Masterpiece Memo: Bonnie and Clyde

Or, the film that flipped the bird at Hollywood movie-making and changed everything.

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Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of a little film that drop kicked Hollywood into the cinema revolution that was already raging internationally. In the 1960s, with a few exceptions, American movies had started looking stale in comparison with the prolific French New Wave, Brit Kitchen Sink dramas and the existential storm from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Socially, the youth movement was just getting in sync with attitudes around the world and it was only a matter of time when cinema caught up; Bonnie and Clyde happened to be the film that tapped into the North American angst at the right time.

For writers David Newman and Robert Benton, this was no accident. Hugely influenced by the French New Wave, they had cobbled together a clever gangster-themed script then deliberately shopped it around, first to FNW giants, Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard. It was a potpourri of sex, violence, comedy, action and romance, with no heroes and definitely, no happy ending. Truffaut turned it down due to other commitments and Godard? Work with Hollywood? Like that would ever happen. Both, however, were enthusiastic about the project.

Warren Beatty, who up to that point was known primarily for his looks, being Shirley MacLaine’s little brother, and who he bedded, took on his first producing job and played the lead, that of a bisexual (later toned-down to “impotent”) Clyde Barrow – a huge career risk that paid-off big time. He hired established stage director Arthur Penn with whom he had worked on the BO failure, Mickey One, and who had only a couple of films under his belt.

Following a volley of turn-downs from several young actresses – including, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Julie Christie and Tuesday Weld – the decision was made to cast an unknown in the role of Bonnie. Faye Dunaway ran with it, and it started her trajectory of becoming a unique film icon of the late 60s and 70s.

The three other supporting roles also went to unknowns: Brother Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman), his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), and sidekick CM Moss (Michael J Pollard). Each pulled-off career-defining performances and, along with Beatty and Dunaway, were all nominated for Oscars – a rare sweep for an entire cast. Parsons nabbed an Oscar and Hackman became an acting giant. Unfortunately for Pollard, he was unable to escape from under his genius portrayal as the goofball mechanic-turned-Judas.

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The richness of the performances was magnified by Penn’s unique style. Burnett Guffey’s dusty, in-your-face cinematography (also an Oscar winner), Theadora Van Runkle’s trend-setting costumes, and Dede Allen’s slapshot editing each created their own weather with regards to style and impact that went beyond the screen and found a place in the romantic rebelliousness of their audience who identified with the glam/white trash protagonists’ assault on the big banks and establishment.

While the film looked, sounded and felt different from anything released from Hollywood in the past, it required some serious adjustments in industry and critical attitudes to eventually catch on. Jack Warner hated it and tried to dump it, relegating it to a limited and haphazard release. Some critics panned it, only to later reverse their opinions. One critic cemented her reputation by turning her positive review into a glorious essay* – Pauline Kael, who was given a permanent position at The New Yorker as a result. Decency leagues, however, were appalled by the graphic violence (helped by a generous use of a new invention- the squib) and ambiguous sexuality mixed with comedy and set to banjo-picking, the combination of which was the equivalent of presenting establishment story-telling style with the middle finger.

Nobody stateside was ready for it, or at least, didn’t realize they were ready for it. Loaded with irony, cynicism, sarcasm and playful futility, Bonnie and Clyde turned out to be just what the doctor ordered with regards to the revitalization of American filmmaking. And audiences loved it. When The Graduate also became a hit later the same year, there was no turning back – New Hollywood was born.

On a personal note, I saw Bonnie and Clyde on its initial run. This was back in the days when films would be seen long before any reviews appeared in print the following week, at the earliest. This 17 year old went in cold with no preconceptions. I was so aghast at the end of the first showing that I stayed in my seat through the next showing. I have to credit Bonnie and Clyde with opening my eyes to a whole new world of film, how films were made (the effect on the audience of camera angles, sound, even the use of color) and, most of all, how films both reflect and affect their times.

“Someday they’ll go down together;

They’ll bury them side by side;
 

To few it’ll be grief –
To the law a relief…

But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”

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*Have a look at some REAL film criticism – read Pauline Kael’s career-making review.

Steve Schweighofer @banjoonthecrag

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