When I think of all the movies that have had an impact on me in my life, 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde tops the list. I was 8 or 9 when I first saw it, and immediately I knew what I wanted to do: I want to be Warren Beatty. What I really wanted was to do what he did: make films. Although I didn’t actually start making films until I was 39, the power of this film stayed with me all that time. As usual, the story behind the movie itself is just as interesting. And Warren Beatty, who brought the idea to Jack Warner at Warner Brothers and literally begged for the opportunity to make it, fought hard to ensure his vision was realized. In doing so, not only did he succeed in making a Hollywood classic, he opened the door for other filmmakers to create the classic films of the early 70’s like Taxi Driver, The Godfather and The French Connection. The revolution started here.
In the late 60’s, many Hollywood studios were in financial trouble. Bad investments like Cleopatra and Doctor Dolittle were beginning to take their toll, severely affecting the bottom line at all the majors. So they began to try something different. They began to take risks by looking to young filmmakers influenced by the style of the so-called French ‘new wave’. They brought an aspect of realism to American film that had not been there before. And even though Arthur Penn is credited as the director of Bonnie & Clyde, make no mistake: this was Warren Beatty’s film. He maintained control of every aspect of production, including casting and final cut. He produced and played the lead of Clyde Barrow, as well as making uncredited contributions to the screenplay, and his influence on the life and success of the film is indisputable. The studio had such little faith in the film that they offered Beatty 40% of the gross, as opposed to a nominal fee. It went on to earn $70 million worldwide by 1973.
The story of the real life depression-era gangsters robbing banks in the American Midwest and carrying on like modern-day Robin Hoods resonated with the anti-establishment feeling of the late 60’s. The film went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations, including all 4 acting categories. With the exception of Beatty, the other nominees were relative unknowns. It introduced the great Gene Hackman as Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow, as well as Estelle Parsons playing Buck’s wife Blanche, who would go on to win the film’s only acting Oscar. Faye Dunaway, who played Bonnie Parker, built an impressive film career for the next decade. Warren Beatty himself has since received 10 Oscar nominations, eventually winning a Best Director Oscar for 1982’s Reds.
While the film itself is not 100% historically accurate, most of the main points are. Bonnie and Clyde did rob banks, engage in shootouts with the police, and were gunned down in a hail of bullets. But it is the style and realism that make the film great, and the acting brought the influence of new methods into the mainstream. As a result, in came DeNiro, Pacino, Nicholson, and the list goes on and on. Bonnie and Clyde was also one of the first films to feature extensive use of squibs, bringing realism to the violence in the film. Ironically, this was one of the films main critiques: too real. More importantly, it ushered in a New Hollywood for fresh ideas and creative vision. All the filmmakers of the early 70’s who created movies now considered classics owe a debt of gratitude to Warren Beatty for this groundbreaking film.
When the film was completed, the studio had planned to bury it in the Texas drive-in circuit and hope for a quick death. The determined Beatty took the film overseas to Cannes, and brought home a sensation. He refused to let his film die on the vine. Once again, the old William Goldman adage about Hollywood (Nobody knows anything) was proven correct. And that’s the real lesson of this particular classic: if you believe in something, you fight for it. This seems to be lost in today’s Hollywood, with corporations calling the shots. But there are some dedicated filmmakers to carry on, so there’s always hope.
I recently heard rumors circulating of a remake of this American classic. God, I hope not. For the role of Bonnie, they were talking about … wait for it….Hillary Duff (?) Ugh! Some things are better left alone. Enjoy!