No. 1 with a bullet

Groundbreaking 'Bonnie and Clyde' made crime sexy

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

28 March 2008


BONNIE AND CLYDE: ULTIMATE COLLECTOR’S EDITION CAST: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons and Michael J. Pollard DIRECTOR: Arthur Penn PRODUCER: Warren Beatty WRITERS: Robert Benton and David Newman DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video Rated R

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of “Bonnie and Clyde” on American moviemaking. The 1967 movie, which starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as notorious 1930s bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, not only introduced movie audiences to a group of important new actors but changed the way movies were made, how they depicted violence and the manner in which they were marketed.

The film received 10 Academy Award nominations, including for best picture, director and five acting performances.

With an excellent digitally remastered version of “Bonnie and Clyde” out this week on DVD in both a Special Edition and a memorabilia-filled Ultimate Collector’s Edition (two discs, Warner Home Video, $20.97/$39.92, rated R), we’ll look at 10 people or groupings of people behind the film’s success.

Much of the information below comes from “Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde,” a new three-part DVD documentary featuring recent interviews with the major cast and crew members who are still alive.

1) Screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman: These two editors at Esquire wanted to write a screenplay offering a new perspective on 1930s gangsters. But their story not only challenged the old ways of Hollywood by making their outlaw protagonists the glamorous heroes - and by mixing romance, comedy and violence - it also reflected the rising anti-authoritarian spirit of the late 1960s and the violence in America at home and in the Vietnam War.

As fans of the French New Wave, Benton and Newman took their script to director Francois Truffaut, who turned them down but told Warren Beatty about it. Benton went on to win two Oscars for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (director and screenplay) and another for “Places in the Heart” (screenplay), while Newman, who died in 2003, wrote the first three “Superman” movies starring Christopher Reeve.

2) Actor-producer Warren Beatty: Already a movie star, Beatty loved Benton and Newman’s script and wanted to produce it. He became the first actor-producer of his generation when he persuaded Warner Bros. to finance the movie and put him in charge of it. Although Beatty originally thought of Bob Dylan for the role of Clyde Barrow, he eventually took it for himself and received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. He’s been a major actor, director and producer ever since.

3) Director Arthur Penn: A successful theater and film director, Penn had directed Beatty in the movie “Mickey One” and took the “Bonnie and Clyde” assignment after some more famous directors, including William Wyler and George Stevens, turned it down. Despite some creative differences that were resolved during filmmaking, he and Beatty worked closely together on the film.

Both Beatty and Penn defend the film’s depiction of bloody violence, the director noting that violence was “imbedded in the characters they were playing” and Beatty saying, “We didn’t prettify killing.” Penn’s filmmaking reflected Benton’s view that “when bullets hit people, it should be painful.”

4) Actress Faye Dunaway: Her sexy and charismatic performance as Bonnie Parker won Dunaway an Oscar nomination and made her a major movie star. “It’s the role that was closest to me - that type of Southern girl wanting to get out,” she says. She later won an Oscar for “Network” and should have won another for “Chinatown.”

5) Actors Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard and Gene Wilder: A struggling actor before taking the role of Buck Barrow, Clyde’s older brother (he had worked with Beatty before on “Lilith”), Hackman relaunched his career with his bravura performance. Both he and Pollard, as the gang’s driver C.W. Moss, received Oscar nominations, while Parsons, as Clyde’s high-strung wife, Blanche, took home the supporting actress trophy. Wilder make his auspicious movie debut as an undertaker picked up by the Barrow gang for a short ride.

6) Cinematographer Burnett Guffey: A “old school” Hollywood veteran, Guffey at first disliked director Penn’s improvisatory, experimental approach to filmmaking. But the cinematographer provided some of the film’s most memorable “looks” - particularly the bleached-out reunion scene when Bonnie and Clyde met her mother - and he won an Academy Award for his work.

7) Art director Dean Tavalouris and costume designer Theadora Van Runkle: Tavalouris located the small Texas towns that hadn’t changed much from the 1930s to the `60s and provided such authentic surroundings for the Barrow gang’s robberies, while Van Runkle’s dapper clothing for the men and sleek fashions for Dunaway (including Parker’s beret) sparked copycat designs from New York to London to Paris. Penn praises Van Runkle by saying her designs “reflected the period without being period costumes.” Van Runkle garnered an Oscar nomination for her designs (and two others later in her career) while Tavalouris later won an Oscar for “The Godfather Part II” (among five nominations).

8) Musicians Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs: According to Benton, it was Newman who had the idea - which the director and producer readily accepted - for using the bluegrass tune “Foggie Mountain Breakdown,” by guitarist Flatt (guitar) and banjo player Scruggs, throughout the film. The fast-paced tune gave a frenetic, comedic quality to the Barrow gang’s escapes from the law.

9) Editor Dede Allen: Benton credits Allen for “creating the tempo of the movie,” which features remarkable changes of mood and tone, from tender romance to the excitement of a bank robbery, the thrill of a chase and the explosive violence of a shootout. Allen has had three Oscar nominations in a long and storied career.

10) Film critics Bosley Crowther and Pauline Kael: The most powerful film critic of his day, the New York Times’ Crowther hated “Bonnie and Clyde,” calling it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in `Thoroughly Modern Millie.’”

At first a flop at the box-office when Warner Bros. gave it a halfhearted release in April 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” became the most-talked-about movie in America after Beatty took over the publicity campaign - featuring the unforgettable slogan “They’re young ... they’re in love ... and they kill people” - and engineered its re-release in August 1967. Aiding the film’s critical acceptance was a lengthy essay by Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, in which she strongly defended the film’s artistic use of violence and called it “the most excitingly American American movie since `The Manchurian Candidate.’”

“Bonnie and Clyde,” which cost $2.5 million to make, went on to take in $50 million at the box office in America alone and an estimated $70 million worldwide.

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