“This was at a period when the lunatics were taking over the asylum. It was a very, very interesting period of American movie-making.” – Warren Beatty
The story behind the making of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde is arguably as fascinating as the true tale of the 1930s criminal duo on whom the film was based. While no bullets flew in the pre-production phase or during the actual filming or within the initial failed release of the now classic movie, there was a series of battles being waged between the studio (Warner Bros.), the producer and lead actor (Warren Beatty), the director (Arthur Penn) and even the cinematographer (Burnett "Bernie" Guffey) that make the final bloody climax of the film seem quite apropos. The final result, however, is that despite any creative turmoil within the crew and the business struggle that followed, a landmark in cinema was created.
Looking back now, 50 years later, and with two special theatrical screenings playing in select theaters nationwide on Sunday, August 13 and Wednesday, August 16, we thought this would be a perfect time to pull back the curtain on this cinematic classic (spoiler warning!) and even delve a bit into the actual people portrayed in the film by the stellar cast of Beatty (as Clyde Barrow), Faye Dunaway (as Bonnie Parker), Gene Hackman (as Buck Barrow, Clyde's brother), Estelle Parsons (as Blanche Barrow, Buck's wife) and Michael J. Pollard (as C.W. Moss, a composite of three Barrow gang members). All five actors received Academy Award nominations for their performances with Parsons winning the gold for "Best Supporting Actress." Overall, the film received ten noms in total including "Best Picture," "Best Director," "Best Screenplay," "Best Costume Design" and a second Oscar going to cinematographer Guffey. But as with every movie, it all started with a script.
The Story Begins
Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton wrote the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde with a nod to the New Wave filmmakers from France and initially shopped their script to director François Truffaut and later to Jean-Luc Godard. Truffaut was tied up about to make Fahrenheit 451 at the time so he turned the writers down, but in one of those happenstance situations that only seem to happen in Hollywood, Warren Beatty was simultaneously pitching Truffaut to make a film about French songbird Edith Piaf. Truffaut also turned Beatty down but mentioned that he should check out the Bonnie and Clyde script he had been shown. Long story short, Beatty contacted Benton and after reading it he bought their original script for a reported $75,000 (or $500,000 in today’s dollars).
Content to merely produce the film, Beatty had no intention of participating in the acting side of things. In fact, interestingly enough, his first choice to play Clyde Barrow was music legend Bob Dylan, who had no acting experience. Ultimately deciding against Dylan, Beatty says he went through a series of other ideas for the starring role before he, as he put it, “faced the music” and put himself in as one-half of the title roles.
As for finding a director, Beatty was against Benton’s idea of going back to Truffaut, saying, as Benton recalls: “You’ve written a French screenplay, so you need an American director. And that was a very persuasive argument.” Beatty first went to director Arthur Penn, with whom he worked with on the 1965 crime drama, Mickey One, but Penn turned him down. Beatty estimates that he shopped it to another dozen directors who also spurned the offer, including such heavyweights as George Stevens (Shane, Giant) and William Wyler (Ben-Hur, Funny Girl).
Many of the directors were pointing to the non-sympathetic lead characters and the violence within the script behind their refusals. Beatty eventually went back to Penn, who finally agreed, with the understanding that he would work with Benton and Newman on changing the script. And they did change it, “rather radically” said Penn in 2007.
One of the main changes was that the original script portrayed Clyde as bisexual, but Penn changed the character to be seen as impotent instead; afraid that 1960s audiences would take an even more negative view of the criminal lead character if he was not heterosexual. The impotence angle was taken because Benton was strong in his belief that there had to be some sort of “sexual complexity” between Bonnie and Clyde, noting that “they couldn’t just be this happy couple.”
It’s interesting to note that D.W. Jones, one of Barrow’s surviving gang members, and one of the three real-life people whom Michael J. Pollard’s character C.W. Moss was based on, stated unequivocally in a 1968 interview that Barrow was neither gay nor impotent: “The story could have come from sensation[al] writers who believed anything dropped on them and who blew it to proportions that suited their imagination. Matter of fact, nobody—not the police who asked me questions for hours and hours or the reporters who got in to see me—ever mentioned it. The subject just never come up then. It's just here recently, more than 30 years since Clyde was killed, that I've heard the story. I was with him and Bonnie. I know. It just ain't true.”
Battles on the Set
When a director has disagreements with an actor on the set of a movie, he will have the final word more often than not. But what about when the actor also happens to the film’s producer who hired the director? Such was the case with Bonnie and Clyde’s producer/star Warren Beatty and his director Arthur Penn, and their disagreements on set are something of Hollywood lore 50 years later. Back in 2007, Beatty gave a lighthearted recollection, saying, “I had one little provision [with Arthur, before filming started]. I said, I would like to have an argument with you every day. If we don’t have anything to argue about, let’s find something to argue about. And then at the end of the argument we’ll end up doing what the director says, but I have the right to beat you up in a kind way.”
“Fight’s not a good word,” recalls Estelle Parsons, who won an Oscar for her role as Blanche, Clyde’s sister-in-law, adding with her tongue in her cheek: “Watching them, they were obviously involved in some heavy, professional collaborative decision making.” Michael J. Pollard remembers the rest of the cast—Hackman, Dunaway, Parsons and himself—being stranded in the car as Beatty and Penn aired their particular points of view: “Warren would be talking with Arthur for hours about how a scene should be done; every scene. And we’d be sitting in the car [laughs].” Penn admitted as much in 2007, smiling as he says: “Certainly there were differences. Certainly. But they didn’t result in being obstacles to the work going on and we moved right along on that film.”
While Beatty and Penn’s creative battles are more well-known, the ongoing war between old-school cinematographer Burnett (Bernie) Guffey and his director were even more intense. Penn, always known as an actor’s director, would want to shoot scenes whenever the cast was capturing lightning in a bottle (as they did throughout the shoot), which forced Guffey to have to deal with lighting issues as filming would often move from sun-up to sundown.
For someone like Guffey, who won the Academy Award a decade earlier for From Here to Eternity and was used to the old studio system and controlled soundstage or exterior set lighting, this new way of shooting was a constant source of irritation. “Bernie would bitch and grouse to me or anyone else who was around,” said the film’s creative consultant Robert Towne, “because Arthur was using source lighting.” The film’s editor Dede Allen agrees, “I don’t think he was a happy camper, because Bernie was getting older by then and he had been used to working a certain way and when things were going well Arthur wanted to keep the juices going and keep shooting.”
“Bernie was from the school of ‘you have to put enough light on the faces’ because a lot of revenues that came in from the movies [at that time] was in drive-in theaters, and [in the drive-ins] the projection was kind of weak, so Bernie was always worried about that,” says Beatty. “And there were times when Arthur didn’t want a lot of light in the scenes and that drove poor Bernie Guffey crazy and he quit for a week.” Penn adds the kicker: “Fortunately, he came back [and finished the film] and won the Academy Award, which was well deserved.”
A Global Fashion Trend
One of the other aspects of the Bonnie and Clyde phenomenon came from the creative mind of fashion designer Theadora Van Runkle, who was literally working on her very first film. “I never designed anything before and I made all kinds of mistakes," Van Runkle admitted in 2007. "I didn’t know about continuity. I didn’t know how to breakdown a script. I just stumbled through, [but] I had a great, great wardrobe woman named Norma Brown. I did my drawings and they followed my drawings to the slightest drapery."
According to the cinematic newbie, who passed away in 2011, her creative spark was ignited as she read the script: "The minute I read the first page, I saw everything. I knew it was going to be fabulous." Of course having someone as breath-taking as Faye Dunaway to wear your designs was only icing on the cake. Dunaway herself said of Van Runkle's work: "Theadora conceived that look and the minute I saw it I said, 'This is right. This is sexy, this is interesting, this moves, this is the period.' It was a sophisticated concept." This so-called "Bonnie and Clyde Look" became a fashionista trend not only in America but all over Europe. Both Penn and Beatty recall attending screenings in Paris and London where the general population on the street were outfitted like Bonnie and Clyde. (Watch a clip below from the French release of the film.)
For Van Runkle, who received an Oscar nomination for Bonnie and Clyde (not bad for one's very first film) and later for The Godfather II and Peggy Sue Got Married, the finishing flourish for Dunaway's character was something that became Bonnie's trademark, saying, "The beret was the final culmination. In it, [Faye] combined all the visual elements of elegance and chic. Without the beret, it would have been charming, but not the same."
A New Take on Cinematic Violence
While the violence depicted in Bonnie and Clyde could be considered downright tame by today's standards, back in 1967, it was many moviegoer's first taste of violent realism on the screen. Although Beatty thinks the controversy surrounding the film at the time of its release had more to do with the blending of the violence being captured and the rest of the film's themes, saying, "I don’t think Arthur or I thought we were doing anything different, [but] the juxtaposition of the comedic with the violent stuff was different. A number of people were saying, ‘Are you trying to be funny or is this terribly tragic?'"
Most notable are the scenes when most of the gang meet their demise at the hands of the authorities. "There’s a line in the script that says when bullets hit people it should be violent, it should be painful," said screenwriter Benton in 2007, "and Arthur took that and created a masterpiece; a kind of ballet of death." Penn recalls that the climactic scenes needed to be different from what audiences were used to seeing in the mid-60s. "I felt that if this film ends with them just being shot," said the director, "then no matter what we do in the film it’s just a gangster story, so something radically different has to occur at the end of this film. It was a paradoxical scene that was going to make this film into something mythic."
A "Three-Piss Movie"
From the get-go, Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner was not a supporter of Bonnie and Clyde, believing that gangster films—once the studio's bread-and-butter—were passé by the mid-'60s, and his relationship with Beatty was not exactly cordial. There's the famous story of Warner pointing to the famed Warner Bros. watertower outside his window on the studio lot, labeled with "WB," to show that it was his name on the studio, only to have Beatty respond: "Well, it's got your name, but it's got my initials."
Even more telling of Warner's open disdain of the film was the time when Penn and Beatty screened a rough-cut of the film for the studio boss at his home. Warner had a crude way of letting filmmakers know what he thought of their film by noting how many times he went to the bathroom during a screening. By the end of Bonnie and Clyde, he had left the screening multiple times and at the end of it all, he reportedly said: "That's a three-piss movie. That's the longest two hours and ten minutes I've ever spent."
At the time of the its release in August of 1967, Bonnie and Clyde was given a very limited theatrical presence, but the movie was getting strong reviews and was resonating with a younger audience during this period when anti-establishment beliefs and protests were growing in the streets around America. Eventually Beatty's pleas to the studio—now under new management as Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, after Seven Arts had acquired controlling interest of the company from the retiring Jack Warner—gave way to a new publicity and marketing campaign and the film was given a proper wide release. The resulting box office explosion turned Bonnie and Clyde into, at the time, Warner Bros. second highest grossing film ever, trailing only My Fair Lady.
The Real Criminals
Like all Hollywood cinematic takes on the lives of real people, you're not going to get a dry documentary filled with facts from the actual people who were there or researchers who have dug through the skeletons in the closet. What can happen, and did with the case of Bonnie and Clyde, real-life characters chose to have their say as well and once the spotlight was firmly shining on the film, some filed defamation lawsuits and spoke out to the press. Most notable was the case of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (portrayed by Denver Pyle), who was shown to be an incompetent bumbler, captured by the criminal gang and humilated as they took photos with him.
Truth of the matter was that the lawman was a decorated officer who successfully led the final months-long manhunt to capture the Barrow gang and who never met the criminals prior to the fatal ambush that took their lives. Although Hamer died at the age of 71 in 1955, twelve years before the film was released, his widow did file a defamation suit in regards to how her husband was portrayed and received an undisclosed out-of-court settlement.
By 1967, there were only two members of the Barrow gang who were still alive at the time the film was released, Blanche Barrow (portrayed by Estelle Parsons) and D.W. Jones (portrayed via a composite character by Michael J. Pollard). Parsons, initially wanted to meet her real-life counterpart: "My character, Blanche Barrow, was alive when we shot the movie and I had wanted to meet her, but Warren was not too keen on me meeting her. Then during shooting one day, Warren came to me and said, ‘Okay, if you want to meet her, we’ll go and see her,’ but I said, ‘I don’t want to meet her anymore.’ Once I started playing her, I completely lost interest."
Blanche who would live to the age of 77, passing away from cancer in 1988, had originally liked one of the early scripts written for the film, but after seeing the final result on the screen, she was not impressed, saying in a 1984 interview with historian John Neal Phillips: "That film made me look like a screaming horse's ass!" Blanche's own memoirs, written during her time in prison from 1933-39, were finally published posthumously as My Life with Bonnie and Clyde in 2004.
While some in the public may have thought of the Barrow gang as Robin Hood heroes in the early part of their crime spree, the public turned against them on Easter Sunday in 1934 after Clyde and gang member Henry Methvin murdered two policeman who had happened upon the duo sleeping in their car. Yet with the film released 30 years later amidst the anti-Vietnam sentiments of 1967, the cinematic "anti-hero" was born on the backs of this landmark film. Perhaps Faye Dunaway said it best about how the criminals were portrayed: "Arthur [Penn] said that we were really dealing with the mythic aspects of these characters. And who they were as translated to their myth and who they were to everyone who grabbed onto them. They were heroes at that point, and [we were] connecting with myth more than absolute reality."