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Arthur Penn proved himself a true triple threat during his career, achieving extraordinary success as a director of live television dramas, Broadway plays and feature films. Like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, he owed a huge debt to the crucible of television's Golden Age, but it was director Elia Kazan he resembled most in his sympathy for actors, the flights of fancy he allowed, and the incredible range of expression he elicited in films like "The Miracle Worker" (1962), "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and "Little Big Man" (1970). Penn understood the poetry of close-up camera work, acknowledging that words were to the theater what actions were for film. His use of lighting and sound were stylistically and intellectually sophisticated, but ultimately it was his themes which propelled his pictures. No other director during the volatile 1960s had his finger so securely on America's pulse, and audiences responded enthusiastically to his exploration of the relationship between outsiders and mainstream society, even though his sympathies always seemed to lie invariably with the outcasts. Arthur Penn was born on Sept. 27, 1922 in Philadelphia, PA to Harry Penn, a watchmaker, and Sonia (née Greenberg), a...
Arthur Penn proved himself a true triple threat during his career, achieving extraordinary success as a director of live television dramas, Broadway plays and feature films. Like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, he owed a huge debt to the crucible of television's Golden Age, but it was director Elia Kazan he resembled most in his sympathy for actors, the flights of fancy he allowed, and the incredible range of expression he elicited in films like "The Miracle Worker" (1962), "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and "Little Big Man" (1970). Penn understood the poetry of close-up camera work, acknowledging that words were to the theater what actions were for film. His use of lighting and sound were stylistically and intellectually sophisticated, but ultimately it was his themes which propelled his pictures. No other director during the volatile 1960s had his finger so securely on America's pulse, and audiences responded enthusiastically to his exploration of the relationship between outsiders and mainstream society, even though his sympathies always seemed to lie invariably with the outcasts.
Arthur Penn was born on Sept. 27, 1922 in Philadelphia, PA to Harry Penn, a watchmaker, and Sonia (née Greenberg), a nurse. He was the younger brother of Irving Penn, a successful still photographer. Penn's initial interest in theater lay in lighting design and building sets, but he also acted in high school plays. He received his first chance to direct at Philadelphia's amateur Neighborhood Playhouse. While in the Army at Fort Jackson, SC, he formed a small theater group and met Fred Coe who would later produce much of Penn's television and theater work, as well as his first two feature films. After attending Black Mountain College in North Carolina and studying literature in Italy for two years, he landed the job of third floor manager for NBC-TV's "Colgate Comedy Hour" (1950-55), working his way up to assistant director and moving with the show when it relocated to Los Angeles. Coe then lured him back to New York City to direct a live dramatic series called "Gulf Playhouse: 1st Person" (NBC, 1952-53), and he also worked as a writer and director for NBC's "Philco Television Playhouse" (1948-1955) before switching to CBS where he served as producer and director for the prestigious "Playhouse 90" (1956-1961). While there, he came in contact with the writer William Gibson, whose teleplay, "The Miracle Worker," he would direct for the small screen in 1957.
Penn had made an inauspicious Broadway debut as director of "The Lovers," a play which closed after four performances in 1956, but he fared much better with his second effort, Gibson's "Two for the Seesaw" (1957), starring Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft which ran for 750 performances. He would enjoy incredible good fortune over the next two years on the Great White Way, beginning with "The Miracle Worker," for which he won the Tony Award for Best Director, and followed quickly with Lillian Hellman's "Toys in the Attic," "An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May," and Tad Mosel's "All the Way Home," earning the reputation as "the most gifted director since Kazan." As a favor to Coe, Penn directed his first film, "The Left Handed Gun" (1958), a psychological interpretation of the legend of Billy the Kid (Paul Newman) based on Gore Vidal's television play. Received with indifference stateside, the film won a Grand Prix at the Brussels Film Festival, but more importantly, it identified several themes which would recur throughout Penn's work: the dichotomy of father-son relationships; the function of myth in reconciling reality; the arbitrary nature of violence; and the outcast as reflection of society.
Infuriated that Warner Bros. had edited "The Left Handed Gun" against his intentions, Penn waited four years before choosing to adapt "The Miracle Worker" (1962), the play he had successfully directed for television and on Broadway. Though to some extent hampered by its stage origins, it was still a powerful and emotionally compelling film, featuring superlative acting from Oscar winners Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan, the teacher bearing civilization's message, and Patty Duke as Helen Keller, the noble savage restrained by culture. For his efforts, Penn received his first Academy Award nomination as Best Director, but the success would be short-lived. In contrast with his earlier run of luck, during the 1962-63 Broadway season he directed three flops in a row, and one week into the shooting of "The Train" (1963), producer-star Burt Lancaster replaced him at the helm with John Frankenheimer, a director more to his liking.
The bitterness and sense of persecution left their mark on Penn's next film, "Mickey One" (1965), a determined excursion into European existentialism, but still an intriguing commentary on an America beset by conspiracy. Deeply noir in tone, the fragmented, elliptical tale of a nightclub comic (Warren Beatty) on the run from mobsters exhibited the influence of French New Wave directors, especially Truffaut and Godard, whose work Penn greatly admired. Serving as his own producer, the director had complete control for the first time, and though the film did retain a strong cult following, this "allegory of a man's trip through purgatory" bewildered most critics at the time and did poorly at the box office. "The Chase" (1966) focused on the tensions that ignite into violence in a small Texas town when one of its citizens, an escaped convict (Robert Redford), makes his way home. A logical progression, "The Chase" showed what happens when the law steps aside and leaves the arena to outlaws and depraved citizens; the killing of the convict at the end echoing the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The failure of "Mickey One" had forced Penn to relinquish final cut on "The Chase," and the director was deeply dissatisfied with the released version. In the theater, however, his luck had changed first with "Golden Boy" (1964), a musical version of Odets' play, and later with the thriller "Wait Until Dark" (1966). Penn might have abandoned the cinema altogether had Warren Beatty not persuaded him to direct "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), a complex, romantic myth based on the real Barrow Gang of the American Depression-era. Arguably his finest film, it was also, without doubt, one of the most significant and influential American films of the decade, receiving 10 Academy Award nominations, including his second as Best Director. His startling juxtaposition of comedy and mayhem encouraged audiences to sympathize with the charismatic criminals, but for all the exhilarating fun, Bonnie and Clyde were clearly doomed by their shallowness and intellectual limitations. The famous prolonged riddling of their bodies with bullets at the movie's finale was a poetry of slow motion that enhanced through its very excess the mythical impact of their deaths.
Penn's next two films sustained the theme of the outcast's relationship with conventional society. "Alice's Restaurant" (1969), for which he received his third Oscar nomination, portrayed a metaphorical death of '60s idealism in its story about a commune of hippies. Despite always working closely with his writers, the director for the first time took screenwriting credit (shared with Venable Herndon). His most informal film in its openness to improvisation, it revealed with great sympathetic insight the essential weaknesses and inadequacies of the hippie movement. "Little Big Man" (1970) attacked the myths of the American West in a sometimes lyric, often brutal story told in flashback by a 121-year-old man (Dustin Hoffman) who claims he is the only white survivor of Custer's Last Stand. The shadow of the Vietnam War (though disguised by historical analogy) hung over this film as it had for "Alice's Restaurant," and Penn alternated humor and violence to debunk conventional romanticism, presenting the West as merely another arena for the establishment of personal and political advantage.
"Little Big Man" was Penn's last great film. Immediately following its release, he underwent a personal and psychological crisis from which some say he never completely emerged artistically. However, his return to filmmaking, "Night Moves" (1975), was an underrated noirish detective story soured by the disillusion and malaise of the Watergate era, and "The Missouri Breaks" (1976), a bomb in its day, demonstrated a mature, beautifully composed visual style and featured a wonderfully eccentric performance by Marlon Brando. Of his later films, the Steve Tesich-scripted "Four Friends" (1981) showed the most promise, returning to the turbulent 1960s, with which the director so closely identified, as a setting for self-discovery. "Targets" (1985) was a mess, "Penn and Teller Get Killed" (1989) was barely released; both of which illustrated Penn was living proof that a great director could go cold. He maintained a close connection to the theater as President of the Actors Studio, and though "Inside," his 1996 Showtime TV movie did not lead to more work, he had not given up on the cinema, hoping to direct a film version of "Sly Fox," the adaptation of Ben Johnson's "Volpone" which he staged on Broadway in 1976. Instead, he became an executive producer on NBC's "Law & Order" (1990-2010) and directed a 2001 episode of the TV legal drama, "100 Centre Street (2001-02) before retiring. The esteemed actor died one day after his 88th birthday, on Sept. 28, 2010.
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"I would say that the only people who really interest me are the outcasts from society. The people who are not outcasts--either psychologically, emotionally, or physically--seem to me good material for selling breakfast food, but they're not material for films. What I'm really trying to say through the figure of the outcast is that society has its mirror in its outcasts. A society would be wise to pay attention to the people who do not belong if it wants to find out what its configuration is and where it's failing." --Arthur Penn, quoted in "World Film Directors, Volume Two", edited by John Wakeman
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