I got the 1981 movie Reds from Netflix back in November, but it was well over three hours long, on two DVDs, and it looked like it was going to be a Big Dramatic Movie, and so I kept putting off watching it.

This past Sunday night, noticing that I hadn't seen a movie in ages, I decided it was time.

The non-spoilery version of my reaction:

Loved much of the first half (especially Maureen Stapleton's portrayal of Emma Goldman); was disappointed about various things about Louise, the female lead (Diane Keaton's character); felt the second half was a little too slow and a little too focused on less-interesting stuff (like bureaucracy). But overall it's a remarkable story (based on real life), and I'm impressed that Warren Beatty wrote, directed, produced, and starred in it, and it's well worth watching.

Amazing cast, too: Beatty, Keaton, Stapleton, Jack Nicholson (remarkably good as Eugene O'Neill); Jerzy Kosinski, Edward Herrmann (as Max Eastman), Paul Sorvino; small roles for M. Emmet Walsh and Gene Hackman; and then there are the "witnesses," a couple dozen real people (including a couple of famous ones) who knew John Reed in real life and who provide occasional commentary and historical perspective. Kind of like the interview interludes in When Harry Met Sally. It works very well here.

I was completely unfamiliar with the story going into it. Somehow from the famous poster, I always thought it was some kind of drama about a 1980s-era American journalist; had no idea who John Reed was, nor that it was set in the nineteen-teens, nor that it had anything to do with the history of the early-20th-century American Left and the Russian Revolution.

Before I move on to spoilers, here are a couple of my favorite bits of Emma Goldman's dialogue:

Max: No one is arguing with your inalienable right to go to jail, Emma. All I'm saying is that this is not the right time to go to jail for birth control.

Emma: Oh, there's a right time to go to jail for birth control?


Emma: You're a journalist, Jack. When you're a revolutionary, we'll discuss priorities, hopefully over coffee.

Jack: It's late, I'll walk you home.

Emma: Why? I won't hurt anybody.


Emma: I think voting is the opium of the masses in this country. Every four years, you deaden the pain.

Okay, now on to the spoilery details of my issues with Louise:

The movie kept setting it up to look like it was going to be a poly romance.

And then it kept pulling the rug out from under that.

When we first meet Louise, she's a free-spirited independent young artist (Louise Bryant was nearly thirty in 1915, but she seemed younger than that to me), stifled by conservative Portland society. She appears to be confident and direct and strong-willed; she makes the first move toward Reed, makes it look like she's seducing him, then messes with his (and the audience's) expectations; then a bit later she does seduce him.

And so I read between the lines and thought I knew what kind of character she was, which set up certain expectations.

Which were largely wrong.

Over the course of the movie, we see that what's really going on is that she's deeply in love with Reed; that although she's willing to pay lip service to it, she's not nearly as comfortable with the Bohemian and poly life as he is (though he turns out to not be entirely okay with it either); that she's kind of lost and aimless in her art and her work; that she's unwilling to stand up for herself in Bohemian society; that if she's ambitious at all, it's an aimless kind of ambition, the ambition to Be A Writer even though she isn't sure what, if anything, she wants to write about.

Much later, in the second half, we see a few fragments of her coming into her own, a couple of brief scenes that suggest she might actually have some talent and some skill. (One of my favorite scenes was the alternating voiceover of Louise and Jack reporting from Russia.) But mostly, even though she's kind of the center around whom the movie revolves, her own personality and desires and talents are backgrounded in favor of Reed's larger-than-life charisma.

And for all I know, that may've been a perfectly accurate portrayal of the real Louise Bryant. But I was sad and disappointed, because the person I thought she was at the start was so appealing, and because I want female characters to have more to them than just being in love with the male lead.

Certainly Beatty and his co-writers showed they could write a strong female character: their and Stapleton's version of Emma Goldman is laugh-out-loud funny, acerbic, smart, political, and more than a match for the men. But I wanted Louise, too, to have more personality, more agency, more subjectivity, more to her character; and in the end I had to conclude that she mostly didn't. She does some truly astonishing stuff late in the second half of the movie, but even that is focused on Reed and on the romance.

I was particularly sad about the movie's handling of the end of her time with O'Neill. He's a great character (possibly my favorite Nicholson character): sharp and unpleasant and incredibly insightful, and he turns out to be a romantic, and she turns out not to be that sort of a romantic.

And then there's the bit where she storms out on Reed because he implies that he may have slept with someone else during their time together—which (a) was explicitly allowed by their agreement with each other, and (b) seems only fair, given that she did too. (Not to mention (c) he never actually states that he did, nor what the circumstances were, and she doesn't really give him a chance to discuss it or try to work things out.)

It made me want to go back and rewrite bits of it to make the poly love story work out, which is kind of silly to say about a phenomenally popular and respected movie based on real life.

Anyway. Much as I liked a lot of the movie it actually was, I really loved the movie it could have been.

One Response to “Reds”

  1. BC Holmes

    Thanks for the pointer to the film, Jed. Your review made the film sound pretty interesting, so I rented the flick from my local DVD place and watched it as a May Day treat.


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