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The stickup that shook it up

Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn recall how their cinematic spree of 'Bonnie and Clyde' transformed Hollywood.

March 23, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Dusk was approaching high up on the rim of Mulholland Drive and Warren Beatty, relaxed at poolside, looked down on the twinkling lights of the Valley before he recounted a quarrel he had four decades ago at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.

"I was arguing with Jack Warner about 'Bonnie and Clyde,' and he said to me, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's fine, kid, that's your opinion.' Then he says, 'You have your opinion, but you do know whose name is up on the water tower, right?' So I said, 'Yeah, hey, look, it's got my initials!' "

Beatty is 70 now, and any animus he had toward the late mogul is long gone ("Really, he was kind of an enjoyable guy, and he said some funny things"), but that image of Beatty as the young-buck star and producer of "Bonnie and Clyde" playfully laying claim to the power structures of Old Hollywood is an irresistible metaphor.

Old-man Warner and the other executives who released "Bonnie and Clyde" had absolutely no idea that the quirky gangster picture would become a commercial sensation, cultural flash point and generational battleground. The only thing that surprised them even more is that "Bonnie and Clyde" also became a pivot point in the business of Hollywood; within months, it seemed like the town belonged to a new maverick generation of filmmakers with "personal vision" and a glee for toppling every Hollywood convention. In hindsight, it's amazing they didn't pull down Col. Warner's beloved water tower.

"Bonnie and Clyde" was released in 1967, but it was the following year, with America in turmoil, that the film surged into the public consciousness. The story was a mix of Robin Hood and Romeo and Juliet and more loose legend than real-crime; it starred Beatty and Faye Dunaway as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, the doomed Texas lovers who became a media sensation in the Great Depression. Beatty remembers that Warner grumbled that "these gangster movies went out with Cagney," but this film would have little in common with dated tommy-gun cinema.

This film was jarring, and not just in its bloody realism. "I remember a creative impatience by almost everyone involved," Beatty said, "and there was so much energy on the screen." The really interesting thing, though, was how audiences latched onto "Bonnie and Clyde" as a flexible symbol. Already feeling far removed from the Summer of Love, young America embraced it as nihilistic thrill ride and anti-establishment poetry. Many film critics and older viewers, however, seized on it as entertainment-as-evidence, a sign of an amoral society in slide.

The interest in the film endures and, if any aspect of it does feels dated now, that's primarily a function of so many imitators through the decades. Tuesday, Warner Home Video will release a lavish repackaging of the film that comes with a 36-page hardcover photo book and the new documentary "Revolution! The Making of Bonnie and Clyde." Then there's "Pictures at a Revolution," the acclaimed new book by Mark Harris that weaves together the history of 1967 best picture Oscar nominees "Bonnie and Clyde," "In the Heat of the Night" (which won) and "The Graduate" to show an industry amid sea change.

The word "revolution" is part and parcel of the "Bonnie and Clyde" legacy, but Beatty said he can't say whether the movie was more seismograph or lightning rod. "It was Victor Hugo who said that there's nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come," he said. "Something is going to happen, and certain things are going to be emblematic of that change, that flux. It was 1968. There was a storm in the world. If someone wants to give us credit for 'Bonnie and Clyde,' I'm happy to take it." Then he added, with a wink: "I don't want to overwhelm you with my attempt to be attractively humble."

"Bonnie and Clyde" made him a wealthy man (his contract, in a nod to the studio's expectations, gave him a percentage of the gross instead of a minimum payout), and he became the career model for the now-common transition that sees cerebral stars step behind the camera. But "Bonnie and Clyde" was hardly a one-man show. In fact, sitting down to talk about the film, the first words out of Beatty's mouth were a question: "You already talked to Arthur, right?"

The director

ON the phone from Manhattan, Arthur Penn, 85, apologized for the catch in his throat. "I'm just getting over the flu; but I very much wanted to talk about this film. . . . It amazes me that 40 years have passed since 'Bonnie and Clyde.' It's almost beyond imagination."

Penn had no interest in directing "Bonnie and Clyde" and, in fact, after the grueling production and disappointment of "The Chase," the former Tony winner was ready to return to the boards of Broadway. "I had to bludgeon Arthur to get him to direct 'Bonnie and Clyde,' " said Beatty, who had worked with Penn on the 1965 mob movie "Mickey One."

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