By John H. Foote
Last week, my colleague (and cousin) Alan Hurst chose Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as the greatest film ever made. Though I disagree, it is an inspired choice, one that reminds me of just how influential the picture was upon release and in the years to follow.
The arts were changing in the sixties, impacted by what was happening in the world. Revolution was afoot, but it was a different kind of revolution, this one was the counter culture. The youth were lashing out at authority, making it clear they no longer trusted their government, did not trust anyone over thirty. Literature began to change, painting and sculpture, then music, then the stage, and television. The final major art form to change was cinema, but when it changed it was virtually overnight and those responsible for the changes never looked back.
It began with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), all of it.
Warren Beatty was twenty-seven years old when he marched into the office of studio head Jack Warner and demanded, he did not ask, he demanded to be permitted to produce Bonnie and Clyde, a screenplay he had purchased the rights too. Warner admired the young actor, he thought Beatty was ballsy and more than prepared to set himself up for failure. But Warner, more so than anyone save Beatty’s inner circle understood the young actor was smart, whip smart in fact and anything he set his mind to doing he was going to do right. Warner knew actors rarely produced movies, Chaplin had but more out of a need for absolute control than business, though it became business when there was money to be made. He trusted Beatty, but more importantly knew if he did not give him a chance, someone else would and the film might be made elsewhere.
Warner gave in, allowed Beatty to make the film, giving the young actor unheard of freedom to go ahead and make his film.
Beatty hired a director he trusted, Arthur Penn, actors he wanted to work with, cast himself as Clyde Barrow, had the courage to cast a relative unknown as Bonnie Parker, choosing Faye Dunaway over Jane Fonda, packed his cast and crew up and headed for the locations in Texas. Beatty gave Penn freedom to make the film he wanted to make, but the actor-producer certainly had input. He admired the films of the French New Wave and made it clear to Penn he wanted something new, something interesting, something audiences had not seen before. The actor shadowed why, hungry for knowledge. While he was not ready to direct and knew that, he knew one day soon he would.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) turned fifty last year, and it seems impossible so much time has slipped by because the film feels as fresh and original as when it was first released. It really is proof that actors are immortal on film because there is a young and handsome Beatty with the stunning Dunaway on screen before us, ageless, forever youthful and beautiful. The film began what is known as the New American Cinema, a period of rich and superb American films that spilled into the seventies and briefly to the eighties before the egos of directors drove budgets through the roof and failures caused the studio chiefs to close their wallets. In 1966 the studios had begun to die a slow death, Hollywood was tragically out of synch with the rest of the art forms, not realizing their audiences were changing, now more sophisticated and intelligent, better informed thanks to live news, and the youth were openly challenging authority they no longer trusted. When cinema changed, it did so overnight, and 1967 was the watershed year.
Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate, In Cold Blood and In the Heat of the Night were extraordinary and topical films that plunged audiences into the realities of the time. Cinema was no longer an escape but a reflection of the society. Audiences and critics were turning their backs on films that were pure escapism leaving big budget works. All were released in 1967 making it a seminal year in film.
Bonnie and Clyde towered over the films released that year, becoming the most influential work of its time, though it took some time before critics realized what they had seen. Released early in the year, reviews were respectful but not what Beatty had hoped. Only when the great Pauline Kael wrote a love letter to the film in The New Yorker did the films greatness suddenly become evident to other critics. Vincent Canby actually wrote a retraction to his first review, admitting the film was a work of art. Beatty took the film to the upstart Montreal Film Festival where it earned standing ovations and was hailed as the great American masterpiece it was. Still Jack Warner was not convinced. By November of that year it had run its course and was out of theatres. Beatty pleaded for a re-release in time for awards season, knowing the films nominated for Oscars had to be fresh in the minds of the voters, got it and the film was nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards.
What makes the film so influential?
Where to start?
The ads for the film screamed, “They’re young, they’re in love…and they kill people” which at once set the film apart from anything else in release.
While based on the exploits of two bank robbers from the thirties, the film romanticizes their story, making them two misunderstood youth of the depression striving to find their way against authority holding them down. In its own metaphorical way, it spoke to the young people of the sixties. To the young people watching the film, Bonnie and Clyde became the flower children of the thirties, lashing back at the powers that be. The picture was clear about Clyde’s potential homosexuality and his inability to perform sexually with Bonnie until close to the end of the film. There are suggestions of a threesome between the two and CW Moss, their partner in crime. No film before it had ever been so frank about sex, not sexuality. There is an open discussion of orgasm between Bonnie with Clyde after their first sexual encounter, which was unheard of. Dunaway portrayed Bonnie as a sexual being, the way she moved, the way she held herself, the way she dressed, everything about her suggested sex. Clyde was not, telling her early on “I ain’t much of a lover boy!” The gun has replaced his genitalia and he likes it that way for now.
The violence was brutal, honest and happened fast, just as it usually does. The end sequence where their bodies are riddled with bullets was startling, sobering, altogether shocking because in an instant it was over. For several seconds round after round is fired into their bodies, leaving them dancing like puppets in a twisted dance of death. No glory, no touching last moments, the police ambushed them and moments later, they were dead. They had been smiling and together seconds before and now they were dead.
The film moved at a jaunty pace, was possessed of a black humor, and was from time to time deeply sad. The picnic with Bonnie’s mother is haunting, because we know as she seems too, they do not have much time left in life, and they need to keep running. Using the jump cuts of Godard, the chase sequences almost of a comic Keystone Kops nature until the guns came out, the film kept audiences on their toes, they never knew quite what to expect.
It was brilliant.
By the end of 1967 it was the top grossing film of the year and topped most critics ten best lists. But the studios still had a hold on the Academy, and there seemed no way they would award Beatty for what he had created, as brilliant as it was. The film won just two Oscars, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress. One of the rare Hollywood films to be nominated in all seven major categories, Film, Actor, Actress, Director, Supporting Actor and Actress, and Screenplay, it now seems downright laughable it lost that Oscar.
The film made Beatty a very wealthy man and he would take control of the rest of his career, making films that he wanted to make, challenging himself for the rest of his career winning an Oscar for Best Director for his masterpiece Reds (1981). In doing so he became one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
Dunaway went on to become, for a time, one of the major stars of her era, finally winning the Academy Award for Network (1976). Her stunning performance as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981) might be the highlight of her career, though I suspect people remember her first as Bonnie Parker. Her behaviour off screen made her a different kind of legend, a diva who was as well known for her temper fits as her talent.
Gene Hackman went on to be one of the greatest actors in film history, winning Academy Awards for The French Connection (1971) and Unforgiven (1992). In a career spanning just over four decades he gave an array of brilliant performances, crossing the line often from actor to movie star.
Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, who portrayed Buck’s shrill harpy of a wife Blanche never again had success like this on screen. Her best-known work is likely as the mother of Roseanne Barr on her first incarnation of her series, Roseanne.
Without Bonnie and Clyde (1967) I doubt we very much would have an era like the seventies, I doubt American film would have been as bold, as exciting, as realistic. It changed everything, and those in the know knew it at once upon seeing the film. Everything about was new, even the life it breathed into the gangster genre.
It is unforgettable.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.