TCM Film Festival 2013: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Writer/director Robert Benton spoke before the Festival’s screening of Bonnie & Clyde in the big, bad Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (I refuse to call it the TCL Chinese Theatre) and he really painted a surprising picture of the process to get the film made. A dyslexic art department slave for Esquire Magazine , he knew he wanted to write screenplays, but needed someone who could spell and punctuate. Enter David Newman. The two struck up a fast friendship, and before long they were coming up with script ideas. Benton grew up in West Texas where Bonnie & Clyde were legends. Using historical info from a book Bonnie Parker’s mother wrote, they put together a story of two lost and doomed individuals who are drawn to each other like moths to a flame. Because of the two writers’ love of French New Wave cinema, they wanted Francois Truffaut to direct. They even had a chance meeting with him, where they spent an intensive two day marathon session shaping it. The only remaining portion of the script that remains from their experience is the poem that Bonnie writes for the newspaper. “That was all Truffaut’, Benton mused. But no one wanted to make the film and it hung in stasis for 4 years. Then it somehow got into Warren Beatty’s hands, and he was ravenous to produce. Hearing the writers wanted the screenplay made as an homage to French New Wave, Beatty responded: “The script is French New Wave. So you need an American director.” And in stepped Arthur Penn.
In the early stages, the script was purposely “in your face”, with the writers’ original device of making Clyde Barrow sexually ambiguous. Was he gay or just dysfunctional? This remained, but a ménage a trois with the characters of Bonnie, Clyde and CW was later nixed.
The film itself still plays lean and focused. Generally, even with some great classic films, there are those moments where you wince, or hold your breath, because of some element that doesn’t stand the test of time. Not so with Bonnie & Clyde. There’s not a wasted moment. The character arcs are fully realized and believable. This is in part due to the writers, but also a testament to Beatty the producer. He’s known for being methodical and thoughtful in the development of material as well as working the script hard, and made sure every scene had a purpose, and lead realistically to the next.
The actors embrace their characters that at first appear as big personalities, but actually offer nuance and subtlety. Gene Hackman is an irresponsible older brother who wants to be the leader, but cannot help but fall in with his electric younger sibling, Beatty. Michael J. Pollard is the strange, awkward country bumpkin, looking for a leader, and Estelle Parsons, thoroughly obnoxious, is an important ingredient in the mix, a whining, frightened preacher’s daughter who hates Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie for her beauty, spontaneity and ability to lasso both the brothers. And Beatty and Dunaway’s onscreen chemistry and movie star good looks help make their instant attraction and haphazard crime spree completely believable.
Arthur Penn’s direction is raw and spellbinding. While many cite “Easy Rider” as the 60s movie that forever changed the face of filmmaking, I would cite Bonnie & Clyde’s direction and ability to capture the youthful zeitgeist of the day as the catalyst for modern storytelling. It will never get old or stale.
Gallery of Images from Bonnie and Clyde