Joe Morgenstern has vivid memories of the first time he saw “Bonnie and Clyde.” It was the week before the movie’s August 1967 opening in New York. Then in his second year as a film critic at Newsweek, he’d gone to the Warner Bros. Fifth Avenue offices to see the film.
He still remembers who sat next to him during the screening: Warren Beatty.
“I don’t know if it made me nervous or not,” recalls Morgenstern, now the film critic at the Wall Street Journal. “But it certainly was unusual, especially since Warren spent the whole time trying to read my notes.”
As the film’s star and producer, Beatty had reason to be nervous. He knew that Warner Bros. Pictures was giving the film a lukewarm send-off. Instead of giving the film a prestigious summer booking, the studio opted to release it in the dog days of late August. Nor did the film debut in top-of-the-line theaters: Its Los Angeles booking was at the Vogue, a now-defunct action house at the east end of Hollywood Boulevard.
“Through the years, many producers and directors have claimed that their films were mishandled, but in this case, they’re right,” says Dick Lederer, who in 1967 was Warners’ head of advertising and publicity. “ ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was a watershed film, but no one knew it. In fact, I think it unnerved the Warners executives so much because they realized a new era was coming that they didn’t understand.”
The film premiered in early August at the Montreal Film Expo, where the audience loved it. Unfortunately, the only American press coverage of the festival was from Bosley Crowther, the venerable New York Times film critic who wrote three dismissals of the film in less than a month, each a denunciation of its jarring juxtaposition of comedy and violence.
In his opening day review, Crowther wrote that Beatty and Faye Dunaway acted “as though they were striving mightily to be the Beverly Hillbillies.” Time magazine dismissed the film as a “strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap.” In his Newsweek review, Morgenstern called it a “squalid shoot-em-up for the moron trade.”
As if to add insult to injury, Esquire magazine--which still had the film’s screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, on its masthead--ran a sprawling profile of Beatty by Rex Reed, whose tone was best caught in his assessment of the press-shy actor: “Interviewing Warren is like asking a hemophiliac for a pint of blood.” Sly and bitchy, the piece cast Beatty as a pseudo-intellectual fop who boasted of his photographic memory for dinner party menus, New York phone numbers and “anything of a sexual nature.”
“That story was a nightmare,” recalls Guy McElwaine, the former Columbia Pictures chief who was then Beatty’s press agent. “We thought we’d worked out a strategy to deal with Rex, but obviously it didn’t work.” The story even tweaked McElwaine, portraying him as a professional hand-holder with a pink-walled office and a chocolate-brown Mercedes. “My office was done in beige and my Mercedes was maroon,” protests McElwaine. “But that gives you an idea of how accurate everything else was.”
There were a few promising signs. The New Yorker’s Penelope Gilliatt liked the film. When it opened in Los Angeles, Times film critic Charles Champlin conceded it was “the work of talented and dedicated people with a point of view.” The most dramatic turnaround came from Morgenstern, who saw the film again and wrote a new review, recanting his pan of the previous week. In October, Pauline Kael wrote an impassioned defense of the film in the New Yorker. But by then Warners was already booking a new film, “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” into the theaters where “Bonnie and Clyde” was playing.
“They didn’t understand the movie,” recalls Joe Hyams, a longtime Warners publicity executive. “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the biggest culture shock for Warners, it was a 9.” By late October, most theaters had stopped booking the film. If not for Beatty’s persistence, that might have been the end of it.
ARTHUR PENN, DIRECTOR: It was discouraging. Time magazine said we used money from the wrong era. It’s true. When we were shooting the first robbery scene, we didn’t have the right bills. And I said, “To hell with it, let’s just shoot it. Who’s going to care?” Well, Time cared!
WARREN BEATTY: I was surprised when the Rex Reed piece came out. When I’d talked to him he’d seemed so dewy-eyed. I didn’t really understand what we understand now about the media. That type of character assassination was just coming into vogue.
JOE HYAMS: Warren was breaking Warners’ [expletives] 24 hours a day. Dick Lederer called him the mosquito because he was always buzzing around. He worked the film all over the world, cajoling sales managers, convincing theater owners. Warners did 25 different ad campaigns for the film before he was satisfied. I remember seeing Warren and Lederer in the office at 2 a.m., their sleeves rolled up, working on new ideas.
DICK LEDERER: Warren even brought in [screenwriters] Benton and Newman to write ad copy because they’d done ads at Esquire. I wrote the original copy: “They’re young, they’re in love and they kill people.” But they wrote a great ad. It described each member of the gang: “Bonnie wrote poetry. C.W. was a Myrna Loy fan, Buck told corny jokes and carried a Kodak.” And then it said: “All in all, they killed 18 people.”
GUY McELWAINE: Warren had the studio send a memo to all the theater managers telling them to raise the sound level of the picture. Then he wrote personal notes to all the projectionists and stuck them in the film cans, with the projectionists’ names on each one. If a normal film was played at 15 decibels, he wanted “Bonnie and Clyde” played at 22 decibels.
BEATTY: I wanted to shock the audience with the first gunshots. The problem was that when the projectionists would first hear our music, they’d turn the sound down. So when you mixed the sound, you had to deceive them. You’d raise the sound levels slowly so by the time the gunshots came along, the projectionist would be asleep or off watching TV.
PENN: I remember going out with my wife to dinner when we ran into Robert Anderson, the playwright. He said, “What a great review in Newsweek.” I thought he was having fun--it was an awful review. But he said, “No, it’s wonderful.” So my wife and I went to the newsstand and there it was--Morgenstern had completely changed his mind. Now he liked it!
JOE MORGENSTERN: I think I subconsciously sensed that I’d missed something. When we went out on Saturday and my wife asked what movie I wanted to see, I said “Bonnie and Clyde.” The audience just went wild, and the cold sweat started forming on my neck. I knew I’d blown it.
On Monday morning, I went into Newsweek and wrote a six-column review. It began with a description of the previous review, and then I said, “I am sorry to say I consider that review grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate. I am sorrier to say I wrote it.”
That night I met Pauline Kael at a Chinese restaurant and she said, “I read your review and you really blew it.” And all I could say was, “Wait until you see the one next week.”
HYAMS: The film got a great reaction in London and in Paris. I started getting calls from these hip fashion people, saying everyone was copying Faye’s look and wearing Warren’s clothes. In fact, it helped start the no-bra trend, because Faye didn’t wear a brassiere in the film. That’s a contribution Warren made that nobody gives him credit for.
DAVID NEWMAN: Every store window in Paris had women in berets and maxi skirts. There was a nightclub that had a stripper who did a routine dressed as Bonnie Parker. For the premiere, we went in this huge caravan of antique automobiles. Benton and I and our wives were the first to arrive at the theater, where we were bombarded by a storm of flashbulbs. After about 30 seconds, they must have realized: Who are these people? They’re only the writers.
FAYE DUNAWAY: That’s when I knew something incredible was happening. I got out of the car into this sea of berets. It was stunning. I thought, “Oh my God, everyone looks like me.”
BEATTY: There were no bad reviews in London or in Paris--not because they saw the film in a different way, but because they saw America in a different way. Our movie said something about violence in America that people were disturbed about, but didn’t want to deal with. So instead, they’d complain about the size of our dollar bills.
LEDERER: The reaction from overseas told us we had something. The studio had a new guy running distribution. He only lasted three months, but he got behind the film. We got 10 Oscar nominations, so we re-released the film in February, when the nominations were announced. And everything happened--it was a big hit.
NEWMAN: About six months after the film came out, Benton and I met Bosley Crowther at some industry dinner. We made some awkward small talk and finally his wife came along, and he introduced us by saying, “My dear, these are the young men who wrote ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ You know, they’re not so bad after all.”
BEATTY: The great thing about “Bonnie and Clyde” was that it gave me a freedom I’ve never relinquished. It gave me the confidence to know that if I wanted to make a movie, I could just go out and make it. There are some movies where you didn’t always know what went on or whose idea it was--everything just comes together. It’s like Victor Hugo said, “There’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”