The stickup that shook it up

Times Staff Writer

Dusk was approaching high up on the rim of Mulholland Drive and Warren Beatty, relaxed at poolside, looked down on the twinkling lights of the Valley before he recounted a quarrel he had four decades ago at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.

"I was arguing with Jack Warner about 'Bonnie and Clyde,' and he said to me, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's fine, kid, that's your opinion.' Then he says, 'You have your opinion, but you do know whose name is up on the water tower, right?' So I said, 'Yeah, hey, look, it's got my initials!' "

Beatty is 70 now, and any animus he had toward the late mogul is long gone ("Really, he was kind of an enjoyable guy, and he said some funny things"), but that image of Beatty as the young-buck star and producer of "Bonnie and Clyde" playfully laying claim to the power structures of Old Hollywood is an irresistible metaphor.

Old-man Warner and the other executives who released "Bonnie and Clyde" had absolutely no idea that the quirky gangster picture would become a commercial sensation, cultural flash point and generational battleground. The only thing that surprised them even more is that "Bonnie and Clyde" also became a pivot point in the business of Hollywood; within months, it seemed like the town belonged to a new maverick generation of filmmakers with "personal vision" and a glee for toppling every Hollywood convention. In hindsight, it's amazing they didn't pull down Col. Warner's beloved water tower.

"Bonnie and Clyde" was released in 1967, but it was the following year, with America in turmoil, that the film surged into the public consciousness. The story was a mix of Robin Hood and Romeo and Juliet and more loose legend than real-crime; it starred Beatty and Faye Dunaway as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, the doomed Texas lovers who became a media sensation in the Great Depression. Beatty remembers that Warner grumbled that "these gangster movies went out with Cagney," but this film would have little in common with dated tommy-gun cinema.

This film was jarring, and not just in its bloody realism. "I remember a creative impatience by almost everyone involved," Beatty said, "and there was so much energy on the screen." The really interesting thing, though, was how audiences latched onto "Bonnie and Clyde" as a flexible symbol. Already feeling far removed from the Summer of Love, young America embraced it as nihilistic thrill ride and anti-establishment poetry. Many film critics and older viewers, however, seized on it as entertainment-as-evidence, a sign of an amoral society in slide.

The interest in the film endures and, if any aspect of it does feels dated now, that's primarily a function of so many imitators through the decades. Tuesday, Warner Home Video will release a lavish repackaging of the film that comes with a 36-page hardcover photo book and the new documentary "Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde." Then there's "Pictures at a Revolution," the acclaimed new book by Mark Harris that weaves together the history of 1967 best picture Oscar nominees "Bonnie and Clyde," "In the Heat of the Night" (which won) and "The Graduate" to show an industry amid sea change.

The word "revolution" is part and parcel of the "Bonnie and Clyde" legacy, but Beatty said he can't say whether the movie was more seismograph or lightning rod. "It was Victor Hugo who said that there's nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come," he said. "Something is going to happen, and certain things are going to be emblematic of that change, that flux. It was 1968. There was a storm in the world. If someone wants to give us credit for 'Bonnie and Clyde,' I'm happy to take it." Then he added, with a wink: "I don't want to overwhelm you with my attempt to be attractively humble."

"Bonnie and Clyde" made him a wealthy man (his contract, in a nod to the studio's expectations, gave him a percentage of the gross instead of a minimum payout), and he became the career model for the now-common transition that sees cerebral stars step behind the camera. But "Bonnie and Clyde" was hardly a one-man show. In fact, sitting down to talk about the film, the first words out of Beatty's mouth were a question: "You already talked to Arthur, right?"

The director

ON the phone from Manhattan, Arthur Penn, 85, apologized for the catch in his throat. "I'm just getting over the flu; but I very much wanted to talk about this film. . . . It amazes me that 40 years have passed since 'Bonnie and Clyde.' It's almost beyond imagination."

Penn had no interest in directing "Bonnie and Clyde" and, in fact, after the grueling production and disappointment of "The Chase," the former Tony winner was ready to return to the boards of Broadway. "I had to bludgeon Arthur to get him to direct 'Bonnie and Clyde,' " said Beatty, who had worked with Penn on the 1965 mob movie "Mickey One."

In the end, Beatty won Penn over by promising daily screaming matches. As Penn remembered it: "He told he wanted to have an argument every day and then come to an agreement . . . and Warren is one of the most persuasive people you will ever meet."

In origin the project was part Texas, part Paris. The script had come from magazine writer Robert Benton, who had grown up in East Texas and was well versed in Bonnie and Clyde mythology (his father attended Barrow's 1932 funeral), and his Esquire colleague David Newman. French New Wave director Francois Truffaut had flirted with the project but had moved on, although the film that "Bonnie and Clyde" became would certainly borrow the New Wave's jagged shifts in tone and choppy editing, especially in its famous climax when the lovers, after locking eyes, die in a hail of bullets.

If the movie looked like a foreign film, it was cast like a New York stage play. Beatty and Penn both came from the theater, as did many of the actors they brought down to Texas. Gene Hackman (who had just been fired from "The Graduate") played Buck Barrow, Clyde's brother; Estelle Parsons was Buck's screeching wife, Blanche; and Michael J. Pollard was the quirky henchman C.W. Moss. "It was an extraordinary cast," Penn said. He was proved right when all five main cast members were nominated for Oscars. "All of them! Just think of that."

Gene Wilder was also lured from New York by the prospect of making his feature film debut. Wilder had a memorable cameo as a hostage snatched up by the Barrow gang, and Wilder didn't have much trouble feigning a look of shock on the set.

As Parsons remembers it: "I remember Gene got there, and the first day he comes out and is ready to go and we're standing there in costume and then Warren and Arthur begin yelling at each other. Gene was horrified. 'What's happening, is this movie going to get made?' I told him, 'Oh, don't worry. This happens every day.' "

The angst went further. Dunaway (whose agent did not reply to interview requests) had a breakthrough performance, but, according to the Harris book, was "physically and emotionally fragile" during the shoot and, like her character, moody and volatile.

The production, headquartered in Dallas, traveled each day to film in little towns such as Ponder, where local ambitions had been shuttered since the Depression. The idea of leaving the Warner back lot was not well received by executives, but Penn was resolute that the small towns would give a dusty stillness to the movie and enhance the sense of restless souls trapped in a dust-bowl wasteland. "One filling station, two hairdressers, maybe a drugstore," Parsons said. "That's what these towns were."

Hackman said that on one afternoon, he was preparing for a scene when an elderly man ambled up and pointed at the hat on the actor's head. "He said to me, 'Buck Barrow was my cousin, and he would never wear a hat like that,' " Hackman remembered. "For the people there, life hadn't really changed all that much since the real Bonnie and Clyde had come through."

Hackman said his most vivid memory of the shoot was the interaction with Penn and an ensemble engaged in the pure pursuit of "trying to solve acting problems."

"I remember just sitting there in the car, the five principal actors, all of us there filming, and thinking to myself, 'Man, isn't making movies great? How terrific is this business?' I thought it was always going to be just like that." Hackman laughed and added: "It wasn't, I'm sorry to say. It was as good an experience as I've ever had."

Hackman said that Penn had the approach of walking up just before a scene and whispering a simple phrase into an actor's ear that would help clear away intellectual clutter. "In Buck's death scene, Arthur came to me at the very last moment and just whispered 'a bull in a bull ring, wounded,' " Hackman said. "And that was exactly what I needed. I don't know if I have ever worked with a director that knew more about what an actor needed -- to be pushed, nudged, guided or given an image."

The director crafted a film that would pull audiences in with humor and flirtation, then slap them back with violence. "That," Penn said, "is how the real world has always operated. It was vital to me that the film be a new American gothic. . . . The movie was released into a world where kids were burning draft cards and feeling beset by their own government. We rang a big bell with this film. A very big social bell. We had no idea how it would reverberate around the world."

To further the realism, Penn insisted on using low light. This gave old-school cinematographer Burnett Guffey fits. Hunched over with ulcers, he quit the production but, somehow, the relentless Beatty talked him back.

Hackman remembers that Beatty had most of the crew "looking at him out of the corner of their eye and grumbling." They found it shocking that a 30-year-old star would try to play first-time producer. Penn summed it up: "They were appalled that this snot-nosed pretty boy was making a movie when it was clear he had no idea that everything he was doing was completely wrong."

'Conflict equals drama'

BEATTY, a political junkie, said that much of the lore about the struggle to make and release "Bonnie and Clyde" reminds him of the election news cycle. "Conflict equals drama, drama equals story, and you need a story every day. There have to be problems because that makes it interesting."

As nightfall approached, Beatty said there was "some truth" in the stories of the struggle to get the movie made, but really the more interesting conflict was after its release. The film was excoriated by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, and that led to a pouncing by the "people who hold themselves up to judge culture." The film was diabolical, to some, because it charmed viewers with humor and then let blood splatter in their eye. Others pointed out that the film had little to do with the real robbers whose name it used. ("That was true," Parsons said, "they were pretty much psychopaths. The movie is what it is, but it isn't their story.")

The polarized reviews hardly killed the film. The catchphrase "They're young, they're beautiful, they kill people" (cooked up by studio man Dick Lederer) caught the imagination of a young audience ready for a different type of entertainment. The retro wardrobes and Dunaway's berets even stirred a fashion trend.

Some reviewers reconsidered the film.

"A number of reviewers admitted they had got it wrong, they reevaluated it, which is very unusual," Beatty said with pride. Penn said the film came to be seen for what he and Beatty intended -- "a new American gothic." What he didn't expect: "I didn't know we would change the business. That was a surprise."

The film benefited from great timing in another way. Jack Warner sold off a third of his shares in his company in November 1966, and Beatty worked all the offices during the corporate churn to keep his bold little film intact and in play. After a modest opening, the word of mouth (both good and bad) spread and the film had a slow-burn build. By 1972, it had grossed $70 million, huge for its era and budget.

Somehow, "Bonnie and Clyde" was finally in tune with the mainstream -- or maybe vice versa. The movie was nominated for 10 Oscars in all, with Beatty up for two of them. Beatty was established as a force in Hollywood; in the next decade he appeared in such classics as "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Shampoo" and "Heaven Can Wait." "Bonnie and Clyde" also propelled Hackman into a top strata of actors, certainly, while Penn had notable films in the 1970s such as "Little Big Man" but nothing of such moment as "Bonnie and Clyde."

In 1968, at the Oscars, the reluctant director and the pretty-boy producer didn't get to make a speech. The film did win two Oscars, one for Parsons and the other for, of all people, Guffey, the cinematographer who was so upset by the troublesome little film that he suffered internal bleeding.

Up on Mulholland, Beatty slapped his knee and laughed thinking about the mixed messages of Hollywood and history. "You know the really great thing when Guffey won the Oscar? He got up there and he thanked . . . Jack Warner."

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