Reds (film)

Reds is a 1981 American epic historical drama film co-written, produced, and directed by Warren Beatty. The picture centers on the life and career of John Reed, the journalist and writer who chronicled the Russian Revolution in his book Ten Days That Shook the World. Beatty stars in the lead role alongside Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant and Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byWarren Beatty
Produced byWarren Beatty
Screenplay by
Music by
CinematographyVittorio Storaro
Edited by
  • Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance
  • JRS Productions
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • December 4, 1981 (1981-12-04)
Running time
195 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
  • English
  • Russian
  • German
Budget$32 million
Box office$40.4 million[2]

The supporting cast includes Edward Herrmann, Jerzy Kosinski, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, Gene Hackman, Ramon Bieri, Nicolas Coster, and M. Emmet Walsh. The film also features, as "witnesses," interviews with the 98-year-old radical educator and peace activist Scott Nearing, author Dorothy Frooks, reporter and author George Seldes, civil liberties advocate Roger Baldwin, and the American writer Henry Miller, among others.

Beatty was awarded the Academy Award for Best Director and the film was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Chariots of Fire. Beatty, Keaton, Nicholson, and Stapleton were nominated for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. Stapleton was the only one of the four to win.[lower-alpha 1] Beatty became the third person to be nominated for Academy Awards in the categories Best Actor, Director, and, with co-writer Trevor Griffiths, Original Screenplay—losing again to Chariots of Fire—for a film nominated for Best Picture.[lower-alpha 2]

In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed "AFI's 10 Top 10"–the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres–after polling over 1,500 people from the film community. Reds came in ninth in the epic genre.[3]


In 1915, married socialite Louise Bryant encounters the radical journalist John Reed for the first time at a lecture in Portland, Oregon, and is intrigued with his idealism. After meeting him for an interview on international politics that lasts an entire night, she realizes that writing has been her only escape from her frustrated high-society existence. Inspired to leave her husband, Bryant joins Reed in Greenwich Village, New York City, and becomes acquainted with the local community of activists and artists, including anarchist and author Emma Goldman and the playwright Eugene O'Neill. Later, they move to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to concentrate on their writing, becoming involved in the local theatre scene. Through her writing, Bryant becomes a feminist and radical in her own right. Reed becomes involved in labor strikes with the "Reds" of the Communist Labor Party of America. Obsessed with changing the world, he grows restless and heads for St. Louis to cover the 1916 Democratic Convention.

During Reed's absence, Bryant falls into a complicated affair with O'Neill. Upon his return, Reed discovers the affair and realizes he still loves Bryant. The two marry secretly and make a home together in Croton-on-Hudson, north of New York City, but still have conflicting desires. When Reed admits his own infidelities, Bryant takes a ship to Europe to work as a war correspondent. After a flare-up of a kidney disorder, Reed is warned to avoid excessive travel or stress, but he decides to take the same path. Reunited as professionals, the two find their passion rekindled as they are swept up in the fall of Russia's Czarist regime and the events of the 1917 Revolution.

The second part of the film takes place shortly after the publication of Ten Days that Shook the World. Inspired by the idealism of the Revolution, Reed attempts to bring the spirit of Communism to the United States, because he is disillusioned with the policies imposed upon Communist Russia by Grigory Zinoviev and the Bolsheviks. While attempting to leave Europe, he is briefly imprisoned and interrogated in Finland. He returns to Russia and is reunited with Bryant at the railway station in Moscow. By this point, Reed is growing progressively weaker as a result of his kidney disorder. Bryant helps nurse the ailing Reed, who eventually dies.




Beatty came across the story of John Reed in the mid-1960s and executive producer and film editor Dede Allen remembers Beatty's mentioning making a film about Reed's life as early as 1966. Originally titled Comrades, the first script was written by Beatty in 1969,[lower-alpha 3] but the process stalled. In 1976, Beatty found a suitable collaborator in Trevor Griffiths who began work but was delayed when his wife died in a plane crash.[5] The preliminary draft of the script was finished in 1978. Beatty still had problems with it and he and Griffiths spent four and a half months fixing it. Beatty also collaborated with his friends Robert Towne, Peter Feibleman and Elaine May to continue polishing the script after shooting had begun.[6][7]


Beatty achieved tremendous success with 1978's Heaven Can Wait, which he produced, starred in, co-wrote and co-directed for Paramount Pictures. The success gave Beatty the clout to seeking funding for his long nurtured Reds project, which was nonetheless difficult to secure because of the controversial Communist subject matter and high price tag.[5] Beatty succeeded in interesting both Warner Bros. and Paramount, before the head of Gulf+Western (Paramount's parent company), Charles Bluhdorn, agreed to finance the project.[5] Bluhdorn soon had second thoughts, and attempted to dissuade Beatty with the promise of underwriting a $25 million alternative to Reds of Beatty's choice, but Beatty remained committed.[5]


Beatty originally had no intention of acting in the film or even directing it because he had learned on projects such as Bonnie and Clyde and Heaven Can Wait that producing a film alone is a difficult task. He briefly considered John Lithgow for the part of John Reed because the two were similar in appearance, but eventually Beatty decided to act in the film and direct it himself. Nicholson was cast as Eugene O'Neill over James Taylor and Sam Shepard.[5] Nicholson was older than the young O'Neill he was playing, and having just completed work on Kubrick's The Shining, was in a "most shambolic" and "grotesque" state, according to producer Simon Relph. But Nicholson was committed to the role and appeared at the start of filming four months later having lost the weight he had gained and looking much younger.[5]

Beatty also chose to cast non-actors in supporting roles, including George Plimpton, the editor of the Paris Review, who played the character of Horace Whigham. Jerzy Kosinski, a Polish-American novelist, was asked to play the role of Grigory Zinoviev, but he initially refused because he was a fierce anti-Communist and feared that he might be abducted by the KGB if he went to Finland to film.[5]

The Witnesses

To gain perspective on the lives of Reed and Bryant, Beatty filmed interviews with a group of men and women, referred to only as "The Witnesses" as early as 1971. As well as being listed in the opening credits, American Film identified the witnesses in its March 1982 issue.[8]

In a capsule review for The New York Times, film critic Vincent Canby refers to them as "more than two dozen very, very old people, billed only as The Witnesses, whom Mr. Beatty interviewed about the Reeds and their long-gone times." He went on to say, "More than anything else in Reds, these interviews give the film its poignant point of view and separate it from all other romantic adventure films ever made."[9] "The most evocative aspect of the presentation is a documentary enhancement – interviews with a number of venerable 'witnesses,' whose recollections of the period help to set the scene, bridge transitions and preserve a touching human perspective," wrote Gary Arnold of The Washington Post.[10]


When principal photography began in August 1979 the original intention was for a 15- to 16-week shoot, but it ultimately took one year. Filming took place in five different countries and at various points the crew had to wait for snow to fall in Helsinki (and other parts of Finland), which stood in for the Soviet Union, and for rain to stop in Spain. A cottage in Kent was used to depict exteriors of the Reeds' home in Croton-on-Hudson, which in reality was a small early American saltbox house. The interior sets built at Twickenham Studios were also enlarged to evoke the "flavor" of the real home without reproducing it exactly.[11] Other English locations included Frensham Ponds in Surrey, which stood in for Provincetown, the Smeaton Room of the Institution of Civil Engineers at One Great George Street for the Liberal Club meeting room in Portland, and the interior of Lancaster House for that of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.[12]

Actress Maureen Stapleton was due to begin shooting her scenes in London in November 1979, but refused to take a plane because of a fear of flying. Because it was the wrong season for ocean liner travel, the production had to arrange for Stapleton to travel on a tramp steamer, which broke down in the North Atlantic and had to be towed to Amsterdam.[5] This caused another unwelcome delay. Beatty would also not stop the camera between takes, letting it roll continuously, and insisted on a large number of takes. Paul Sorvino said he did as many as 70 takes for one scene; Stapleton had to do 80 takes of one scene, which caused her to say to Beatty, "Are you out of your fucking mind?"[5]

Beatty and Keaton's romantic relationship also began to deteriorate during filming. Peter Biskind wrote about the making of Reds, "Beatty's relationship with Keaton barely survived the shoot. It is always a dicey proposition when an actress works with a star or director—both, in this case—with whom she has an offscreen relationship. Keaton appeared in more scenes than any other actor save Beatty, and many of them were difficult ones, where she had to assay a wide range of feelings, from romantic passion to anger, and deliver several lengthy, complex, emotional speeches." George Plimpton once observed, "Diane almost got broken. I thought [Beatty] was trying to break her into what Louise Bryant had been like with John Reed." Executive producer Simon Relph adds, "It must have been a strain on their relationship because he was completely obsessive, relentless."[5]


The editing process began in early 1980, with as many as 65 people working on editing down and going over approximately 2.5 million feet of film.[5] Post-production ended in November 1981, more than two years after the start of filming. Paramount stated that the final cost of the film was $32 million, which would be the rough equivalent of around $80 million today.[5]


The film introduced the song "Goodbye for Now", written by Stephen Sondheim. The song was later recorded by Barbra Streisand for The Movie Album (2003).


Released on December 4, 1981, Reds opened to critical acclaim upon its release. Despite its political subject matter and limited promotion by Beatty, the film became the thirteenth highest grossing picture of 1981, grossing $40 million in the United States.[2] Beatty later remarked that the film "made a little money" in box office returns.

The film currently holds a 90% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes based on 40 reviews.[13]

Awards and nominations

The film won Academy Awards for the following:[14][15]

Additionally, the film received the following nominations:[14]


  1. Beatty and Keaton lost to Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn for On Golden Pond and Nicholson lost to John Gielgud for Arthur.
  2. This was done previously by Orson Welles for Citizen Kane and Woody Allen for Annie Hall.
  3. Attorney Ed Rubin, spokesman for Beatty, briefly outlined the origins of Reds in a UPI story about a lawsuit brought against Beatty and Paramount by William Greene and Helen Smith, authors of a study of Louise Bryant. Green contended the film was based upon their work and they did not receive proper compensation. Rubin said Greene had initiated contact with Beatty in 1973, asking the actor to read his manuscript. Advised not to read it without making payment, Beatty paid Greene $250 in a written agreement. Beatty reportedly found the material without substantial value, and he vigorously denied the allegations made in the suit.[4]
  1. "Reds (AA) (CUT)". British Board of Film Classification. January 25, 1982. Retrieved November 22, 2016.
  2. "Reds (1981)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved May 2, 2016.
  3. "Top 10 Epic". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on June 19, 2008. Retrieved June 18, 2008.
  4. United Press International, March 19, 1982
  5. Biskind, Peter (January 22, 2007). "Thunder on the Left: The Making of Reds". Vanity Fair. Archived from the original on December 15, 2007.
  6. Finstad, Suzanne (2006). "Act 4: The Pro". Warren Beatty: A Private Man. Crown/Archetype. p. 440. ISBN 978-0-307-34529-5.
  7. Mitchell, Deborah C. (2001). "1978–1971: The Muse". Diane Keaton: Artist and Icon. McFarland. p. 63. ISBN 978-0-7864-1082-8.
  8. "Newsreel: Who Were Those Eyewitnesses in Reds?". American Film: 8. March 1982.
  9. Canby, Vincent (December 27, 1981). "For American Movies, a Minor Renaissance". The New York Times. Retrieved November 23, 2016.
  10. Arnold, Gary (December 4, 1981). "'Reds': The Passions of John Reed; A Film Adrift in the Maelstrom of History". The Washington Post. Washington, D.C.
  11. Myers, Marc (January 3, 1982). "The Story of 'Reds' and the Reed House". New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2019.
  12. "Reds (1981)". Retrieved April 10, 2019.
  13. "Reds (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 8, 2018.
  14. "The 54th Academy Awards (1982) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved October 8, 2011.
  15. "Reds (1981) – Awards". The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 10, 2009. Retrieved December 31, 2008.
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