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Bonnie and Clyde at 50

How the more or less true story of two Texas outlaws revolutionized Hollywood.

By September 2017Comments

Illustration by Max-O-Matic

On a sunny day in May 1934, some 10,000 people visited the old Belo Mansion, in downtown Dallas, to see the outlaw Clyde Barrow lying in state. The following day, according to one report, a full 40,000 attended Bonnie Parker’s funeral, a few miles away, in South Dallas. Among the crowds was telephone company employee Ellery Douglass Benton, who would pass down to his children the lore of the fallen bank-robber couple, as would many others present. “Everybody in Texas grew up with Bonnie and Clyde,” his son Robert told film critic and historian Mark Harris years later. “You’d go to a Halloween party as a kid, and some boy would always be dressed as Clyde and some girl would be dressed as Bonnie.”

Clyde Barrow’s gravestone, in Dallas’s Western Heights Cemetery, reads “Gone but not forgotten”—which was accurate enough at the time, though its continued veracity today owes much to the younger Benton, whose screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde, co-written with David Newman, became an epoch-defining film upon its release, fifty years ago this summer. It’s difficult to overstate the effect that Bonnie and Clyde had on American cinema from the moment of its debut. The December 8, 1967, issue of Time featured a pop-art cover by Port Arthur–born Robert Rauschenberg depicting the film’s stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and announcing the arrival of “The New Cinema: Violence . . . Sex . . . Art . . .” Today, that era is known as New Hollywood, a miraculous decade ranging approximately from Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars, when originality and serious ambition were the rule, not the exception, in American film.

That influence is still evident in contemporary Hollywood, where violence, sex, and art mix with commerce in a risqué business that bears faint resemblance to the moralizing, patriotic Golden Age studio system that preceded Bonnie and Clyde. How did we get here from there? The story behind Bonnie and Clyde is a tale of upstarts and outsiders who, unwilling or unable to adapt themselves to bleak conventionality, chose to shoot their way out of it—using cameras, of course, instead of guns. In the process, they wrote their own Texas legend.

Bonnie and Clyde often strays from the historical record, but the adaptation is faithful at heart: Barrow and Parker’s tale is one of careless violence, young lovers on the run, and a bloody end by a massive show of police artillery force. It was just these lurid aspects that attracted newspaper readers in the thirties; the largest wreath at Parker’s funeral was paid for by the newsboys of Dallas. (Some of the photos that helped move so many newspapers, as well as a few unfit to print, are on display this month at the Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery, in Dallas.)

That same sensationalism was, no doubt, part of Bonnie and Clyde’s success, but that alone doesn’t explain the film’s immediate reputation as a turning point in movie history. Benton and Newman hatched the idea for the screenplay after reading a book that mentioned the ill-fated couple in a footnote, describing them as outcasts as much as outlaws. This fit with the sort of movie they wanted to make: something akin to the work of French New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, both of whom were unsuccessfully courted to direct Bonnie and Clyde. Over the previous half-decade or so, the two auteurs had advanced an anti-Hollywood style of aesthetic experimentation and emotional immediacy that focused on the lives of misfits and outsiders.

The screenplay ended up instead in the capable hands of the American director Arthur Penn, who, in 1958, had helmed The Left Handed Gun, which reinvented the legend of Billy the Kid. That film and others had probed the edges of the censorious Motion Picture Production Code, but Bonnie and Clyde blasted through it, enshrining a new, subversive hero archetype that originated in the Depression-era South but aligned with the spirit of rock and roll and other sixties cultural rebellions.

Watching Bonnie and Clyde in 2017, one is struck most of all by the film’s zigzag unpredictability. The first scene, of Bonnie alone in her mother’s house in the low-rent area of West Dallas once known as Cement City, immediately sets us off-balance with cuts that feel ragged and jazzlike. As she steps outside to meet her destiny in Clyde, the story whisks us off into a tale of two lovers on the lam. Who needs a one-two-three buildup of their courtship if their crazy devotion to each other is the motor that makes the whole movie hum? But as soon as we’ve agreed that we’re along for the ride, we hit another squealing turn in the third scene, with the revelation of Clyde’s impotence. What sort of movie is this, exactly?

Pauline Kael, whose long, laudatory New Yorker review of Bonnie and Clyde got her hired as a staff film reviewer, saw that question as the film’s key allure: How do we process violence on-screen when a movie doesn’t signal to us whether it’s good or bad? The film also attracted enemies in the press, foremost among them Bosley Crowther, a reviewer for the New York Times, who panned the film three separate times, disdaining its historical inaccuracies and worrying that it glorified violence. Kael mocked that argument, retorting, “Bonnie and Clyde needs violence; violence is its meaning.”

Crowther’s inability to grasp the film’s appeal to the emerging baby boomer generation may have played a role in his being removed from the movie critic beat by the end of the year. Perhaps more than any superlative offered by any particular critic, Bonnie and Clyde’s role in the demotion of Crowther and the elevation of Kael speaks to the film’s seismic reordering of the American cinematic landscape.

Crowther was right, of course, that the true tale of Parker and Barrow, chronicled by Gary Cartwright in the pages of this magazine in 2001, is quite a bit darker than the film. One of Barrow’s motivations for organizing his gang was to exact revenge on the Huntsville-area prison where he was raped repeatedly as a young man. In practice, however, it matters little to us when we watch Bonnie and Clyde who the historical Clyde Barrow was, any more than it did to kids like Benton growing up playing cop and robbers.

What counts instead is how Bonnie Parker saw him. We’re brought into the world of the film through Bonnie’s eyes, already adoring as she spots Clyde loitering around her mother’s car. Parker was a poet, if not a very subtle one, who composed odes to herself and Barrow on the road. Her poems feature in the movie; it’s when her “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” is published in the paper that Clyde cries out, “You made me somebody they’re gonna remember!” and finally rises to the occasion of consummating their romance.

Throughout the film, Clyde’s actions seem performed more or less especially for Bonnie. She eggs him on, enjoying his gunmanship as a stand-in for his malfunctioning you-know-what. Watching the events unfold from her point of view, we too are lured into craving violence, and being increasingly troubled by its implications as time wears on. Bonnie’s moodiness in the second half of the film, as she struggles to keep blinders on about their shared fate, mirrors our own, as we grow restless with the feeling that we know how this movie ends.

Bonnie and Clyde may be largely Beatty’s movie in a financial sense, and even to a great degree in a creative sense; he paid Benton and Newman $75,000 for their script and apparently smoothed out the most provocative edges. But it’s Dunaway who owns the film on-screen. She was, by several reports, difficult to work with, always in need of new makeup, another moment to prepare, or some time alone—after she first saw herself on the dailies, she spent three days sitting alone in a hayfield, despondent, trying to recover her self-esteem. But as the daughter of a military family that moved from base to base, including one in Texas, Dunaway instinctively understood the character of Bonnie. Her exquisite yet vulnerable performance offers the audience a foothold in a world that might otherwise feel sordid and graceless: a beautiful young woman coming of age in a place with no prospects, eager to grab hold of the first man of imagination she meets and point him in the general direction of freedom.

These days, it has become almost cliché to end a film with a massive show of police force taking down the renegade protagonists. It’s yet another now-familiar trope that Bonnie and Clyde helped invent. In his interview for Mark Harris’s 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution, Penn spoke of waking up one day and reimagining the ending as “something spastic and balletic . . . something that makes them into a legend.”

And legends they became. With two Oscar statuettes and nominations in every major category, Bonnie and Clyde overcame studio hesitation and finally earned a wide release in early 1968. Before the awards nominations, Bonnie and Clyde had been rapturously received in Paris, France, but it had yet to play Paris, Texas. After its mainstream validation, the movie opened everywhere, and by the end of 1968—a most violent year—it had cracked the twenty highest-grossing films of all time.

That same year, the production code was phased out in favor of the Motion Picture Association of America film ratings system, and the floodgates were opened for The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Godfather, and more. This lineage continues even amid today’s superhero-saturated Hollywood. One can easily see the influence of Bonnie and Clyde in last year’s sleeper hit Hell or High Water, which featured another pair of Texas bank-robber protagonists, portrayed banks as villains, and aimed to capture the traumas of the Great Recession as energetically as Bonnie and Clyde treated the Great Depression.

The renegade spree of artistically ambitious studio-backed Hollywood films that followed in the footsteps of Bonnie and Clyde has long since slowed to a trickle. Even so, today’s film and TV landscape is dense with morally dubious, violent, or unconventionally sexual protagonists, in relation to whom Bonnie and Clyde occupy a position somewhat analogous to Adam and Eve. It’s a legacy that can’t be taken down by any Texas Ranger. 

Austin writer Michael Agresta’s work has appeared in Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

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