It’s almost impossible to overstate the influence of Arthur Penn‘s “Bonnie & Clyde.” It wasn’t alone as one of the film breaking down the walls of a “new cinema” — Michaelangelo Antonioni‘s “Blow Up” had turned heads the previous year, and Mike Nichols‘ “The Graduate” helped with the impression of the changing of the guard when it followed a few months later. But it was Penn’s film (written by journalists Robert Benton and David Newman, with a polish from Robert Towne and produced by Warren Beatty), which told the story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, the Depression-era bank robbing duo, that really felt like the lightning strike, bringing the techniques, sexuality, violence and cool-factor of European cinema to a mainstream audience for the first time.
Released 45 years ago this week, on August 13, 1967, as often is the case, getting “Bonnie & Clyde” to the big screen wasn’t an easy journey. Four years in the making, the film went through a number of high-profile directors, proved difficult to cast, had a fiery production, and was nearly buried by parent studio Warner Bros and by influential critics. But by 1968, it was a bona-fide cultural phenomenon, featured on the front of Time Magazine, winning ten Oscar nods (of which it picked up two), and taking $50 million at the domestic box office (adjusted for inflation, that’s over $300 million today). The film has been heavily documented over the last few years, mostly thanks to Peter Biskind‘s “Easy Riders Raging Bulls” and in particular Mark Harris‘ must-read “Scenes From A Revolution,” and to celebrate this 45th anniversary, we’ve assembled five facts you might not know about Penn, Beatty, Benton and Newman’s brutal, sexy masterpiece. Check them out below.
1. Francois Truffaut was the first director on board, and Jean-Luc Godard soon replaced him.
Writers David Newman and Robert Benton (who would go on to pen “What’s Up Doc?” and “Superman,” while Benton would become an acclaimed director in his own right) were twenty-something staffers at Esquire Magazine, who’d fallen in love with the cinema of the French New Wave, and in particular Francois Truffaut‘s “Jules Et Jim.” In the summer of 1963, they began work on a screenplay about Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, inspired by their reading of John Toland‘s Depression-era gangster history “The Depression Days,” which featured Bonnie & Clyde in minor roles. From the off, they wrote the screenplay for Truffaut, and after helmer Arthur Penn turned their treatment down, managed to get it to the French helmer through a mutual friend he shared with their producer, Elinor Jones. Truffaut was already planning his English-language debut, “Farenheit 451,” but was intrigued by what he read, and in 1964, came to New York to work on the script with Benton and Newman for a few days. For research, Truffaut set up a screening of film noir “Gun Crazy,” inviting his friend Jean-Luc Godard, another idol of Benton and Newman’s, who happened to be in New York at the same time, with wife Anna Karina. And it seems that at some point, Godard too became interested in the project; when he went to visit the set of Penn’s “Mickey One,” Godard reportedly had a copy of the treatment, and talked about making the film as a quick, low-budget project. Truffaut remained attached for a few months, but ultimately wrote back to Jones saying that he was going to make “The Bride Wore Black” next (it ultimately wouldn’t get made until 1968) before segueing into “Farenheit 451,” and had to turn down “Bonnie & Clyde” with a heavy heart. But he had passed it on to Godard, who was “in love with” the project, and wanted to meet Benton and Newman. The director went as far as meeting with Elliot Gould about playing Clyde, and intended to get before cameras within three months, but when the producers told him that the weather wouldn’t be suitable for a January shoot, he walked out of the meeting, and never came back. But the film’s flirtation with the French New Wave wasn’t over. Warren Beatty was trying to convince Truffaut to cast him in “Farenheit 451,” and the director was re-enthused by ‘Bonnie,’ and started circling the film again, wanting to cast Terence Stamp as Clyde, and Alexandra Stewart (“Mickey One“) as Bonnie. But as differences came up among the producers on casting, and it became clear that the film wouldn’t be ready to shoot before his Bradbury adaptation, Truffaut bailed on the project again. Jones’ option on the script soon expired, and in the end, it was an American director and producer/star who would take the film over the finishing line.
2. Shirley MacLaine was an early possibility for Bonnie, with Bob Dylan as Clyde. Jane Fonda, Sharon Tate, Natalie Wood and Ann-Margret were also considered.
The same day that Jones’ option on the film lapsed, Beatty picked it up for a cool $75,000. Initially, the actor was just going to produce the film, and wanted his sister, Shirley MacLaine, to play Bonnie, with the idea floated that Bob Dylan, who it was thought bore a resemblance to the real-life Clyde Barrow, as her counterpart. But it soon became clear that Beatty wanted to star in the film, which obviously put MacLaine out of the running. As for directors, Beatty had serious discussions with George Stevens (“Shane,” “Giant“), but the veteran filmmaker was embroiled in a lawsuit over a TV edit of “A Place In The Sun,” and in no mood to return to Hollywood. William Wyler, Karel Reisz and John Schlesinger all met on the project, before Beatty finally convinced Arthur Penn (with whom he’d had a professionally difficult, but personally good relationship with on 1965’s “Mickey One“) to take another look at the project, and Penn agreed to direct. The next big decision was who to play Bonnie. Beatty had long liked the idea of his ex-lover Natalie Wood in the role, and she was keen, but an offer never went out to her the role. The actor also like the idea of Jane Fonda (who’d been Truffaut’s preferred casting decision), but she and Penn had fought on the set of “The Chase,” so she was ruled out (the actress later said “Warren has an incredible way of making you think he’s offering you a part… and then not using you… and you never feel you’ve been rejected”). Others considered included Sharon Tate (“The Fearless Vampire Killers“), Ann-Margret (“Bye Bye Birdie“), Carol Lynley (“Bunny Lake Is Missing“) and Tuesday Weld (“The Cincinatti Kid“), who was actually offered the role, but turned it down, later commenting “I refused to do ‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ because deep down I knew it was going to be a huge success.” Almost out of time, Beatty and Penn eventually settled on Faye Dunaway.
3. DoP Burnett Guffey quit the film, only to be swiftly re-hired.
Beatty was keen for the film to be crewed with a young, hungry team for the most part. But the major exception was director of photography Burnett “Bernie” Guffey, a 61-year-old with screen credits going back to 1929, who’d worked on films including “All The King’s Men,” “In A Lonely Place,” “From Here To Eternity,” and “Birdman Of Alcatraz.” Guffey was an old pro, and swiftly became concerned that Penn’s European influence was going to result in an ugly film. According to art direct Dean Tavoularis, who feuded with the cinematographer: “The famous scene where they were running in the fields and the light changed — Bernie hated that. He hated flash, or lens flare, or bumps. Having the light change was to him a taboo.” Things quickly came to a head with Penn too: “It was really the lack of light that upset Bernie,” Beatty would later tell Mark Harris, “He was an older man – he wanted to use a lot of light, and Arthur did not… Bernie would say ‘Well, this is not gonna play well in the drive-ins!'” Guffey eventually quit, with the crew being told that he had a heart attack, and another old hand, Ellsworth Fredericks (“Invasion Of The Body Snatchers,” “Seven Days In May“) was brought in in his place. But things were even worse with him. Actress Estelle Parsons remembered, “It was impossible. The shots were so conventional that it became like a typical Hollywood movie. The guy would set up a shot, and Arthur would just throw up his hands.” Penn fired Fredericks, and managed to convince Guffey, who’d at least been prepared to compromise, to return. He ended up winning his second Oscar (the first was for “From Here To Eternity”) for his work.
4. The film only became a success on re-release, and led to the firing of New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who was replaced by Pauline Kael.
Warner Bros. head Jack Warner had, in the midst of negotiating the sale of his company to Seven Arts, not taken much interest in “Bonnie & Clyde” which was greenlit by his subordinate Walter MacEwen, but soon expressed reservations about the project, sending a memo before production got underway saying: “Who wants to see the rise and fall of a couple of rats. Am sorry I did not read the script before I said yes… This era went out with Cagney.” And when it was complete, he hated the finished product, exclaiming after the screening, “That’s the longest two hours and ten minutes I ever spent. It’s a three-piss picture!” It didn’t help that when the film premiered at the Montreal Film Festival on August 5th, some of the nation’s biggest critics tore it apart. Bosley Crowther, the influential critic at the New York Times, ran three separate attacks on the film in the lead up to its release, 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 cut-ups in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie.'” The film did decent business on single screens in New York, L.A. and elsewhere, but was essentially buried when the time came for its midwest release, and disappeared soon after. But over time, the critical swell had come out in favor of it. Many, including Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris (who hadn’t especially liked the film) wrote pieces attacking Crowther. Newsweek critic Joe Morgenstern, who’d initially panned the film, wrote a second review singing its praises saying, “I am sorry to say I consider that review grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate. I am sorried to say I wrote it.” And in December, the film made the cover of Time Magazine, under the headline “The New Cinema: Violence… Sex… Art.” Beatty had been campaigning to the new Warners leadership (Jack Warner having since resigned as production chief) for some time to give the film a fair shake. The day after the film received ten Oscar nominations, it was given a wide release, and went on to be a huge hit, the second biggest in the studio’s history at that point. A few weeks earlier, Bosley Crowther had been removed as the New York Times’ chief film critics, the backlash against his take on “Bonnie & Clyde” seemingly being one of the major reasons, and Pauline Kael was one of those brought in to fill his shoes. Interestingly, Crowther later reversed his stance; a decade later, he wrote that the film was “a landmark… No film turned out in the 1960s was more clever in registering the amoral restlessness of youth in those films.”
5. The film was turned into a short-lived Broadway musical last year.
The film’s ending has obviously prevented a sequel from coming to pass, but in recent years, attempts have made to cash in on the film. Back in 2009, teen stars Hilary Duff and Kevin Zegers were cast in an unofficial remake of the film, “The Story Of Bonnie & Clyde” (the presence of the former Disney Channel star caused Faye Dunaway to publicly exclaim “Couldn’t they at least cast a real actress?”). But last year, Duff’s pregnancy caused her to drop out, and the film has thankfully since failed to get off the ground. However, a musical take with music by Frank Wildhorn (“Jekyll & Hyde“) and lyrics by Don Black (“Sunset Boulevard,” a number of lyrics for James Bond themes) did make it to the stage. Following the plot of the film relatively closely, though not officially connected to it, the show opened in La Jolla California in 2009, before making it to Sarasota, Florida the following year. Both runs proved a success, and the show opened on Broadway on December 1st 2011, with Jeremy Jordan (“Joyful Noise“) as Clyde, and Laura Osnes (“Anything Goes“) as Bonnie. Reviews weren’t poisonous, but critics were mostly unimpressed (Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times “this Bonnie and Clyde don’t seem convincingly hot for each other or for the thrill of being on the run”) and it closed on December 30th, after just 36 performances. However, months later, it did pick up two Tony nominations, for Osnes’ lead performance, and for Best Score.