50 years, from his days playing piano bar in New York. "We did our first screen test together," she recalled, a love scene for a Josh Logan movie that never got made. She kicks herself for not realizing at the time that this great-looking man surrounded by smart gay friends was actually straight. "It's nice to know somebody else who shares the same chunk of this town's history," she said.
When Beatty descended from the Kodak stage to the theatre for the ritual walk through his admirers (accompanied by live Earl Scruggs), he greeted politicos George McGovern, for whom he invented the celebrity concert fundraiser in 1972, California attorney general Jerry Brown, and Gary Hart, who admitted later that contrary to myth, he didn't think Warren Beatty ever wanted to be him, but he had always wanted to be Warren Beatty. Republican John McCain paid tribute in a funny clip.
Bill Clinton took the stage and told the story of how at age 26 at the 1972 Democratic convention, he ran into Beatty in an elevator just after an Arkansas delegate told him she'd only vote for McGovern if Beatty walked with her for 30 minutes on a beach. Beatty agreed to the task; she voted for McGovern, and turned up years later on the campaign trail wearing a Hillary Clinton button. "Over all these decades, you have shared with us as moviegoers this insatiable hunger for life," Clinton told Beatty. "You have this unbridled hunger to know and to share."
Beatty joined Bening and his closest friends on the dais, including May and Stanley Donen, Barry Diller, MacLaine, David Geffen, Robert Towne, and attorney Bert Field.
AFI chair and Sony honcho Sir Howard Stringer said that Beatty was "one of the few actors envied when he was single who continued to be envied after he got married. He's America's leading man: actor, producer, writer, director. He quite famously does it all, but not often. Not since George Lucas has a man gotten away with doing so little for such a high honor. You embodied what we wanted in a leading man: handsome, charming, brilliant, perfectionist, always reaching for something greater."
Quentin Tarantino gave a heart-felt intro to Bonnie and Clyde, saying that the 1967 movie launched the great era of American movies, the 70s. "It was a gangster genre film, a Hollywood movie without the cliches."
Faye Dunaway read a rhyming ballad (modeled after Bonnie Parker), praising Beatty, among other things, for having the guts to grab a piece of the back end on Bonnie and Clyde.
Robert Downey Jr. brilliantly hallucinated an evening as a nine-year-old concocting the movie Shampoo with Beatty and Hal Ashby.
Shampoo scriptwriter Towne remembered that it took nine years to get Shampoo made. "I've never known you to hold a grudge, reveal a secret or forget a phone call," he said to Beatty. "In 45 years you never opened yourself up. After all these years I've come to consider you as wise as Benjamin Franklin, who is also a ladies man. You're part Fellini, part Machiavelli."
Don Cheadle described the many-take tortures of working under Beatty's direction on Bulworth. "He never lets the good be the enemy of the great," he said.
The tribute will air July 8 on the USA Network.
[Photos courtesy Getty Images]
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]