Remembering 'Bonnie and Clyde'
Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn recall how their cinematic spree transformed Hollywood.
By Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 23, 2008
DUSK was approaching high up on the rim of Mulholland Drive and
Warren Beatty, relaxed at poolside, looked down on the twinkling
lights of the Valley before he recounted a quarrel he had four
decades ago at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
"I was arguing with Jack Warner about 'Bonnie and Clyde,' and he
said to me, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's fine, kid, that's your opinion.'
Then he says, 'You have your opinion, but you do know whose
name is up on the water tower, right?' So I said, 'Yeah, hey, look,
it's got my initials!' "
Beatty is 70 now, and any animus he had toward the late mogul is
long gone ("Really, he was kind of an enjoyable guy, and he said
some funny things"), but that image of Beatty as the young-buck
star and producer of "Bonnie and Clyde" playfully laying claim to
the power structures of Old Hollywood is an irresistible metaphor.
Old-man Warner and the other executives who released "Bonnie and
Clyde" had absolutely no idea that the quirky gangster picture would
become a commercial sensation, cultural flash point and generational
battleground. The only thing that surprised them even more is that
"Bonnie and Clyde" also became a pivot point in the business of
Hollywood; within months, it seemed like the town belonged to a new
maverick generation of filmmakers with "personal vision" and a glee for
toppling every Hollywood convention. In hindsight, it's amazing they
didn't pull down Col. Warner's beloved water tower.
"Bonnie and Clyde" was released in 1967, but it was the following
year, with America in turmoil, that the film surged into the public
consciousness. The story was a mix of Robin Hood and Romeo and
Juliet and more loose legend than real-crime; it starred Beatty and
Faye Dunaway as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, the doomed
Texas lovers who became a media sensation in the Great Depression.
Beatty remembers that Warner grumbled that "these gangster movies
went out with Cagney," but this film would have little in common with
dated tommy-gun cinema.
This film was jarring, and not just in its bloody realism. "I remember
a creative impatience by almost everyone involved," Beatty said,
"and there was so much energy on the screen." The really interesting
thing, though, was how audiences latched onto "Bonnie and Clyde" as
a flexible symbol. Already feeling far removed from the Summer of Love,
young America embraced it as nihilistic thrill ride and anti-establishment
poetry. Many film critics and older viewers, however, seized on it as
entertainment-as-evidence, a sign of an amoral society in slide.
The interest in the film endures and, if any aspect of it does feels
dated now, that's primarily a function of so many imitators through
the decades. Tuesday, Warner Home Video will release a lavish
repackaging of the film that comes with a 36-page hardcover photo
book and the new documentary "Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and
Then there's "Pictures at a Revolution," the acclaimed new book by
Mark Harris that weaves together the history of 1967 best picture
Oscar nominees "Bonnie and Clyde," "In the Heat of the Night" (which
won) and "The Graduate" to show an industry amid sea change.
The word "revolution" is part and parcel of the "Bonnie and Clyde"
legacy, but Beatty said he can't say whether the movie was more
seismograph or lightning rod. "It was Victor Hugo who said that there's
nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come," he said.
"Something is going to happen, and certain things are going to be
emblematic of that change, that flux. It was 1968. There was a storm
in the world. If someone wants to give us credit for 'Bonnie and Clyde,'
I'm happy to take it." Then he added, with a wink: "I don't want to
overwhelm you with my attempt to be attractively humble."
"Bonnie and Clyde" made him a wealthy man (his contract, in a nod
to the studio's expectations, gave him a percentage of the gross
instead of a minimum payout), and he became the career model for
the now-common transition that sees cerebral stars step behind the
camera. But "Bonnie and Clyde" was hardly a one-man show. In fact,
sitting down to talk about the film, the first words out of Beatty's mouth
were a question: "You already talked to Arthur, right?"
ON the phone from Manhattan, Arthur Penn, 85, apologized for the
catch in his throat. "I'm just getting over the flu; but I very much
wanted to talk about this film. . . . It amazes me that 40 years have
passed since 'Bonnie and Clyde.' It's almost beyond imagination."
Penn had no interest in directing "Bonnie and Clyde" and, in fact, after
the grueling production and disappointment of "The Chase," the former
Tony winner was ready to return to the boards of Broadway. "I had to
bludgeon Arthur to get him to direct 'Bonnie and Clyde,' " said Beatty,
who had worked with Penn on the 1965 mob movie "Mickey One."
In the end, Beatty won Penn over by promising daily screaming matches.
As Penn remembered it: "He told he wanted to have an argument every
day and then come to an agreement . . . and Warren is one of the most
persuasive people you will ever meet."
In origin the project was part Texas, part Paris. The script had come
from magazine writer Robert Benton, who had grown up in East Texas
and was well versed in Bonnie and Clyde mythology (his father attended
Barrow's 1932 funeral), and his Esquire colleague David Newman. French
New Wave director François Truffaut had flirted with the project but had
moved on, although the film that "Bonnie and Clyde" became would certainly
borrow the New Wave's jagged shifts in tone and choppy editing, especially
in its famous climax when the lovers, after locking eyes, die in a hail of
If the movie looked like a foreign film, it was cast like a New York stage
play. Beatty and Penn both came from the theater, as did many of the
actors they brought down to Texas. Gene Hackman (who had just been
fired from "The Graduate") played Buck Barrow, Clyde's brother; Estelle
Parsons was Buck's screeching wife, Blanche; and Michael J. Pollard
was the quirky henchman C.W. Moss. "It was an extraordinary cast,"
Penn said. He was proved right when all five main cast members were
nominated for Oscars. "All of them! Just think of that."
Gene Wilder was also lured from New York by the prospect of making
his feature film debut. Wilder had a memorable cameo as a hostage
snatched up by the Barrow gang, and Wilder didn't have much trouble
feigning a look of shock on the set.
As Parsons remembers it: "I remember Gene got there, and the first day
he comes out and is ready to go and we're standing there in costume
and then Warren and Arthur begin yelling at each other. Gene was
horrified. 'What's happening, is this movie going to get made?' I told him,
'Oh, don't worry. This happens every day.' "
The angst went further. Dunaway (whose agent did not reply to interview
requests) had a breakthrough performance, but, according to the Harris
book, was "physically and emotionally fragile" during the shoot and, like
her character, moody and volatile.
The production, headquartered in Dallas, traveled each day to film in little
towns such as Ponder, where local ambitions had been shuttered since
the Depression. The idea of leaving the Warner back lot was not well
received by executives, but Penn was resolute that the small towns
would give a dusty stillness to the movie and enhance the sense of
restless souls trapped in a dust-bowl wasteland. "One filling station,
two hairdressers, maybe a drugstore," Parsons said. "That's what these
Hackman said that on one afternoon, he was preparing for a scene
when an elderly man ambled up and pointed at the hat on the actor's
head. "He said to me, 'Buck Barrow was my cousin, and he would never
wear a hat like that,' " Hackman remembered. "For the people there, life
hadn't really changed all that much since the real Bonnie and Clyde had
Hackman said his most vivid memory of the shoot was the interaction
with Penn and an ensemble engaged in the pure pursuit of "trying to
solve acting problems."
"I remember just sitting there in the car, the five principal actors, all of
us there filming, and thinking to myself, 'Man, isn't making movies great?
How terrific is this business?' I thought it was always going to be just like
that." Hackman laughed and added: "It wasn't, I'm sorry to say. It was
as good an experience as I've ever had."
Hackman said that Penn had the approach of walking up just before a
scene and whispering a simple phrase into an actor's ear that would
help clear away intellectual clutter. "In Buck's death scene, Arthur came
to me at the very last moment and just whispered 'a bull in a bull ring,
wounded,' " Hackman said. "And that was exactly what I needed. I don't
know if I have ever worked with a director that knew more about what
an actor needed -- to be pushed, nudged, guided or given an image."
The director crafted a film that would pull audiences in with humor and
flirtation, then slap them back with violence. "That," Penn said, "is how
the real world has always operated. It was vital to me that the film be
a new American gothic. . . . The movie was released into a world where
kids were burning draft cards and feeling beset by their own government.
We rang a big bell with this film. A very big social bell. We had no idea
how it would reverberate around the world."
To further the realism, Penn insisted on using low light. This gave
old-school cinematographer Burnett Guffey fits. Hunched over with
ulcers, he quit the production but, somehow, the relentless Beatty
talked him back.
Hackman remembers that Beatty had most of the crew "looking at him
out of the corner of their eye and grumbling." They found it shocking
that a 30-year-old star would try to play first-time producer. Penn
summed it up: "They were appalled that this snot-nosed pretty boy was
making a movie when it was clear he had no idea that everything he was
doing was completely wrong."
'Conflict equals drama'
BEATTY, a political junkie, said that much of the lore about the struggle
to make and release "Bonnie and Clyde" reminds him of the election news
cycle. "Conflict equals drama, drama equals story, and you need a story
every day. There have to be problems because that makes it interesting."
As nightfall approached, Beatty said there was "some truth" in the stories
of the struggle to get the movie made, but really the more interesting
conflict was after its release. The film was excoriated by Bosley Crowther
in the New York Times, and that led to a pouncing by the "people who
hold themselves up to judge culture." The film was diabolical, to some,
because it charmed viewers with humor and then let blood splatter in
their eye. Others pointed out that the film had little to do with the real
robbers whose name it used. ("That was true," Parsons said, "they were
pretty much psychopaths. The movie is what it is, but it isn't their story.")
The polarized reviews hardly killed the film. The catchphrase "They're
young, they're beautiful, they kill people" (cooked up by studio man Dick
Lederer) caught the imagination of a young audience ready for a different
type of entertainment. The retro wardrobes and Dunaway's berets even
stirred a fashion trend.
Some reviewers reconsidered the film.
"A number of reviewers admitted they had got it wrong, they reevaluated
it, which is very unusual," Beatty said with pride. Penn said the film came
to be seen for what he and Beatty intended -- "a new American gothic."
What he didn't expect: "I didn't know we would change the business.
That was a surprise."
The film benefited from great timing in another way. Jack Warner sold
off a third of his shares in his company in November 1966, and Beatty
worked all the offices during the corporate churn to keep his bold little
film intact and in play. After a modest opening, the word of mouth (both
good and bad) spread and the film had a slow-burn build. By 1972, it had
grossed $70 million, huge for its era and budget.
Somehow, "Bonnie and Clyde" was finally in tune with the mainstream
-- or maybe vice versa. The movie was nominated for 10 Oscars in all,
with Beatty up for two of them. Beatty was established as a force in
Hollywood; in the next decade he appeared in such classics as "McCabe
& Mrs. Miller," "Shampoo" and "Heaven Can Wait." "Bonnie and Clyde"
also propelled Hackman into a top strata of actors, certainly, while
Penn had notable films in the 1970s such as "Little Big Man" but nothing
of such moment as "Bonnie and Clyde."
In 1968, at the Oscars, the reluctant director and the pretty-boy
producer didn't get to make a speech. The film did win two Oscars,
one for Parsons and the other for, of all people, Guffey, the
cinematographer who was so upset by the troublesome little film
that he suffered internal bleeding.
Up on Mulholland, Beatty slapped his knee and laughed thinking about
the mixed messages of Hollywood and history. "You know the really
great thing when Guffey won the Oscar? He got up there and he thanked
. . . Jack Warner."