Tonight: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, with Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Estelle Parsons in the four-star classic Bonnie and Clyde.
This romanticized retelling of the life and death of a pair of Depression-era desperadoes was one of the truly definitive films of the 1960s.
America’s longstanding love affair with its outlaws dates back to Jesse James and Billy the Kid.
The outlaws of the 1930s—Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde—enjoyed a similar celebrity.
No film was more successful in capturing the romanticized mystique of the American bandit as an alienated outsider than this one.
It was director Arthur Penn’s most successful film, in a career that began in TV and theatre in the 1950s. His first film, The Left Handed Gun, was an offbeat retelling of the tale of Billy the Kid with Paul Newman in 1958. The film was enthusiastically received in Europe, but largely ignored in America.
Returning to Broadway, Penn had great success with The Miracle Worker (1959) and Toys in the Attic (1960).
He finally returned to films with the movie version of Miracle Worker (1962), which won Academy Awards for both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.
In 1963, Penn was given the opportunity to direct the American-French-Italian co-production of The Train. But he was replaced by John Frankenheimer after the first few days of filming.
Penn’s next feature was a relatively obscure, but fascinating film titled Mickey One (1965), starring Warren Beatty.
It was made in Chicago.
That’s when I first met Warren.
We discovered we had a lot in common.
I let him use the Chicago Mansion and Playmate Donna Michelle in the movie—and we became friends.
Warren’s film career had begun with Splendor in the Grass with Natalie Wood in 1961. After five films, including The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), All Fall Down (1962), Lilith (1964) and Mickey One (1965), Warren was a highly regarded actor, but not a major star.
That’s when David Newman and Robert Benton, writer-editors at Esquire, brought him their screenplay of Bonnie and Clyde. They had created Esquire’s “Dubious Achievement Awards,” but they had never written a screenplay before.
They were fans of Hitchcock and French New Wave directors Truffaut and Godard. They had grown up on B-westerns and country-western music.
Benton’s father had actually attended the funerals of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in 1934.
Newman and Benton had successfully co-authored a Broadway play, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, but Hollywood wasn’t interested in their story of Bonnie and Clyde.
It was Truffaut who mentioned the screenplay to Warren, when he was in Paris with Leslie Caron. Warren loved the screenplay. He took it to Warner Bros. He would star, he said, but he also wanted to produce the film. Warner Bros. reluctantly agreed. In the uncertain 1960s, the studios would agree to almost anything.
Warren wanted Penn to direct.
The trade papers announced the news on May 9, 1966. The same press release carried the news that Beatty’s production company had also acquired screen rights to a comedy written by Robert Towne about a Hollywood hair stylist titled Keith’s My Name, Hair’s My Game. When he finally made the movie in 1975, he called it Shampoo.
Beatty took Towne on location to Texas to act as script doctor on Bonnie and Clyde. He’s credited as “Special Consultant.”
Jack Warner was less than enthusiastic about this project. On September 19, 1966, he dictated a memo after reading the Bonnie and Clyde script: “I can’t understand where the entertainment value is in this story. Who wants to see the rise and fall of a couple of rats?! Am sorry I didn’t read this screenplay before I said yes. … This era went out with Cagney!”
Penn was then completing a promising film at Columbia with an impressive cast—Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in The Chase—that would prove to be a turkey.
With these less than promising credentials and an unknown cast, Warren and Penn produced and directed what would prove to be one of the most successful Warner Bros. films to date!
They had trouble casting the role of Bonnie. “We offered the part to Tuesday Weld,” Penn recalled. But her husband objected. Warren had a reputation for seducing his leading ladies, which may have been behind the husband’s reservation. Warren had already broken up the marriages of two of his previous co-stars—Natalie Wood and Leslie Caron.
“Warren suggested Natalie Wood,” Penn recalled, “but I said no. I didn’t want a movie star. We talked about Jane Fonda, but she seemed too sophisticated.”
“We’d been turned down by about ten women,” Beatty said. “I wanted Natalie, Jane, Tuesday, Sharon Tate, Ann-Margret, and then I met Faye Dunaway.”
Beatty had great casting instincts. He was in Lilith with Gene Hackman and wanted him for a key role in Bonnie and Clyde. He saw Gene Wilder in a play and picked him for a small part. Wilder had never been in a film before.
Michael J. Pollard was a longtime friend of Beatty’s. “My first instinct was to cast Dennis Hopper,” Beatty said. “But Michael was really the one.” The role in question had been written as a football player who was a sexual partner to both Bonnie and Clyde. The script called for a menage-a-trois.
Beatty told the boys from Esquire, “No, I’m not playing a homosexual.” So they rewrote it with a different sexual aberration, making him impotent.
Beatty and Dunaway had no off-screen romance. She said they had an understanding that “any kind of romance would be a distraction.”
To relieve the tension during shooting, Dunaway and Pollard performed Lenny Bruce routines. Dunaway had been romantically involved with Lenny.
Bonnie’s mother in the film was played by a non-actor. She was a schoolteacher standing on the sidelines, watching the shooting, when Warren and Penn picked her out of the crowd to play the part.
The film was budgeted at $1.6 million, and then increased to $1.8 million. Beatty received a $200,000 salary. He also owned 30 percent of the picture.
Beatty screened a rough cut of the picture at Jack Warner’s house. After the lights came up, Warner said, “How long was that movie?” Someone answered, “It’s two hours and 15 minutes, Colonel.” And Warner shouted, “Well, that’s the longest fucking two hours and 15 minutes I’ve ever spent!”
Beatty tried to pacify Warner. “We regard it as an homage to the old Warner Bros. gangster movies,” he said. Warner snarled in response, “What’s a fucking homage?!”
Completed on January 9, 1967, the final negative cost escalated to $2,536,000. Screened for the trades on August 7, it opened in L.A. on August 23, 1967 to mixed reviews.
After the initial response, Warner Bros. actually contemplated dumping the film. It was Warren who personally campaigned for the film and convinced the studio to get behind the picture. Critics, who had initially dismissed the film as too violent, now embraced it.
And so did the public.
Time and Newsweek both did something unprecedented for the news magazines. They ran second reviews that said that their first reviews were wrong!
Bonnie and Clyde was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actors (both Hackman and Pollard), Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design.
Estelle Parsons won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and the film won for Best Cinematography.
The picture was a blockbuster! The worldwide gross was $22,862,000—the second largest grossing Warner Bros. film in history.
Bonnie and Clyde earned a net profit of $16,300,000—an unprecedented 636 percent return on investment.
The picture earned Beatty $6,300,000 and Penn $2,100,000 for their participation.
The film also had a major influence on films that followed, including Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
So now, from 1967, Bonnie and Clyde.