Image Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images; Everett CollectionVirtually every obituary and appreciation of director Arthur Penn that will appear in tomorrow’s newspapers will lead off by talking about the film that he’s best remembered for: 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. And I suppose this one’s no different — after all, it’s a classic, a psychologically rich and bullet-riddled movie that revolutionized the depiction of sex and violence in Hollywood at a time when the movie industry was trying to figure out what it could and couldn’t get away with. But Penn’s influence isn’t primarily on cinema or the stage or television (all mediums he worked in during his long and brilliant career). Penn’s greatest legacy is his impact on acting. He was an alchemist who studied the Method at the Actors Studio and conjured magic from his actors (and sometimes non-actors like President Kennedy, whom he coached for the presidential candidate’s famous 1960 TV debates with Richard Nixon). Penn, who died last night at age 88, began his career behind the camera in the mid-’50s, making his name directing live television during the golden-age of Playhouse 90 — the influential drama series that served as a hot house for future auteurs like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer. From there, he segued into the theater, winning a Tony for his legendary 1959 production of The Miracle Worker, starring Anne Bancroft. And he completed his cycle as a triple threat in Hollywood, where he adapted that hit play into an Oscar-winning film in 1962.
Still, it was Penn’s groundbreaking, revisionist 1967 biopic of bank-robbing outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow that shook Hollywood to its core. The making of the film, which is definitively chronicled in EW contributor Mark Harris’ 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution, was in many ways as influential as the movie itself. The script for Bonnie and Clyde was penned by a pair of fledgling screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, who were intoxicated with the possibilities of European art films by directors like Truffaut and Godard. That, combined with the burgeoning counter-culture in America, formed a potent cocktail of rebellion, anti-authoritarianism, and an eagerness to mess with the old-fashioned rules of Hollywood, which seemed to be growing more and more out of touch with the kinds of movies young people wanted to see at the time. When a young actor named Warren Beatty joined the project as a producer, seeing a potential break-out role for himself in the film, Bonnie and Clyde was still a film without a director (Truffaut said thanks, but no thanks). Enter Penn, a man who knew how to summon great, unexpected performances — which is exactly what he got out of the baby-faced Beatty and his ravenous and ravishing partner in crime, Faye Dunaway. While the sexual heat and dysfunction between the two antiheroes was subtle, the violence in the film was anything but — especially the climactic shoot-out that seems turn Bonnie and Clyde into bullet-pocked martyrs. The tagline for the film captured its mixed message beautifully: “They’re young. They’re in love. They kill people.”
A clip of the film’s bloody finale below (the shoot-out begins at the 4:00 mark):
Mainstream critics hated the film. But film lovers, especially those who’d spent long afternoons in the darkness of big-city art houses, rejoiced. Bonnie and Clyde was a hit at the box office and scored 10 Oscar nominations. Never mind that Penn’s film only won two statuettes (for cinematography and Estelle Parsons’ supporting turn), its impact was unerasable. In short order, films like Sam Peckinpah’s western bloodbath The Wild Bunch and Dennis Hopper’s existential road movie Easy Rider made sure that Penn’s revolution took hold. Penn’s resume as a film director spanned six decades and included collaborations with acting heavyweights like Marlon Brando (1966’s The Chase), Dustin Hoffman (1970’s Little Big Man), Gene Hackman (1975’s Night Moves), and Jack Nicholson (1976’s The Missouri Breaks). None of them may have cast the same long shadow that Bonnie and Clyde did, but sparking one revolution in a lifetime seems more than enough to etch Penn’s place in movie history.