“Bonnie and Clyde,” Fifty Years After
“Bonnie and Clyde” is fifty years old. It is one of the oldest American
movies you can watch today without feeling like you’re watching an old
movie. It premièred at the Montreal International Film Festival on
August 4, 1967, and opened in New York on August 13th, at the Murray
Hill and the Forum, on 47th Street and Broadway. And it bombed.
Attendance was modest and critics hated it. By December, Warner Bros.,
the studio that distributed the movie, had pulled it from theatres.
Then critics began changing their tune. Newsweek’s Joe
Morgenstern, who had called the movie “a squalid shoot-’em-up for the
moron trade,” saw the movie again with his wife, the actress Piper
Laurie, and published a retraction. Pauline Kael, then a freelancer,
wrote a seven-thousand-word defense of the movie for The New Republic.
When that magazine killed the piece, she placed it in The New Yorker, where she would soon go on to become a regular reviewer.
Most significant, the movie turned up on the cover of Time, in a
collage by Richard Rauschenberg, and this led to its rerelease, on the
day that the Academy Award nominations were announced. It received ten,
and it went on to become one of the highest-grossing movies of the year.
This week, to mark the anniversary, an outfit called Fathom Events is
exhibiting the movie in its TCM Big Screen Classics series in select
cinemas around the country on two nights, August 13th and 16th.
“Bonnie and Clyde” won only two Oscars, for best supporting actress
(Estelle Parsons) and best cinematography (Burnett Guffey), but Oscars
are always a pretty arbitrary measure of merit. The acting was fresh and
astonishing all the way down the credit list—Warren Beatty, Faye
Dunaway, Parsons, Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder, Michael J. Pollard, Denver
Pyle—and almost every aspect of the production was exceptional, from the
art direction (Dean Tavoularis) and the costume design (Theadora Van
Runkle) to the special effects (Danny Lee). Lee, who came up with the
effects for two scenes that had no parallels in the history of American
movies—the single-take, point-blank shooting of the bank manager at the
end of the first “act” and the four-camera, multiple-speed ambush at
the end—should have got the Oscar for visual effects. (It went to
The screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, were not Hollywood
people—they had been magazine editors, at Esquire—and the director,
Arthur Penn, the brother of the photographer Irving Penn, was an alumnus
of Black Mountain College and a follower of the French New Wave. It was
an unusual group of talent.
Over the years, “Bonnie and Clyde” emerged as the movie that changed the
movies, at least in the United States, the movie that finally freed
Hollywood of the old studio-system mentality and ushered in a golden age
that ended, depending on your taste, either with “Jaws” and “Star Wars,”
or never. The movie has been written about that way in Peter Biskind’s “Easy
Riders, Raging Bulls” and Mark Harris’s “Pictures at a Revolution,” and
in these pages, too.
It wasn’t a movie that sold itself with stars; it was made by people who
knew something about the history of the medium (that shot of the bank
manager is a direct allusion to a famous shot in Sergei Eisenstein’s
silent “Battleship Potemkin”) and were not trying to make filmed
theatre; it had an “auteurist” feel to it. At the same time, it wasn’t
an art film, like Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” which had been a big
influence on Benton and Newman. It was entertainment, just entertainment
One big reason “Bonnie and Clyde” seemed exciting then and still seems
contemporary fifty years later is that it was made in between two
regimes of self-censorship, the old Production Code, which dated from
1930, and the ratings system (G, PG, R, and X), which went into effect
in 1968. In 1967, you could make a movie without worrying much about the
approval of the Motion Picture Association of America, an advantage long
enjoyed by European movies. (“Bonnie and Clyde” still had to be screened
for the Catholic Legion of Decency.)
This meant that you could do more with sex and violence, which was
perfect for a crime-couple genre picture. Originally, the screenwriters
intended to portray a ménage-à-trois involving Clyde, Bonnie, and the
character C. W. Moss, played by Pollard. Beatty is supposed to have
refused. But the movie opens with Dunaway lying naked on a bed, includes
action that implies fellatio, and ends with the camera lingering on two
bullet-ridden bodies. In between, Dunaway strokes Beatty’s pistol and
does suggestive things with a Coke bottle, the bank manager is shot
through the eye, and a blinded Estelle Parsons screams hysterically as
the police open fire on the gang. Two years earlier, the movie would not have
been approved by the M.P.A.A. Two years later, it would have been rated
X. It found a historical sweet spot.
I saw the movie when I was fifteen or sixteen. I’m sure I’d read about
the violence, since it had provoked debate in the press, but I was
unprepared for the ending. I was by myself, and I can still remember
walking out of the theatre that night—my family was living in
Washington, D.C.—in a state of stunned amazement. At that age, many
movies can leave you feeling that way, and for me, many more would. But
“Bonnie and Clyde” was the first. “It’s a good film,” Penn said on the
thirtieth anniversary of its release. “It’s a damn good film. I’m proud
and surprised I made it.” It surprised a lot of other people, too.
via New Yorker http://bit.ly/2t79ehO
August 13, 2017 at 08:11AM