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Bonnie & Clyde & Joe & Pauline

This year is the 30th anniversary of the release of "Bonnie and Clyde." Sunday's Calendar detailed the film's approval, financing and casting struggles. Today's second part, told mostly through the words of key participants, tells how the film earned its status as a classic after initial reviews nearly buried it.

August 25, 1997|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Morgenstern has vivid memories of the first time he saw "Bonnie and Clyde." It was the week before the movie's August 1967 opening in New York. Then in his second year as a film critic at Newsweek, he'd gone to the Warner Bros. Fifth Avenue offices to see the film.

He still remembers who sat next to him during the screening: Warren Beatty.

"I don't know if it made me nervous or not," recalls Morgenstern, now the film critic at the Wall Street Journal. "But it certainly was unusual, especially since Warren spent the whole time trying to read my notes."

As the film's star and producer, Beatty had reason to be nervous. He knew that Warner Bros. Pictures was giving the film a lukewarm send-off. Instead of giving the film a prestigious summer booking, the studio opted to release it in the dog days of late August. Nor did the film debut in top-of-the-line theaters: Its Los Angeles booking was at the Vogue, a now-defunct action house at the east end of Hollywood Boulevard.

"Through the years, many producers and directors have claimed that their films were mishandled, but in this case, they're right," says Dick Lederer, who in 1967 was Warners' head of advertising and publicity. " 'Bonnie and Clyde' was a watershed film, but no one knew it. In fact, I think it unnerved the Warners executives so much because they realized a new era was coming that they didn't understand."

The film premiered in early August at the Montreal Film Expo, where the audience loved it. Unfortunately, the only American press coverage of the festival was from Bosley Crowther, the venerable New York Times film critic who wrote three dismissals of the film in less than a month, each a denunciation of its jarring juxtaposition of comedy and violence.

In his opening day review, Crowther wrote that Beatty and Faye Dunaway acted "as though they were striving mightily to be the Beverly Hillbillies." Time magazine dismissed the film as a "strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap." In his Newsweek review, Morgenstern called it a "squalid shoot-em-up for the moron trade."

As if to add insult to injury, Esquire magazine--which still had the film's screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, on its masthead--ran a sprawling profile of Beatty by Rex Reed, whose tone was best caught in his assessment of the press-shy actor: "Interviewing Warren is like asking a hemophiliac for a pint of blood." Sly and bitchy, the piece cast Beatty as a pseudo-intellectual fop who boasted of his photographic memory for dinner party menus, New York phone numbers and "anything of a sexual nature."

"That story was a nightmare," recalls Guy McElwaine, the former Columbia Pictures chief who was then Beatty's press agent. "We thought we'd worked out a strategy to deal with Rex, but obviously it didn't work." The story even tweaked McElwaine, portraying him as a professional hand-holder with a pink-walled office and a chocolate-brown Mercedes. "My office was done in beige and my Mercedes was maroon," protests McElwaine. "But that gives you an idea of how accurate everything else was."

There were a few promising signs. The New Yorker's Penelope Gilliatt liked the film. When it opened in Los Angeles, Times film critic Charles Champlin conceded it was "the work of talented and dedicated people with a point of view." The most dramatic turnaround came from Morgenstern, who saw the film again and wrote a new review, recanting his pan of the previous week. In October, Pauline Kael wrote an impassioned defense of the film in the New Yorker. But by then Warners was already booking a new film, "Reflections in a Golden Eye," into the theaters where "Bonnie and Clyde" was playing.

"They didn't understand the movie," recalls Joe Hyams, a longtime Warners publicity executive. "On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the biggest culture shock for Warners, it was a 9." By late October, most theaters had stopped booking the film. If not for Beatty's persistence, that might have been the end of it.

ARTHUR PENN, DIRECTOR: It was discouraging. Time magazine said we used money from the wrong era. It's true. When we were shooting the first robbery scene, we didn't have the right bills. And I said, "To hell with it, let's just shoot it. Who's going to care?" Well, Time cared!

WARREN BEATTY: I was surprised when the Rex Reed piece came out. When I'd talked to him he'd seemed so dewy-eyed. I didn't really understand what we understand now about the media. That type of character assassination was just coming into vogue.

JOE HYAMS: Warren was breaking Warners' [expletives] 24 hours a day. Dick Lederer called him the mosquito because he was always buzzing around. He worked the film all over the world, cajoling sales managers, convincing theater owners. Warners did 25 different ad campaigns for the film before he was satisfied. I remember seeing Warren and Lederer in the office at 2 a.m., their sleeves rolled up, working on new ideas.

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