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Arthur Penn dies at 88; director of landmark film 'Bonnie and Clyde'

The stage, film and TV director was a three-time Oscar nominee who won a Tony for 'The Miracle Worker.' His role in shaping the graphic violence in 1967's 'Bonnie and Clyde' helped usher in a new era in American filmmaking.

September 30, 2010|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times

Arthur Penn, the three-time Oscar-nominated director best known for "Bonnie and Clyde," the landmark 1967 film that stirred critical passions over its graphic violence and became a harbinger of a new era of American filmmaking, died Tuesday. He was 88.

Penn died of congestive heart failure at his New York City home, said his daughter, Molly.

A veteran of directing live television dramas in the 1950s, Penn made his film directorial debut with "The Left Handed Gun," a 1958 revisionist western starring Paul Newman as Billy the Kid.

Penn, who was often attracted to characters who were outsiders, directed only a dozen other feature films over the next three decades, including "The Miracle Worker," "The Chase," "Mickey One," "Alice's Restaurant," "Little Big Man," "Night Moves," "The Missouri Breaks" and "Four Friends."

But during his heyday in the late 1960s and early '70s, Penn was in the vanguard of American filmmakers and is considered a pivotal figure in American cinema thanks to "Bonnie and Clyde," the standout film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as Depression-era bank robbers-turned folk heroes.

"Had he only directed 'Bonnie and Clyde,' he'd be a director of note," film critic Leonard Maltin told The Times in 2009. "But that was simply the most successful of these highly individual, often idiosyncratic, films that he made in his heyday."

Because of his relatively small number of films, most of which were made before the 1980s, Penn "has a somewhat neglected reputation at this point," said film critic Peter Rainer.

"I think you should judge directors by their best work," Rainer told The Times in 2009, "and I think 'Bonnie and Clyde' is one of the very best American movies and is really sort of the opening salvo for a whole generation of American directors who were breaking boundaries and finding their own way."

Rainer said actors loved working with the stage-trained Penn.

"I think he's up there with Sidney Lumet and several others who really understand acting and know how to get the best out of a performer," he said. "And I think he, as opposed to a lot of directors who have theatrical origins, had a real cinematic sense. There's nothing stagy about 'Bonnie and Clyde' or 'Little Big Man.'"

In the late '50s and early '60s, Penn was best known for his work on Broadway as the director of "Two for the Seesaw," "The Miracle Worker," "All the Way Home," "Toys in the Attic," "An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May," "Golden Boy" and "Wait Until Dark."

Among his later Broadway credits are "Sly Fox" and "Golda."

Penn's involvement with playwright William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" — the story of teacher Anne Sullivan's efforts to teach the blind and deaf child Helen Keller — began when he directed the drama as a 1957 installment of television's "Playhouse 90."

The 1959-61 Broadway production of "The Miracle Worker," starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, not only earned Penn a Tony Award as best director but also won a Tony for best play and a Tony for Bancroft as best actress in a play.

Penn's 1962 film version of "The Miracle Worker" earned him his first Oscar nomination as a director, and Bancroft and Duke won Oscars for their performances.

"Bonnie and Clyde" earned Penn his second Oscar nomination.

"I will always treasure the singularly honest, joyful, adventurous intelligence of Arthur Penn both as a collaborator and as a loving friend," Beatty said Wednesday in a statement.

The film's famous ending, in which Bonnie and Clyde are ambushed by lawmen and die in a seemingly endless hail of submachine-gun fire, is considered one of the great moments in movie history.

The graphically violent conclusion, shot with four cameras running at different speeds, was Penn's primary reason for directing the film.

"I was reluctant to say 'yes' to doing 'Bonnie and Clyde' because I wanted an ending that was simply not just violent," Penn said in an interview for Turner Classic Movies. "I wanted one that would, in a certain sense, transport — lift it — into legend.

"And it wasn't until I woke up one morning and I could see that scene with multiple camera speeds and the shape of the almost ballet of dying, and then I knew that that was a film I wanted to make — desperately."

The release of "Bonnie and Clyde" ignited a critical firestorm.

Outraged by the movie's "blending of farce with brutal killings," veteran New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called it "a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in 'Thoroughly Modern Millie.'"

But New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael praised "Bonnie and Clyde," calling it "the most excitingly American American movie since 'The Manchurian Candidate.' The audience is alive to it."

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