Sunday, August 24, 1997

Blasts From the Past

'Bonnie and Clyde' caught many off guard (Jack Warner, for one) in '67. Here, the stars and others look back.

By: Patrick Goldstein
Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Hollywood lore has it that Warren Beatty would do anything to get "Bonnie and Clyde" made. But did the young movie star really crawl on his hands and knees across the floor of Warner Bros. mogul Benny Kalmenson's office, begging him for the money to make the film?

"That's exactly what happened," recalls Dick Lederer, then the studio's head of advertising and publicity. "Trust me, it's not something you could make up. I was there to see it."

Joe Hyams, a Warners publicist for more than three decades, remembers it a little differently: Beatty was down on the ground, but he was kissing the feet of Jack Warner, the legendary mogul who still ran Warners in the mid-'60s.

Needless to say, Beatty has another version. "It never happened," he says. "It was [then-Warners production chief] Walter MacEwen who approved the movie. That stuff about me being on my hands and knees is all apocrypha." Beatty sighs. "There's so much about this movie that people tend to hyperbolize. The real stories--they're even better."

"Bonnie and Clyde" is the kind of movie that lends itself to great stories, although no two people tell them the same way. Released 30 years ago this week by Warner Bros. Pictures, it was the first modern American film, a daring, disturbing tragicomedy that ushered in a giddy, golden era of Hollywood movies. Still to come were "The Graduate," "The Wild Bunch," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "MASH," "The Last Picture Show," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Godfather" and "Chinatown." But "Bonnie and Clyde" was there first, arriving in August 1967 while American troops were being shipped out to Vietnam and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" ruled the charts.

In many ways it was the first film to capture the new youth-culture vibe. Brimming with violence, comedy, romance and sexual confusion, the film came under virulent attack from establishment critics, led by the New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, who dismissed it as "a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick." The Warners top brass seemed to agree. The studio released it in the dog days of August, opening it in L.A. at the Vogue, an action-movie theater on the wrong end of Hollywood Boulevard. By late fall, Warners had pulled the film out of release.

But the movie would not die. Young moviegoers fell in love with the bravado and sly charm of its bedraggled stick-up gang. Women bought berets and went braless, as Faye Dunaway did in the film. "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde" was a Top 40 hit. Amateur bank robberies swept the nation. In Europe, the film was an instant hit.

By December, Time magazine, which had originally panned the film, put the movie on its cover. The following February, "Bonnie and Clyde" was back in the theaters, and nominated for 10 Oscars. The movie made Dunaway a movie star, Beatty a serious filmmaker, Arthur Penn a top director and helped launch the careers of supporting players like Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard and Gene Wilder. Its screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, became hot Hollywood writers, as did Robert Towne, whose rewrite of the film began his fabled career as a script doctor.

"Bonnie and Clyde" stands today as a pop landmark. Its slow-motion hotography and quick-cut editing have become an integral part of film language; its heroes' infatuation with celebrity, a common theme of movie myth-making.

"Young people understood this movie instantly," Arthur Penn recalls. "They saw Bonnie and Clyde as rebels like themselves. It was a movie that spoke to a generation in a way none of us had really expected."


When they began work on "Bonnie and Clyde," Robert Benton and David Newman had never written a script. They were young writer-editors at Esquire magazine--the resident hipsters who invented the Dubious Achievement Awards. Like many movie-lovers of their generation, they were in the thrall of the French New Wave, especially the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. When Newman and his wife had a daughter, they named her Catherine, after the Jeanne Moreau character in "Jules and Jim."

ROBERT BENTON: Truffaut and Godard were our heroes. I probably saw "Jules and Jim" eight times in two months when it came to New York. Hitchcock was also a big influence. The first day we started working on "Bonnie and Clyde," Peter Bogdanovich called to say he was screening "Rope" at the Museum of Modern Art as part of a Hitchcock retrospective he was putting on. We saw a lot of Hitchcock while we were working on the script.

DAVID NEWMAN: I was a true-crime buff and had picked up a copy of John Toland's "The Dillinger Days." It had footnotes about other outlaws of the time--and there were Bonnie [Parker] and Clyde [Barrow]. In the appendix of the book, he'd published Bonnie's doggerel poem, "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde." Here was this uneducated white-trash West Dallas gangster who'd written this compelling poem. When I talked about it with Benton, who was from Waxahachie, Texas, he realized he had these memories, as a child, of kids getting dressed up as Bonnie and Clyde for Halloween. And we thought, this is the movie we want to write.

BENTON: I'd grown up hearing all the stories about Bonnie and Clyde--my father went to their funeral [in 1934]. Everyone knew someone who'd been robbed or kidnapped by them. Any farmer that had an old car that didn't work, they'd take it out, shoot it full of holes, pour some animal blood on it and show it off as the car Bonnie and Clyde were killed in.

NEWMAN: In late 1963 and 1964, we wrote a 75-page treatment, very detailed, down to the camera shots. We wrote it at night, with my record of Flatt and Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" playing in the background.

Two people we knew, Eleanor and Norton Wright, optioned the treatment for $10,000, which enabled us to take a month's hiatus from Esquire and go down to East Texas. It was a research trip and a pilgrimage, because we were falling in love with the characters. We met these two white-haired old ladies, Miss Mabel and Miss Eva Grizzard--one of them had been Clyde's third-grade teacher. Miss Mabel told us the "Don't sell that cow" story that we used, word for word, in the movie.

It took us five hours of hunting around an abandoned cemetery in West Dallas to find Clyde and Buck's graves in this huge garbage dump with bramble bushes and beer cans. Finally we found the joint headstone, which read: "Gone but Not Forgotten."

BENTON: Our friend Helen Scott, who knew all the French filmmakers, got the treatment to Truffaut. When he came back to New York, he went through the script with us--it was the only screenwriting lesson we'd ever had. It was his idea to have Bonnie write her poem, then cut to a Texas Ranger reading it in the newspaper, and then cut to Clyde reading the poem from the newspaper to Bonnie before they make love in the meadow.

NEWMAN: Everyone in Hollywood turned the script down. Truffaut was too busy to do the film himself, but he'd given the script to Godard, who came to New York, where we had a catastrophic meeting. He had this reputation as a wild man, so when he said, "Let's start next week, I'm ready," our producers panicked. They said, "It's the wrong time of year to shoot in Texas. Norton Wright actually called and got a long-range weather report, saying it would be stormy and cold for the next three months. And Godard just walked out. His last words were: "I'm talking cinema and you're talking meteorology."

WARREN BEATTY: I was in Paris with Leslie Caron and we had lunch with Truffaut, who told me about this script. He was very enthusiastic. So I called Benton and Newman.

NEWMAN: When Warren called and said he'd like to read the script, we said back: "Who is this really?"

BENTON: Warren called and said he'd be by in 15 minutes to pick up the script. My wife says she had just enough time to get her makeup on. He called that night and said, "I'm on Page 27. I want to do it." And I said, "Wait till Page 47." And he called back and said, "I still want to do it." Warren bought the script for $10,000. He asked us who we'd like to direct it and of course we said Truffaut or Godard. And he very wisely said, "You've already written a French New Wave film. What you need is a good American director."

ARTHUR PENN: I was dubious. But Warren kept after me. He can be very persuasive and so he persuaded me. The script's biggest problem was they'd written the Michael J. Pollard character, C.W., as this football player who was a sexual partner to both Bonnie and Clyde--it was a menage a trois. I thought that was way too sophisticated for those characters.

BEATTY: I didn't have a problem with that--I thought it was novel and unexpected.

NEWMAN: Our very first meeting with Warren, he came right out and said, "I'm not playing a [homosexual]." He had plenty of aesthetic reasons, but he thought it would make him terribly unsympathetic to his audience. Arthur thought Clyde should have some sexual dysfunction, so we came up with him being impotent.


PENN: Warren wanted a lot of women for Bonnie. We offered Tuesday Weld the part, but her husband didn't like it. Natalie Wood was suggested, but I said no. I didn't want a movie star. We talked about Jane Fonda but she seemed too sophisticated.

BEATTY: Faye wasn't my first choice. We'd been turned down by about 10 women. I wanted Natalie, Jane, Tuesday, Sharon Tate, Ann-Margret. And then I met Faye. I was living in a penthouse suite at the Beverly Wilshire and I called Arthur, who was downstairs, and I said I'd met an actress I knew he would like. I knew Faye was his type. I didn't think she was right for the character. But I told Faye, go down and meet Arthur. Since I've already told him I don't think you're right for the part, I'm sure he'll say he wants you to do the movie. So she went down three floors and he called me and said, "I want her."

FAYE DUNAWAY: I knew it was a great role. I really identified with Bonnie. She was just like me, a Southern girl who was dying to get out of the South. She wanted to take risks, she wanted to live. I knew exactly how she felt--I'd felt that way for years.

BENTON: Warren had great casting instincts. I'll never forget him telling Arthur, "I was in this movie, 'Lillith,' and you've got to see this guy Gene Hackman. He's great."

PENN: I knew Estelle Parsons because she was in a summer theater in the Berkshires I'd been running--she was in a stock company with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.

BEATTY: Michael J. Pollard was one of my oldest friends. I'd known him forever--I met him the day I got my first television show. We did a play together on Broadway. My first instinct on his part was to cast Dennis Hopper, but Michael was really the one.

GENE WILDER: It was my first movie--I'd been up for parts but never gotten them. I didn't even audition. When I was on the set in Texas, I asked Warren who'd wanted me for the part. And he said, "I saw you in a play and I liked you." And when I asked Arthur, he said "I saw you at the Actors Studio and I really liked you." It doesn't matter who's telling the truth. I got the part.


Beatty had made three films at Warners, but he'd infuriated Jack Warner when he refused to star in "PT 109," after being suggested for the part by no less than John F. Kennedy himself. However by 1966, Warner did not run the studio alone. At the studio's corporate headquarters in New York, where the business decisions were made, the boss was Ben Kalmenson, a belligerent, foul-mouthed racetrack habitue who was the studio's unofficial CEO.

BEATTY: For some reason or another, Jack Warner thought I was going to hit him. I don't know why, I never said that. I liked him, I thought he was funny. But he was nervous about meeting with me.

DICK LEDERER: Warren was a fun guy, very spirited, not serious and profound like he is today. He came into my office, waving this script, saying he had this great story, but no one would make the movie. When I took him down to see Benny, Warren got down on his hands and knees and crawled across the office, saying "You've got to let me make this picture. We can do it for almost nothing and it'll be a big hit." Benny thought he was nuts and he yelled at him, "Get off the floor, you crazy bastard!" But he called Jack Warner in L.A. and when he was done, he told Warren to go to L.A. and see Warner and maybe they could make the picture.

BEATTY: It was Walter MacEwan who approved the film. Warners put up $1.8 million. I didn't take any money--well, I took $200,000, but no more than that. But I owned 40% of the picture. Warners didn't understand the movie at all. They wanted us to shoot it on the back lot. There's a letter in the studio archives [see reproduction, Page 78] where Jack Warner says: "What does Warren Beatty think he's doing? How did we ever get us into this thing? This gangster stuff went out with Cagney."

PENN: We shot the film around Dallas and these little towns like Denton and Pilot's Point. Warren and I had an arrangement. On "Mickey One," we'd had deep disagreements--he thought the script was too mannered and intellectual, and I have to admit he was right. So on "Bonnie and Clyde," everything was open to discussion, and sometimes it got quite heated.

WILDER: There was constant debating. When they'd finish a scene, they'd go off somewhere and have what looked like an argument while we'd sit around and try to figure out what they were talking about. Our guess was that Warren wanted it one way, Arthur another way, so they'd end up doing the take both ways.

HACKMAN: Arthur had very simple, specific ideas that helped you do your work. In the scene where we get ambushed and I die, Arthur said, "You're like a wounded animal, stumbling around like a bull, dying in the bullring."

DUNAWAY: Warren gave Gene [Hackman] the highest compliment. He said his was the most authentic performance in the movie, so textured and so moving.

I remember getting up every day at 4:30 a.m. and shooting at first light. But we had a great time. To relieve the tension, Michael J. Pollard and I would do Lenny Bruce routines between scenes and crack everybody up.

HACKMAN: You had to be impressed by Warren's determination. There weren't many actors back then producing films. When we started I remember seeing a bunch of the crew standing around, joking about Warren. They didn't really believe in him. He was such a tremendously good-looking guy that they just figured he was a Hollywood dilettante. But he overcame that. As it turned out, he was a lot better at his job than they ever were at theirs.

DUNAWAY: How did I resist Warren? Let's just say both of us felt that any kind of romance would be distracting. So we had a tacit understanding that we'd simply remain friends. Warren gave me one of my most cherished compliments. We were doing a getaway scene where it was very important that I gun the motor at just the right time. And when I did it, just right, we went roaring away with Warren hanging onto the running board and he grinned and said to me, "Hey, that was something. You've got a lot of class!"

PENN: The scene where Bonnie goes back to see her mother is very different than it was in the script. In fact, the woman who plays her mother wasn't an actor. She was a schoolteacher who was standing on the sidelines, watching us film. Most of the people in that scene were local people. Robert Towne wrote that wonderful exchange between Warren and Faye and Bonnie's mother, where she says, "You try to live three miles from me and you won't live long, honey."

BEATTY: Before we'd started shooting, Arthur had been doing rewrites with Bob and David and was worried that he'd cut the guts out of the script. He asked me if he'd be letting me down too badly if he didn't do the movie. I said "Yes, you would." I thought maybe he could work with someone else and suggested Lillian Hellman, who was a friend of mine. He didn't think that was a good idea. So I told him about Towne, who was smart and had read the script and been very supportive. And Robert came down to Texas. Actually, he came to work with me on an updated version of "The Country Wife," which was the script that became "Shampoo." We didn't get a lot of work done on that, but Robert was very good at mediating the dialectic that took place between Arthur and me.

HACKMAN: I was on the set one day when I noticed a guy standing behind me, staring at me. Finally he said, "Hell, Buck would've never wore a hat like that." I turned around and looked at him and said, "Maybe not." He looked like an old Texas farmer. So I introduced myself and he said, "Nice to meet you. I'm one of the Barrows."

BEATTY: We did the shot where Faye and I die all in one take. We had one car and one load of squibs, so we had to keep it together. My cue, the cue to set off more bullets than had ever been set off in movie history, was for me to squeeze a pear I was eating. I wanted a peach, but peaches were out of season. We even tried to get them from Chile, but we couldn't. So I had a pear, but the pears were dry, so we injected them with water to make them juicier. I was a nervous wreck. There were squibs all over me, there was a makeup guy, off-camera, who was going to pull my scalp off when it exploded. I was just hoping I did it right. So I got out of the car, I looked around, saw something that was fishy and then, well, I squeezed the pear.


BEATTY: We screened a rough cut at Jack Warner's house in a screening room surrounded by Monets and Renoirs and Picassos. After the lights came up, Warner said, "How long was that movie?" And someone said, "It's two hours, 15 minutes, Colonel." And Warner said, "Well, that's the longest [expletive] two hours and 15 minutes I've ever spent."

PENN: He didn't like the film at all. Beatty tried to smooth things over. He said it was an homage to the old Warner Bros. gangster movies, and Jack Warner said, "What's a [expletive] homage?"

BEATTY: Over the titles, we had these black-and-white photographs of that period, flashing by very quickly, and we gradually faded into color, with Rudy Vallee singing "Deep Night," starting very low and getting louder. And Warner said, "What the hell is going on with those photographs? I can't see them!" And we said, "Well, they're sort of there subliminally, Mr. Warner." And he said, "Well, I can't see the god---- things. Make 'em longer! And I can't hear the god---- song. We invented sound at Warner Bros., god---- it, make it louder!"

I told Arthur, "Let's do nothing for now." And before we did, the Six-Day War came along. Jack was very aroused, because Israel had done well and he'd raised more money for Israel than anyone in town. There was a huge meeting on the biggest stage at Warners and Jack made a speech, so I came to him at the end of that day and said, "Let me show you the changes I've made." Of course, I hadn't changed anything, but I showed him the footage, and he said, "That's good." And I said thanks and got up to leave and he said, "Hey kid, I know you didn't change a god---- thing. If you listened to me, you'd make nothing but flops."

LEDERER: At the first rough-cut screening, the studio guys were snickering. Benny Kalmenson had all the sales managers in to go over the summer release schedule and "Bonnie and Clyde" wasn't even on it. So I knew they were going to bury it.

BEATTY: I went in to Benny, whose language made Jack Warner sound like Mother Teresa, and said, "You guys aren't treating this film like you have anything. Let me buy it back from you." Benny said, "Where the [expletive] are you gonna get $1.8 million!" I remember we stood up and went into Warner's office, and he said, "This kid wants to give us $1.8 million for the movie." Well, that really perked up Warner's interest. He wouldn't sell it to me, but they got a little more interested in it.

PENN: We almost got condemned by the Legion of Decency because of the opening scene, where Faye comes running down the stairs after we've seen her nude up in her room. We screened it for this Catholic priest, who swore she didn't have any panties on.

BEATTY: It was Father Sullivan. He kept running the film back and forth, saying, "Oh no, that's her breast!" And we'd say, "No, Father, it's just her dress, it's silk." And he'd say, "No, no, I see her breast! Wait, I think I see a nipple!"



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