Bonnie and Clyde • Hollywood Renaissance
Greenscreening Series #31
April 29, 2023
April 29, 2023
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The poster proclaimed "They're young. They're in love. And they kill people." Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde forever changed American cinema. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway star as Depression-era bank robbers from East Texas who become notorious for their exploits. With its blend of gritty realism, humor, iconic imagery, sympathy for its titular outlaw couple, and graphic violence and sexuality, the film captured the spirit of the 1960s unlike anything before it, sparked fierce career-defining debates between critics, and helped kick off the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s.
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Two films marked the beginning of the New Hollywood of the 1960s and 1970s: Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn) and The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols). This week, we look at Bonnie & Clyde.
During the first half of the 1960s, Hollywood was in a period of stagnation. Studios were in rough financial shape. The vertical integration and block booking policies that helped them achieve monopoly during the Golden Age had been outlawed. Movies were getting increasingly expensive to make, with stars and producers commanding higher salaries. Television had decimated moviegoing in the 1950s, with weekly attendance numbers falling nearly from their peak of 90 million per week in the early 1940s to an average of 45 million during the 1950s and 60s.
As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, Hollywood studios tried a number of techniques to lure audiences back to theaters, include widescreen cinematography, epic films, and even 3D. And these techniques worked, but typically on a limited basis: epic films like The Ten Commandments were some of the biggest hits Hollywood had ever produced, and helped sustain the studios, but nothing could recreate Hollywood’s Golden Age performance, where movies dominated American popular entertainment.
Hollywood was in need of change, and new blood. Many of the studio heads, like Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick, were forced out of their leadership roles. The Golden Age auteurs like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock were also aging. It was time for a new generation of filmmakers to make their mark on American cinema.
Another holdover from the Golden Age was about to fall apart. The Production Code Administration was still moderating and censoring the content of Hollywood studio films, but was weakened by a series of compromises that allowed edgy content into mainstream releases and foreign films that captivated sophisticated urban audiences.
Art house filmmakers had taken the lead in pushing the medium forward. Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini were three of the main leaders as the 60s kicked off, but then Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut completely shook up the medium with their films. Critics from around the world eagerly anticipated French New Wave films, and they frequently captured the top prizes at film festivals around the world. Hollywood eventually took notice, and in the early 60s began courting Godard and Truffaut to direct English-language films.
Two Esquire writers, Robert Benton and David Newman, were fascinated by the French New Wave, feeling that these films captured the new emerging spirit of the 1960s. They also wanted to make films, so they set out to write and produce an American film in the New Wave style - a film like Truffaut or Godard would make.
After a few false starts, they came across the story of two Depression-era bank robbers, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and felt that these characters embodied some of the same spirit as the realistic antiheroes of the French New Wave, like Michel Poiccard from Godard’s Breathless. Their screenplay quickly came together and they started shopping it around, generating buzz within Hollywood along with a fair amount of skepticism that it could be produced under the Production Code’s rules.
There were three main issues with the content that would run afoul of the Production Code. First, the screenplay was sympathetic to the bank robbers, making them tragic heroes rebelling against an unjust and decaying society, while the law enforcement pursuing them were cruel and repressive. Second, Bonnie and Clyde were violent bank robbers, who ultimately met their end in a blaze of gunfire. The Production Code would require them to tone down the violence. Third, Benton and Newman’s script was as frank about sex as other European art house films, in a way that the Production Code could never allow. After all, Bonnie and Clyde were lovers, and Barrow was believed to be bisexual. The script even included a menage-a-trois.
Through a friend of a friend, Benton and Newman got in touch with Truffaut while he was in the US to discuss his first English-language film, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. They met with Truffaut, got him the screenplay, and he was enthusiastic but ultimately declined. Truffaut’s recommendation was that they instead hire his friend, Godard, and made an introduction.
Long story short, Godard and Truffaut were at various times both attached to direct Bonnie and Clyde, but neither was able to commit to the project. Godard’s refusal of the project is the stuff of legend. Nobody knows the full truth, but in one account, discussions broke down over his insistence on filming on location in New Jersey in January, rather than any other season or in East Texas, where Bonnie and Clyde’s escapades had taken place.
Instead, Benton and Newman got their project to an ambitious, moderately successful actor who wanted to produce his own films: Warren Beatty.
Beatty saw a breakout role for himself as Clyde Barrow, and a potentially massive hit in Bonnie and Clyde. Nobody else did, however. Every single studio passed on the project, before Beatty finally convinced the aging Jack Warner at Warner Bros. to greenlight the project for a fraction of the required budget. Beatty took a tiny up-front fee to help keep the budget low, along with 40% of the film’s profits.
For the director, Beatty convinced an old colleague, Arthur Penn, to join the project. Beatty and Penn had just worked together on a disastrous film, Mickey One, that bombed at the box office. They had a terrible time working on it, spending most of their time in heated arguments. Beatty convinced Penn on the strength of the story and his insistence that they spend at least the first hour of every day arguing. Penn was also captivated by the script's uniqueness and alignment with the French New Wave sensibilities.
The rest of the cast also consisted of relative newcomers, or at least actors looking for their big break. Faye Dunaway was Beatty and Penn’s last choice for the role of Bonnie, and she had fought her way into getting an audition. The role of Clyde’s brother Buck was played by a young Gene Hackman, and the role of Buck’s wife went to Broadway veteran Estelle Parsons. There’s even a cameo by a young and fairly awkward Gene Wilder.
Penn hired a veteran cinematographer in Burnett Guffrey, and proceeded to hassle him about every detail of the look and feel of the film. They were filming on location in East Texas, and Penn wanted something new and unique, and Guffrey was filming the best way he knew how, using traditional studio techniques. After a few weeks, Guffrey quit the film, feeling he wasn't able to capture Penn's vision. Penn coaxed him back by showing him some dailies, and everything finally clicked for Guffrey.
One of the most interesting aspects of Bonnie and Clyde is its genre. The film is foremost a gangster film, complete with its rise and fall and punishment of the gangsters, but blended with the Western. In fact, the film is an inverted Western, as the outlaws are the heroes and law enforcement are the villains. There is also romance and a bit of coming-of-age. This kind of richly layered genre-blending was fairly new at the time and became commonplace in the New American Cinema.
Bonnie and Clyde was also a breakthrough film in its representation of violence, and changed how Hollywood dealt with violence.
Consider the gangster films or the Westerns that we have viewed throughout the series. Typically, if someone gets shot in a classic Hollywood film, they’ll tighten up and then slump over and collapse. There’s no blood and it’s all highly dramatized.
Contrast this with the violence in Bonnie and Clyde. The film is in full color, including bright red blood. Penn and his crew used squibs - explosive capsules - that were triggered to pop small bags of stage blood. This was one of the first films to use this technique on screen. And the effect is quite shocking.
Penn and Beatty wanted to show the violence in a way that would resonate with audiences on a visceral level, and make them question the glorification of violence that was so common in popular culture. The graphic violence also conveyed the brutality and senseless nature of the criminal world in which Bonnie and Clyde lived, which also resonated with audiences who were seeing images of the brutality of the Vietnam War and the unrest at home.
While the Production Code Administration objected, by 1967 they were essentially powerless to block the film's release. A string of films had made their way through release without the PCA's approval, and they had struck a compromise with edgy films like Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) which contained nudity and graphic sexuality, and Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which used foul language, where the PCA applied a makeshift rating, to inform the public that these films were intended for mature audiences only.
Bonnie and Clyde received a similar "intended for mature audiences" disclaimer.
The other major stylistic breakthrough was the use of recorded music. Throughout the film, Flatt and Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Breakdown and other bluegrass classics play on the soundtrack. This was a departure from traditional musical scoring and foreshadowed the use of folk music and rock and roll in Hollywood films.
Warner Bros. was unenthusiastic about the film, and especially so since the production ran over budget. Jack Warner decided on a limited release, releasing the film in a handful of cities, despite Beatty’s protests.
The critical response to the film was mixed. Initially, many critics were confused by the film and put off by its violence.
Newsweek's Joe Morgenstern called the film a "squalid shoot-'em-up for the moron trade," but then retracted his review, writing a more positive review the following week.
Most infamously, the New York Times' longtime film critic, Bosley Crowther, one of the most powerful voices in American cinema, hated the film and decided to cut deep in his review. He criticized the film's use of violence and its portrayal of law enforcement, and argued that it was a dangerous and irresponsible movie. He also directly insulted the filmmakers.
“This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve.” -Bosley Crowther, 1967 review
Crowther wasn't done. He wrote three additional reviews of the film, and even criticized Bonnie and Clyde in his reviews of other films, lamenting the direction he saw American cinema moving towards. He wanted to destroy Bonnie and Clyde and save Hollywood.
But he failed. If anything, Crowther’s continued attacks sparked more interest in the film. Particularly because other critics were so positive about the film, and word of mouth was following suit.
In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael gave as positive a review as Crowther's was negative. She wrote glowingly about the way the film connected with young audiences, sensing the "spirit of the 1960s" that Benton and Newman were trying to capture.
“The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.”
Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, and called it a milestone in American filmmaking. He praised its artistry: “It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life.”
Ultimately, audiences sided with Kael and Ebert.
Bonnie and Clyde became one of the great sleeper hits of all time, and continued to perform well long after its release. Warner expanded the release gradually, and the strategy ultimately worked. It was Warner Bros. second biggest film of 1968, and eventually earned nearly $70 million worldwide.
In exchange for taking reduced salaries, Beatty’s share of the profits was over $6 million (over $50 million in 2023 dollars), and Penn’s share was $2 million.
Kael’s review of the film landed her a staff position at The New Yorker. The New York Times replaced Crowther as its chief film critic in early 1968 and pushed him to retire a few years later. Film criticism was changing with the times.
The Production Code Administration was officially dissolved in 1968, replaced by the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), which rather than censoring content, issued ratings to help audiences choose what was appropriate to view. This ratings system exists in nearly the same capacity to this day.
Bonnie and Clyde was nominated for 9 Academy Awards in 1967, including Best Picture, Best Director, all four acting categories, and Best Original Screenplay. Estelle Parsons won for Best Supporting Actress, and Burnett Guffrey won for Best Cinematography.
Bonnie and Clyde helped launch the New American Cinema, or Hollywood Renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the movement’s major characteristics were present in the film: complex protagonists who often lived outside the law or societal conventions, realistic or graphic depictions of sex and violence, genre blending and subversion, plots that challenged authority and institutions, location filming, folk or popular music soundtracks, and counterculture ideology. The film also kickstarted the “lovers on the run” subgenre of films, which was quite popular in the New American Cinema.
Despite its status as one of the most important American films ever made, the film does not appear on Sight and Sound’s 2022 Critics Poll.
Bonnie and Clyde Reviews on its 50th Anniversary from Vanity Fair
Review of Bonnie and Clyde by Bosley Crowther
Review of Bonnie and Clyde by Pauline Kael
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris. A terrific book about the making of Bonnie and Clyde alongside the other Best Picture nominees from 1967, which helps explain the changing times in Hollywood.
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