It’s hard to think of a director who changed the course of Hollywood films as much with one movie as Arthur Penn, who died Tuesday at 88. The film, of course, was 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” which ushered in a tumultuous new era that brought us such landmark movies as “The Godfather,” “Chinatown,” “Taxi Driver,” “Shampoo” and “The French Connection” — all made by filmmakers whose career paths were given a huge boost by Penn’s unlikely success.
Of course, the dirty little secret about Penn’s own career path was that he was given the bum’s rush over and over by the barons of the movie business. Few filmmakers of Penn’s stature have been treated as badly as he was, both during his ascent and his decline.
After having success in the theater and on television, where he directed nearly 40 episodes of live TV during the 1950s, Penn came to Hollywood to make “The Left-Handed Gun” at Warner Bros., with Paul Newman in the starring role as Billy the Kid with Freudian issues. Regarding Penn as some kind of pointy-headed East Coast intellectual, Jack Warner sent Penn packing as soon as the director had finished shooting. Penn never saw the film again until it turned up on the bottom half of a double bill in New York.
Penn kept working in Hollywood, but he was almost unemployable after making “Mickey One,” an oddball flop, and “The Chase,” a steamy thriller that producer Sam Spiegel recut in postproduction. The one commercial job that Penn landed, making “The Train” with Burt Lancaster, was a disaster for Penn, with the actor booting him off the film early in production.
Penn was nearly 45 years old by the time he got to make “Bonnie and Clyde,” but this time his luck changed. Penn was always revered by actors, and with “Bonnie and Clyde,” he found himself in cahoots with an actor, Warren Beatty, who was also the producer and driving force of the film.
Beatty had made “Mickey One” with Penn, and even though the movie was a bomb, Beatty remained an admirer of Penn. They fought during the making of “Bonnie and Clyde,” but the result was a brilliant drama that was both a pop-culture sensation — spawning hit songs and fashion crazes — as well as a brooding meditation on violence in America, coming just four years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, whom Penn, a political junkie, had quietly coached before Kennedy’s famous debate with Richard Nixon.
If you study Penn’s films, it’s easy to see that he, like Elia Kazan before him, was fascinated by the themes of power, disillusionment and betrayal. As the critic David Thomson once wrote, Penn’s best pictures, notably “The Left-Handed Gun,” “The Chase,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Little Big Man” and “Night Moves,” are “commentaries on the conflict between law and violence in America and on the disillusion with corrupt government, racial disharmony, and the military machine.”
It’s telling that Penn’s last film, a 1996 made-for-TV movie with Louis Gossett Jr., explored these same themes, chronicling how the tables had turned when, a decade after a South African was tortured to obtain information on anti-apartheid conspirators, his chief tormentor is imprisoned and interrogated about past offenses.
If people have largely forgotten Penn now, it’s because his career had such a brief flowering, coinciding with the all-too-short-lived “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” revolution in 1970s Hollywood. Since he was so beloved by actors, Penn got to work with virtually every top star of the day. His stint with Beatty was followed by “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman, “Night Moves” with Gene Hackman and “The Missouri Breaks” with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson.
But after the epic failure of “Missouri Breaks,” which was undermined by Brando’s bizarre behavior, Penn found himself on the outs again with the Hollywood establishment, which was happy to shower him with honors but refused to give him any more interesting movies to make.
It’s quite possible that Penn simply lost his touch, as his 1980s films are curiosities, at best. He may also have lost interest in commercial filmmaking, as, unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t have a careerist bone in his body. In Hollywood, you have to adapt or retire from the fray. Penn chose the latter.
After seeing a few of the young Steven Spielberg’s first hits, Penn told an interviewer: “He makes benign movies that are enormously successful, while I’m mainly known for making movies about people shooting and cutting each other up. I love his work, but I could never make films like that.”
It was a ruthlessly accurate self-assessment. Penn knew the movies had changed and time had passed him by. But in his own way, Penn had changed the movies just as much as Spielberg did, offering a dark, unsettling vision of America where outlaws were heroes and heroes were outlaws.
It was a vision that made many people — including most of Penn’s employers — uncomfortable. But it was a vision that lives on in the work of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, who wouldn’t be where they are today without Penn having been there first.