Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were two of the most popular celebrity criminals of the 1930s (and they had a lot of competition in that decade). More than 30 years later, America fell in love with them all over again through Bonnie and Clyde, a zeitgeist-capturing movie that spoke to the dissatisfaction and unrest that people (especially young people) felt in 1967. And hey, it was the first major film appearance for Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and Gene Wilder, and featured a future Duke of Hazzard (Denver Pyle, a.k.a. Uncle Jesse). On the 50th anniversary of its release, get to know your favorite movie about your favorite outlaws a little better with these behind-the-scenes tidbits.
1. BEFORE IT WAS MADE IN THE STYLE OF THE FRENCH NEW WAVE FILMS, IT ALMOST WAS A FRENCH NEW WAVE FILM.
Like many young cinephiles of their day, Bonnie and Clyde‘s screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, were enamored of the French New Wave, the influential movement that included films like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and Breathless. These movies tended to have young, iconoclastic, sexually liberated protagonists and unhappy endings, making the true story of Bonnie and Clyde a perfect fit. Director Arthur Penn wound up using some of the New Wave’s aesthetic techniques, too-like quick cuts, zooms, stylized photography, and abrupt changes in mood-making Bonnie and Clyde the first major American film to imitate the style. But before Penn came onboard, the screenwriters pursued two actual French New Wavers: François Truffaut ( The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard ( Breathless). Each filmmaker eventually passed on the project, but both offered suggestions that were incorporated into the final product.
2. FAYE DUNAWAY’S STAR-MAKING PERFORMANCE ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN.
Warren Beatty, doing double duty as star and producer, and director Arthur Penn considered many other actresses first, including Tuesday Weld, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Sharon Tate, Leslie Caron, and Ann-Margret. (Back when he was only producing it and not starring in it, Beatty had also considered his sister, Shirley MacLaine, for the role.) Beatty said they were turned down “by about 10 women,” though he would later say Weld was the only one they made a firm offer to. When Beatty met Dunaway, he didn’t think she was right for the part, but he told her to meet with Penn, who he thought would think she was perfect. Beatty was right.
3. THE WRITERS HAD NO IDEA WHAT THEY WERE DOING.
Benton and Newman worked at Esquire (as editor and art director, respectively), and had no screenwriting experience whatsoever. But they loved the story of Bonnie and Clyde, which Benton, growing up in the Dallas area, had heard his entire life as part of local folklore. (Benton’s father had actually attended Bonnie and Clyde’s funeral in 1934.) Benton and Newman didn’t have experience writing movies, but they did have a well-connected friend of a friend who put them in touch with the French filmmakers and offered some working capital. It was through these connections that the script fell into the hands of Warren Beatty, who immediately contacted them and set the project in motion.
4. THE FIRST DRAFTS HAD CLYDE SWINGING BOTH WAYS.
Newman and Benton worked closely with Beatty and Penn in fine-tuning the screenplay, which all four men later described as a positive, low-conflict collaboration. The only major problem had to do with sex. Newman and Benton’s version had Bonnie and Clyde having a threesome with C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), a composite character based on several members of Bonnie and Clyde’s gang, the idea being that Clyde couldn’t perform without a third party. Beatty claimed he had no problem playing a bisexual character, but he and Penn were both concerned that the audience would view Clyde as a sexual deviant and ascribe his lawbreaking to that. But Penn thought the idea of there being some kind of sexual dysfunction in the group was important. Eventually the four collaborators settled on Clyde being impotent.
5. WHATEVER YOU THINK THE FILM “REALLY” MEANS, YOU’RE PROBABLY WRONG.
Some viewers interpreted Bonnie and Clyde as a commentary on other issues, but Newman and Benton said they didn’t intend it that way. As they wrote in an introduction to a published version of their screenplay, “[People] have told us that Bonnie and Clyde was REALLY about Vietnam, REALLY about police brutality, REALLY about Lee Harvey Oswald, REALLY about Watts. After a while, we took to shrugging and saying, ‘If you think so.'”
6. THE STUDIO THOUGHT IT WAS GOING TO FLOP AND TREATED IT ACCORDINGLY.
Jack Warner, who measured films according to how well they convinced him not to leave the screening room to use the bathroom, hated Bonnie and Clyde. “That’s the longest two hours and 11 minutes I’ve ever seen!” he reportedly said after seeing an early cut. “That was a three-piss picture!” (Also: “This gangster stuff went out with [James] Cagney!”) Thinking they had a turkey on their hands, and despite a warm reception at a film festival in Montreal, Warner Bros. dumped the movie in drive-ins and second-run theaters in August of 1967.
7. THE STUDIO’S LACK OF FAITH MADE WARREN BEATTY VERY, VERY RICH.
Thinking the film wouldn’t make any money, Warner Bros. offered Beatty a ridiculous deal: a $200,000 salary, plus 40 percent of the gross. Yes, 40 percent. Of the gross, not the net. The film made more than $50 million.
8. MOVIE CRITICS KILLED THE FILM, THEN SAVED IT.
Warner Bros.’ wariness was validated by the early reviews. Variety was lukewarm, and The New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther, then the most influential critic in America, hated it. HATED it. He wrote about it more than once, and would drop scathing references to it in reviews of other movies. To him, the film’s wanton violence represented everything that was wrong with modern cinema. (It’s worth noting that Crowther was 62 years old and had been the Times‘ chief critic since 1940.)
Early box office reflected the bad reviews. But then came Pauline Kael, a vocal champion for the film who wrote 9000 words about it for The New Yorker. She was soon followed by Newsweek‘s Joseph Morgenstern, who gave the film a bad review, then retracted it a week later with a new, glowing appraisal. TIME magazine, which had also panned it, recanted and put the film on the cover of its December issue. Word began to spread. Warner Bros. re-released the film into more theaters and, by the end of 1967, it was on its way toward becoming one of the top-grossers of the year. It made most of its money, however, in early 1968, when Warner Bros. put it in wide release to take advantage of its 10 Oscar nominations. (Post-script: Bosley Crowther was removed as the Times‘ lead film critic in early 1968.)
9. IT TURNED AN OLD SONG INTO A NEW HIT.
Flatt & Scruggs’ banjo-heavy bluegrass tune ” Foggy Mountain Breakdown” serves as the film’s theme music, even though it was recorded in 1949 and is anachronistic for a movie set in the 1930s. Even more anachronistic, though, is the fact that when the song was re-released in conjunction with the movie, it became a hit, reaching number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It’s now a standard in the bluegrass genre, and is often used in movies and TV when there’s a chase scene set in a rural area.
10. IT INSPIRED SONGWRITERS AS WELL AS FILMMAKERS.
As Americans fell in love with Bonnie and Clyde the movie, they also became captivated by Bonnie and Clyde the outlaws, and the nation’s troubadours took to the airwaves to sing about the tragic lovers. Merle Haggard, Georgie Fame, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, Mel Tormé, and Bonnie’s sister Billie Jean Parker all recorded new songs in the wake of the movie’s success, and the aforementioned Flatt & Scruggs wrote an entire album.
11. IT INSPIRED A CLOTHING FAD, TOO.
Faye Dunaway’s period costumes caught the attention of the fashion-minded, and soon berets (which hadn’t been popular since the ’30s) were back in vogue. The trend coincided with French designers wanting to move from mini-skirts to maxi-skirts, and gave women an appealing example of how great a maxi could look.
12. THE CINEMATOGRAPHER QUIT MIDWAY THROUGH FILMING.
Burnett Guffey, a respected veteran in the industry who’d shot close to 100 movies and had served as president of the American Society of Cinematographers, was frequently at odds with Penn (who was fairly new to film) and with production designer Dean Tavoularis. Not only was Guffey older than most of the crew (he was born in 1905), but the “new Hollywood” visual style that Penn and Tavoularis wanted for the film didn’t mesh with his old-school sensibilities.
After butting heads with the director one too many times, Guffey quit and was replaced by another old-timer, Ellsworth Fredericks. But this lasted only a few days, as Fredericks’ competent-but-uninspired work made Penn realize how hard Guffey had been trying to capture his vision. He wooed Guffey back to finish the film, for which Guffey would win his second Oscar.
13. IT CONTAINS A REFERENCE TO THE ASSASSINATION OF JOHN F. KENNEDY.
When Bonnie and Clyde are pumped full of lead in the film’s bloody climax, you can see a fragment of Clyde’s scalp flying off. Penn and editor Dede Allen both confirmed that this was a deliberate reference to the Zapruder film of JFK’s death, which had happened in Dallas, not far from where Bonnie and Clyde grew up.
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris