They're young, they're in love, and they kill people: A look back at how Bonnie and Clyde revolutionized Hollywood

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Fifty years ago, on Aug. 13, 1967, to be exact, Warner Bros. released a new kind of American gangster movie called Bonnie and Clyde. The conservative, old-guard studio more or less did this against its will. After all, the film was unapologetically violent, unvarnished in its depiction of sexuality, and borderline nihilistic. Not to mention that the man who had bankrolled it, Jack Warner, hated it.

Much has been written over the past half century about how Bonnie and Clyde revolutionized Hollywood (start with former EW editor Mark Harris’ 2008 book, Pictures at a Revolution): How it ushered in a revolutionary new sensibility when it came to subjects that were once considered taboo; how it spoke to a hipper, younger audience that had been largely ignored by the calcified, geriatric suits calling the shots up til then; how it was a game-changer that showed the way for an up-and-coming generation of New Hollywood directors more interested in anti-heroes than traditional heroes. But on the film’s golden anniversary it’s worth taking a glance in the rearview mirror and examining not only how this sea change came to be, but also how divided the critical consensus on the film was at the time. It’s a revolution that almost never happened.

In the early ’60s, Robert Benton and David Newman were two young staffers at Esquire. Benton was the magazine’s art director; Newman was a writer and editor. Like so many others in their generation, the two men had fallen in love with the influx of European films that were beginning to play in the art houses of America’s big cities, specifically those of the French New Wave. Watching imports like Breathless, La Dolce Vita, and Jules and Jim was like looking into a telescope and discovering an unknown galaxy. These films grappled with new subjects and spoke in a new kind of movie grammar. They felt urgent, of the moment, raw. Benton and Newman wanted to explore that galaxy.

Benton, who had grown up in Texas, was already familiar with the Lone Star state folk heroes Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker — a pair of Depression-era bank robbers, who with their gang, became early incarnations of a modern kind of media celebrity. They were criminals, sure. But they inflamed the public’s imagination by sticking it to the banks at a time when banks were hardly friendly institutions to anyone trying to survive in the Dust Bowl. Their exploits may have seemed like ancient history to Benton and Newman, but they also knew that you didn’t have to squint very hard to see the parallels between Bonnie and Clyde and the antsy youth of the ‘60s who were beginning to get swept up in what would soon become the counterculture. Bonnie and Clyde were outsiders, outcasts, outlaws who fought the man — even though, in the end, the man won. He always does.

Benton and Newman began working on a screenplay treatment with the pie-in-the-sky hope that they might entice French New Wave maestro, Francois Truffaut to direct it (by then, Truffaut had already made The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player). When they felt confident enough in the 75-page treatment they had, they used a connection to get their draft to into Truffaut’s hands in Paris. They expected nothing yet hoped for everything. Miraculously, Truffaut was intrigued enough to meet with the writers in New York. But after months of stop-and-go flirting on both sides, Truffaut passed on the project. But he did pass it along to his fellow New Wave comrade, Jean-Luc Godard.

Benton and Newman didn’t have time to sulk. Plus, one brilliant, red-hot French director was as good as the next, they figured. Godard, who by that time had directed Breathless and Vivre Sa Vie, was also interested enough to also meet with the Esquire duo. Godard seemed not only interested in making Bonnie and Clyde but was itching to get started right away. It was all moving so quickly that Benton and Newman were taken aback. It felt like a first date where one party wants to take it slow and the other wants to sprint right to the altar. In the end, that marriage, too, would fall apart before it could be consummated.

Unbeknownst to both Benton and Newman, Warren Beatty, then an impossibly handsome movie star on the come-up and approaching his 30th birthday, was in Paris with his actress girlfriend, Leslie Caron, to have dinner with Truffaut. Ostensibly the meeting was to discuss a picture about the French singer Edith Piaf in which Beatty wanted Caron to star. But Truffaut wasn’t particularly interested in Piaf. The pitch ended up evaporating into the ether like so much Gauloises smoke. But during the meal, Truffaut told Beatty that he should get his hands on a wonderful script by a pair of American writers. It was called Bonnie and Clyde. Beatty filed the tip away.

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Beatty had become a movie star right out of the gate with his very first Hollywood film – 1961’s Splendor in the Grass. Since then, he’d starred in a hit-and-miss handful of movies, but he hadn’t yet been taken seriously as an artist. He was just a pretty face with a tabloid-friendly menagerie of famous off-screen lovers. Beatty aspired to more. The actor had just been through an unpleasant experience during the long pre-production of what would become 1965’s silly farce, What’s New Pussycat — a film that he had helped get off the ground, but wound up feeling sidelined on and squeezed out of. It’s not a good movie, but it ended up becoming a hit nonetheless. Beatty got none of the credit for its success – nor did he particularly think he deserved it. Still, the experience had been frustrating enough that he vowed that things would be different on his next picture. When EW interviewed Beatty late last year, he said of Pussycat, “When it was over, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m not going to go through that again.’ I wanted to be in control. And that’s what led me to produce Bonnie and Clyde.”

When Beatty returned to America, he immediately got in touch with Benton and asked if he could read their script. In the back of his mind, he thought this could be the project that would turn him from on-screen heartthrob to off-screen powerbroker. He was ready to bet on himself. When Beatty arrived at Benton’s New York apartment, he stayed there and read the script until he reached its bloody, bullet-riddled finale. He was in. Beatty offered the writing team $75,000 for the rights to make Bonnie and Clyde. Benton and Newman, who’d been spurned twice and weren’t exactly being bowled over with other offers, quickly agreed.

Beatty went to Warner Bros. hat in hand to pay a visit to Jack Warner. The old-school boss blew hot and cold on the young star. He thought Beatty could be presumptuous and cocky. Despite that fact (or perhaps because of it), he also found it hard to completely resist Beatty’s legendary charm. Beatty pleaded with Warner to make Bonnie and Clyde for cheap. Some accounts (which Beatty now laughs off) have him getting on his knees and literally begging Warner to back the picture. Regardless of whether you buy into the facts or the legend, Beatty got his green light. Now he just had to find a director and some stars.

From Bonnie and Clyde’s inception, Beatty knew that he didn’t want to direct the film himself. And he also, initially at least, didn’t think that he should play Clyde Barrow. Producing such an uncompromising film would come with more than enough headaches as it was. Plus, he had another star in mind for the role. “I was thinking of Bob Dylan for the part,” Beatty told EW. Over time, Beatty would warm up to the idea of playing the film’s lead, he just had to get used to the idea. No one hems and haws like Beatty does. “Gradually, I thought maybe I wouldn’t be bad,” he said. “This happens to me a lot.”

As for finding a director, Beatty said that he went to 11 directors for Bonnie and Clyde and was turned down 11 times. “It was an unusual movie,” Beatty said. “To make it good, it had to combine violence and comedy in a way that hadn’t been done. I was turned down by George Stevens (Giant), I was turned down by Freddie Zinnemann (High Noon), Arthur Penn (The Miracle Worker), John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), Karel Reisz (Night Must Fall), Sydney Pollack (This Property is Condemned), and Brian Hutton (Wild Seed).” Eventually, Beatty went back to Penn, a real actor’s director with whom he had worked on the jazzy, New Wave-influenced 1965 black-and-white film, Mickey One. Penn relented.

Penn, a veteran theater director, wound up filling the cast with talented-but-little-known stage actors such as Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder, and Michael J. Pollard. He and Beatty settled on a gorgeous, strong-willed unknown as the Bonnie to Beatty’s Clyde: Faye Dunaway. The film was shot on location in Texas, often using some of the very sites that the real Bonnie and Clyde touched foot on during their crime spree. Beatty’s pal Robert Towne (who would later win a screenwriting Oscar for Chinatown) was brought on set to tweak Benton and Newman’s script while Penn brought out remarkable performances from his cast. Beatty and Penn knew that they were making a different kind of film – an American New Wave movie – and they didn’t shy away from the script’s edgier themes and subtexts, or its blood-red violence.

Although set in the ‘30s, Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker is a liberated woman – a steely, sultry seducer as cunning as any male on the wrong side of the law. She seems to get off on the promise of danger. Beatty’s Clyde Barrow, an ex-con who takes more joy in the notoriety of his crimes than the loot they bring, is the embodiment of what we now think of as modern media culture. His drug is fame. It certainly isn’t sex – the script subtly (and sometimes not too subtly) paints him as a stick-up man who can’t get it up. Powerful with a firearm, but impotent in the sack. Again, pretty radical stuff in 1967.

Perhaps more taboo than any of that, however, was the film’s ballet-of-death climax. At the end of the movie when Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down by the law in a hail of bullets, nothing is left to the imagination. We see their bodies convulsing and covered in squibs of blood – a prolonged and excruciating Grand Guignol spasm of gore. It was literally overkill. But coming as it was, less than four years after the assassination of JFK and at a time when the horrors of the war in Vietnam were playing out every evening on the news, it had an undeniable added resonance. It was a story set in the ‘30s, but it couldn’t have been more timely.

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Although Aug. 13, 1967, is widely acknowledged as the day that Bonnie and Clyde first hit theaters, the film’s real debut came a week earlier, when it was shown at the Montreal Film Festival on Aug. 5. In the audience at that first screening was Bosley Crowther, the august New York Times film critic. He was outraged by what he saw. So much so in fact, that he would take the film (and its admirers) to task on three separate occasions in the paper of record. In his official review of the movie, Crowther wrote that Bonnie and Clyde was “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 cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.” As for the film’s notorious finale, he wrote: “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 with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap.”

Soon, others would follow. Time magazine panned the film. And in its rival, Newsweek, Joe Morgenstern could barely disguise his bile, calling the film “a squalid shoot-em-up for the moron trade.” But then something very interesting happened. Morgenstern went back to see the film a second time with his wife (actress Piper Laurie) and realized that he had been wrong. Too late to pull his scathing initial review, he wrote a second – a mea culpa of sorts. As Mark Harris writes in his book Pictures at a Revolution, Morgenstern’s about-face was “infinitely more valuable to Bonnie and Clyde than a mere rave would have been: Suddenly, the studio had a controversy it could exploit.”

The tide on Bonnie and Clyde began to turn. In the Sept. 25, 1967, edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert opened his review with the following proclamation: “Bonnie and Clyde is a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful.” He closes his review in equally dead-on terms: “This is pretty clearly the best American film of the year. It is also a landmark. Years from now it is quite possible that Bonnie and Clyde will be seen as the definitive film of the 1960s, showing with sadness, humor, and unforgiving detail what one society has come to. The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn’t mean a thing. It has to be set sometime. But it was made now and it’s about us.”

Less than a month later, Pauline Kael took to the pages of the New Yorker with an impassioned plea for the film. Acknowledging that the movie divides audiences, she wrote that Bonnie and Clyde was “the most excitingly American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it.” It had officially become the movie that everyone had to see.

Problem was, Jack Warner just wanted to be done with it. The studio had already moved on, pulling it from prime theaters to make room for its next volley of releases. But they underestimated Warren Beatty’s persistence. The first thing Beatty did was to help rejigger the film’s ad campaign with Benton and Newman, which now included the brilliantly exploitative tagline: “They’re young…they’re in love…and they kill people.” Two months after it had opened and been left for dead, it had snowballed into becoming one of the biggest hits in the country. Then, in early December, another one of the film’s detractors did a very public about-face. “Time magazine just panned the hell out of Bonnie and Clyde,” Beatty told EW. “But four months later, they put it on the cover saying very elaborate things about it. Very complimentary things.”

The banner headline of Time’s Dec. 8. 1967, issue, over a photo of Beatty and Dunaway behind the wheel of a getaway car, read: “The New Cinema: Violence…Sex…Art”. Bonnie and Clyde was a sensation that was not about to go away.

After stumbling out of the gate, Bonnie and Clyde would go on to pull in more than $22 million at the box office on a budget of $2.5 million. It would go on to earn ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. And while it only wound up winning two statuettes (for Best Supporting Actress Estelle Parsons and Best Cinematography for Burnett Guffey), the movie had won a bigger, more lasting war. It had given birth to a filmmaking renaissance and a decade of some of the most indelible and uncompromising pictures to ever come out of the studio system.

In the end, it may be reductive to point to one single film and credit it for sparking an entire movement. But it’s not totally wrong either. Fifty years after the fact, EW asked Beatty if he bought into that bit of myth-making about his film — whether Bonnie and Clyde, in fact, was responsible for the New Hollywood. His answer was predictably Sphynx-like. “Well, that’s an exaggeration,” he said, while leaning back in a chair in his study. A sly smile spread across his face. And after a beat or two, he leaned forward again, almost conspiratorially, and added, “But I like to hear it said.”

Bonnie and Clyde can be seen on the big screen on Sunday, Aug. 13, and Wednesday, Aug. 16, at participating theaters nationwide as part of the TCM Big Screen Classics series.

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