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Madonna, as villain Breathless Mahoney, is offering Warren Beatty's comic-strip crime solver Dick Tracy her help and her body as a package deal. "Tell me you want me," she implores in the wide-screen moonlight. "Tell me you want it all."

The virtuous Tracy does not yield to temptation, but superstud Beatty, as a good friend of his once said, "has a wonderful time getting what he wants." Accordingly, he won both Madonna's help and her heart during the filming of this summer's biggest cinema gamble. The far-famed pop princess agreed to work for scale, just $1,440 per week, thus helping producer-director Beatty keep the cost of Dick Tracy down to $30 million (a relative bargain). What's more, the twosome made very public displays of necking on the set, trotting off together to L.A. restaurants, cuddling at Hollywood gatherings and, most recently, showing up hand in hand at Dick Tracy's Washington, D.C., premiere.

If all that activity has been good for the box office, it's been even better for Beatty's flagging image. After all, it has been a dozen years since the release of his last box-office hit, Heaven Can Wait, eight years since the spread of AIDS made playboy ways dangerously passé, and only a nanosecond since something called sex addiction became a fashionable disorder. But as his Tracy capers prove, even at 53, Warren Beatty still has the power to get the girl.

Clearly his relationship with Madonna is symbiotic. He benefits from her name on the marquee, she from his experience as an Oscar-winning director (Reds), as well as from his track record as an accomplished producer, writer and actor. Cynics have dismissed the odd coupling as nothing more than a drumbeat for a production driven by publicity—to the tune of $23 million at the box office the first weekend the film was in release. And yet, Beatty's predilection for wooing his co-stars gives credence to the idea of a real offscreen romance with the ambitious blond. "Warren and Madonna are still an item, but nobody believes it," says Madonna's publicist, Liz Rosenberg. "She's not seeing anybody else. It's Warren and Warren only."

But is it Madonna and Madonna only? For Beatty, she is only the latest in a conga line of lovers long enough to have once earned him the nickname "Will-o'-the-wisp." That's as in "now you have him, now you don't," says actress Arlene Dahl, an acquaintance since the 1960s. After breaking up co-star Natalie Wood's first marriage to Robert Wagner during his 1961 film debut, Splendor in the Grass, Beatty has made a career of sweet-talking his leading ladies, right through Ishtar's Isabelle Adjani in 1987, with stops along the way for long-term liaisons with Julie Christie (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait) and Diane Keaton (Reds). Beatty also has been linked with Joan Collins (to whom he was engaged in 1961), Leslie Caron (in whose 1965 divorce from Peter Hall, then director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Beatty was named corespondent), Vivien Leigh, Susan Strasberg, Michelle Phillips, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Britt Ekland and Joyce Hyser (briefly Jimmy Smits's love interest on L.A. Law), plus enough lesser-knowns for a supermarket tabloid to have offered women not yet heard from a $50 bounty for tales of their dalliances with him.

The only other nonfilm passion that competes for headline space with Beatty's womanizing is politics. "If you woke him up in the middle of the night, before his defenses were up, if that is ever possible, and asked him what he wanted to be, I think he would say, 'President,' " Caron once said. The closest he got to the Oval Office was as an influential behind-the-scenes activist in the presidential campaigns of George McGovern and Gary Hart. As for his affairs of the heart, Beatty has remained a politician and kept mum. In a typically coy TV interview with Barbara Walters last March, he dodged all questions about his romance with Madonna, revealing nothing.

Plenty of his partners, however, have not been so discreet. "He was insatiable," wrote Collins in the 1978 British version of her book Past Imperfect. "Three, four, five times a day was not unusual for him, and he was also able to accept phone calls at the same time." Model-turned-author Carole Mallory remembers calling him up to suggest a rendezvous: "He said he'd be right over. We continued our date on the kitchen table." Whether or not Beatty's sex drive remains in such high gear, the rest of the world is putting on the brakes. Where Woody Allen once longed "to be reincarnated as Warren Beatty's fingertips," Sandra Bernhard, the actress-comedian and Madonna's pal, now jokes that Beatty needs to practice restraint. In this view, the premier playboy of the swinging '60s and '70s has become a man out of his time. Some of his young prey pan his aging-Lothario act. "He's been after me for two months now," says a twentysomething brunet who met him during Dick Tracy postproduction. "He calls me all the time. He talks to me in this really creepy voice. I finally had to say, 'Look, I'm not interested.' He's old, but it's like he wants to be young. It's sad."

Indeed, it is her mother's generation that has responded to Beatty's brooding beauty as showcased in Splendor in the Grass, the outlaw twinkle in his eye in Bonnie and Clyde (1968) and the pickup-artist persona whose classic phone line "What's new, pussycat?" was immortalized as the title of a 1965 Woody Allen film. Those who knew him as a young man say Beatty's essential approach hasn't altered since adolescence. "Warren always loved the opposite gender," says ophthalmologist Art Eberdt, a classmate at Washington-Lee High in Arlington, Va., where Beatty was president of the class of 1955 and a star of the football team. "What he does in Hollywood, he was just like that in high school. He dated everybody he could date"—even squiring senior girls while still a freshman. "He would look directly in your eyes and talk in that low voice and compliment you," recalls Janet Filia, one of his older high-school squeezes. "Young teenage boys did not talk like that."

But then other teenage boys did not grow up in a family as colorful as Beatty's, with a domineering high school-principal father; ethereal, acting-teacher mother; and an older sister (by three years) now named Shirley MacLaine. Later, MacLaine described Ira Beaty (Warren added the extra t) as "the autocratic head of the family" who "sat in judgment of our actions and behavior" and Kathlyn MacLean Beaty as one "who found even the most insignificant unpleasantness difficult to accept." Said MacLaine of herself and Warren: "Neither of us would have a conventional marriage because of the intensity of the marriage we witnessed every day as children."

While MacLaine preserved her independence in a 28-year, long-distance marriage to impresario-businessman Steve Parker, whom she divorced in 1982, Beatty embarked on a career as a Casanova. "He'd take me home and kiss me good-night—then say hello to my roommates and kiss them too," says actress Diane (Alice) Ladd, who dated Beatty during his New York City acting-student days in 1958 (and later married Bruce Dern). "I thought I was special when he kissed me good-night. But the boy was out to kiss 'em all."

Not everyone thought he was a particularly good kisser. "He drools a lot. He has such active glands," says actress Mamie Van Doren, who dated him in the early '60s. But most memories are considerably fonder. "Warren was the most divine lover of all," recalled Ekland in her 1981 book, True Britt. "His libido was as lethal as high-octane gas. I had never known such pleasure and passion in my life. He could handle women as smoothly as operating an elevator, knowing exactly where to locate the top button."

Perhaps the closest he ever came to revealing his libido onscreen is in a line in 1975's Shampoo, in which he played a womanizing hairdresser named George. Explaining his infidelities to a jilted girlfriend, portrayed by Goldie Hawn, he says that having a lot of women "makes me feel like I'm gonna live forever."

Alas, 15 years later, that Don Juan-like lust for immortality is better known as the Peter Pan syndrome. "A man walks by a new woman, and it's like walking by a new Ferrari," explains Dan Kiley, the author who coined the term (and who has never met Beatty). "Then once she gets a little dirty, he says he needs some more excitement." Sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who won't discuss Beatty, says men who won't commit to one woman are "scared of something that is really a step for life."

"I think he's probably emotionally crippled," former girlfriend Michelle Phillips once said of Beatty. "He makes a point of not getting too close to you. The closer he gets, the more afraid he gets."

All the same, most former flames stand by this man. "What is so unusual is that with few exceptions, women still looked fondly on him after he bedded and left them," says Dahl. "What is usually the kiss of death didn't work with him. It's that boyish charm of his."

Others call it something else. Lee Grant, a friend since making Shampoo with him, describes Beatty as "completely trustworthy." Susan Braudy, a writer and independent film producer who met him 15 years ago while an editor at Ms. magazine, says, "He is a concerned listener, and that is his secret charm." And yet Dustin Hoffman, who plays Mumbles in Tracy and co-starred with Beatty in Ishtar, recalled after the latter film came out that "there's an essential loneliness in him.... I can see him dying alone with nobody there to love him or hold his hand."

That specter may even haunt Beatty. The man who in 1974 called marriage "a dead institution" recently told an interviewer that matrimony is "really something I aspire to—I must sound ridiculous, but that's the way I feel about it." But as his alter ego Dick Tracy, he can't get the words out to propose to longtime love Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). In a year when a settled-down Hugh Hefner had a baby, Beatty remains the last of the great playboys.

"Tell me the truth. Could it have ever happened between us?" Breathless gasps to Tracy during the movie's climactic scene. The question goes unanswered, but if Beatty remains true to form, fans can bet their trenchcoats that this is just another summer romance.

—Elizabeth Sporkin, Sue Carswell, David Hutchings and Lisa Russell in New York City, David Craig, John Griffiths and Jacqueline Savaiano in Los Angeles, Lissa August in Washington, D.C., and Georgina Oliver in Paris

  • Contributors:
  • Sue Carswell,
  • David Hutchings,
  • Lisa Russell,
  • David Craig,
  • John Griffiths,
  • Jacqueline Savaiano,
  • Lissa August,
  • Georgina Oliver.