Bonnie and Clyde
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A tag line for the promotional poster for Bonnie and Clyde (1967) read: "They are young, they are in love, they kill people." Despite the rather glib come-on, it gave no indication of the incredible impact this film would have on the film industry, popular culture or the careers of those involved in its production. Originally conceived as a stark, black and white film about the infamous criminal couple from Texas with a visual look based on the Dust Bowl era photographs of Walker Evans and vintage NRA posters, the film experienced a stylistic overhaul on its way to the screen and became a colorful folk ballad which played fast and loose with the real facts. In addition to its abrupt changes in tone, which veered from high comedy to shocking violence, and an ironic use of bluegrass music, Bonnie and Clyde presented its murderous couple as romanticized and immensely attractive non-conformists (If you've ever seen portraits of the real Bonnie and Clyde, you know they DID NOT look like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway). It was a portrait that clicked with hip, young sixties audiences who strongly identified with the fugitive lovers.
The idea for Bonnie and Clyde began in the early sixties when two Esquire writers, Robert Benton and David Newman, came across a book called The Dillinger Days by John Toland which covered the exploits of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Both writers had recently seen Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960) and it inspired them to do a screenplay about the notorious couple. In the book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind (Simon and Schuster), David Newman said, "...the thing we loved about Bonnie and Clyde wasn't that they were bank robbers, because they were lousy bank robbers. The thing about them that made them so appealing and relevant, and so threatening to society, was that they were aesthetic revolutionaries. In our view, what kills Bonnie and Clyde is not that they broke the law, because nobody liked the fuc*ing banks - but that they put a tattoo on C. W. Moss. His father says, 'I can't believe that you let these people put pictures on your skin.' This is what the '60s turned out to be about."
When their screenplay was completed, Benton and Newman presented it to French director Francois Truffaut whom they greatly admired. Due to prior commitments, Truffaut sent the script on to Jean-Luc Godard who briefly flirted with the idea of directing it but eventually it came back to Truffaut who finally agreed to do it. Unfortunately, no Hollywood studio was interested in funding an American gangster film directed by a Frenchman who could barely speak English. So, the project was shelved until Warren Beatty read the script, saw the potential, and contacted Benton and Newman.
Beatty knew that the ideal director for the film was Arthur Penn, even though the latter was keeping a low profile after two box-office failures in a row - Mickey One (1965), an arty film noir influenced by the European New Wave (Warren Beatty played the lead), and The Chase (1966), a potentially fascinating melodrama mangled by studio interference. Penn quickly accepted Beatty's offer and once the producer/star wrangled a favorable production deal from Walter MacEwen at Warner Bros., Bonnie and Clyde became a reality. Under the terms of his contract, Beatty accepted a flat salary of $200,000 and forty percent of the gross. At the time, Warner Bros. expected the film to be a modest success that would make back its production cost. Instead, it became a runaway hit, making Beatty a rich man and a powerful new Hollywood player. It also taught the studio to be tougher on future contract negotiations since they lost a fortune on Beatty's deal.
Bonnie and Clyde was shot on location in Texas, far from the threat of studio interference. Although Beatty and Penn clashed constantly over creative issues, they both agreed that the violence in the film had to shock people; Penn was clearly referencing President Kennedy's assassination in the final massacre sequence when you see a piece of Clyde's head blown away.
In her autobiography, Looking for Gatsby, Faye Dunaway recalled the film's electrifying climax: "My whole body and costume had to be made up in layers. I still know the exact position of at least three places on my face where I take bullets - my upper left check near my nose, the middle of my right cheek, and my forehead...there was a black center where each bullet hole was, and around that was painted a little red rim. On top of that they put wax, which they covered with makeup. Then attached to the wax was a squib and a tiny wire, not much bigger than a strand of hair so that it was virtually invisible. During the scene, each of the squids would be detonated. They're little dynamite charges, and when detonated they explode like little bombs. When they finished with me, there were dozens of wires coming from my body and my face. Up close I looked like an escapee from a mad scientist's laboratory. For that final scene, the question became how would I react to the bullets that would be hitting me?....What I evolved was a Saint Vitus' dance, Bonnie's dance of death."
When the film went into release, it generated considerable controversy due to its excessive violence. Many prominent film critics attacked the film for glamorizing the deadly duo while others rushed to the film's defense. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the film "a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick" yet Pauline Kael of The New Yorker proclaimed it "the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate (1962)." Some reviewers even reversed their opinions completely such as Newsweek's Joseph Morgenstern who first labeled the film "a squalid shoot-'em-up for the Moran trade," then a week later retracted his original opinion and praised it. Despite the mixed critical reception, Bonnie and Clyde was a huge hit with audiences, particularly younger viewers, and Theadora Van Runkle's costumes had an incredible impact on the world of international fashion. In addition to earning Beatty and Penn new respect in Hollywood, the film also elevated Faye Dunaway to star status and rapidly advanced the careers of Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, and newcomer Gene Wilder. The crowning glory was its recognition at Oscar time: it garnered ten nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Even though, it only won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons) and Best Cinematography (Burnett Guffey), it still stands as a 'watershed' film, far surpassing 1967's Best Picture winner - In the Heat of the Night - in terms of its cultural impact and its influence on future filmmakers.
Producer: Warren Beatty
Director: Arthur Penn
Screenplay: Robert Benton, David Newman, Robert Towne (uncredited)
Art Direction: Dean Tavoularis
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Costume Design: Theadora Van Runkle
Film Editing: Dede Allen
Original Music: Charles Strouse
Cast: Warren Beatty (Clyde Barrow), Faye Dunaway (Bonnie Parker), Michael J. Pollard (C.W. Moss), Gene Hackman (Buck Barrow), Estelle Parsons (Blanche), Denver Pyle (Frank Hamer), Dub Taylor (Ivan Moss), Evans Evans (Velma Davis), Gene Wilder (Eugene Grizzard).
C-112m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford