*** DEBUG END ***

Transcending the town of tinsel    

21 April 2017

Stephen Brown sees Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply

Impossible to upstage: Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes in Rules Don’t Apply

Impossible to upstage: Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes in Rules Don’t Apply

THE film Rules Don’t Apply (Cert. 12A) is less about situation ethics than about ignoring social constraints. The plot centres on Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) and Marla (Lily Collins), before focusing on the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty, also the writer and director).

After winning a talent competition back in Virginia, Marla — “a virgin Baptist” — seeks fame and fortune in Hollywood. Purity, however, is to her advantage as far as Hughes is concerned. Marla, together with a couple of dozen other beauties, is someone he just might make into a star. He imposes strict rules that employees mustn’t have intimate relationships with his protégés.

Frank is Marla’s driver. He, too, has a Christian background, a member, before coming to Hollywood, of Fresno, California’s First Methodist Church. Frank is ambitious but canny, preferring to win Hughes’s confidence, as he climbs the greasy pole to business success.

Neither Marla nor Frank, however, can entirely discard their church upbringings. He tells Marla that his fiancée Sarah “believes that once you’ve been intimate, in the eyes of God you’re committed to that person for the rest of your life.” Marla agrees with that, though it doesn’t stop her developing a sexual relationship with Hughes — partly a matter of sleeping her way to the top, but also one of genuine rapport, as she speaks truth to power. Her Christian outlook helps the paranoiac and reclusive boss distinguish between freedom and licence.

It’s 1964, and La La Land is on the cusp of change. The old hypocrisies that shielded the stars from scandal are breaking down, and the public is beginning to discover their true identities.

The Frank-Marla storyline rather loses its way as we learn and see more of Hughes. Unlike other films about him, he’s meant to be a bit part, “one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two”. But it proves impossible for this legend to be upstaged.

Beatty, in his late seventies, by and large manages to convince us that he’s the 59-year-old being portrayed. I never found Rules Don’t Apply simply a demonstration of how Tinsel Town eats up ingénues for breakfast or that the ethics of their faiths are soon corrupted. On the contrary, both Frank and Marla reveal ways in which Christian goodness permeates sterile institutions.

All analogies break down, of course, but it struck me that the far-from-perfect Hughes simulates the hiddenness of God. He is known only through witnesses who previously saw him. His presence is strongly felt but he isn’t knowable. What Marla and Frank do is break through this and uncover a God-like figure with a human face.

There is also a more puzzling element in this picture: the notion that, for the favoured few, rules don’t apply. When Marla attributes her failure to becoming a star to a lack of large breasts, singing voice, and dancing skills, Frank says that the rules don’t apply to her. Which rules, and who is setting them? I am inclined to think that it’s a further reference to their Christian faith, one that sets us free from the power of the law and all its rules, one capable of transforming despair into love.


On current release.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)