Warren Beatty on ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ at 50

“Bonnie and Clyde” might have indelibly captured the spirit of the anti-authoritarian’60s with a pair of devil-may-care bank robbers from the ’30s. But it didn’t exactly roar into theatres when it opened 50 years ago.

The film, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the fatalistic outlaws, would become a cultural sensation, one of the biggest box office hits up until that point and a 10-time Oscar nominee. But on its initial release on August 13 in the midst of the Summer of Love, “Bonnie and Clyde” was virtually gunned down by bad reviews and a tepid reception at the box office.

“Sometimes you make a movie where everyone gets the joke immediately,” said Warren Beatty in an interview looking back on “Bonnie and Clyde.” ”And then you have a different situation with other movies.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” returned to theatres Sunday to mark its 50th anniversary and it will again play nationwide on Wednesday as part of Fathom Events’ TCM Big Screen Classics series. It remains an epochal landmark in American movies: the first bullet fired in the coming storm of the American New Wave — the “New Hollywood” of Coppola, Scorsese, Altman and others.

It’s fitting, in a way, that “Bonnie and Clyde” should be celebrated with a re-release. That’s how it established itself, in the first place.

“Bonnie and Clyde” made a small dent in its 1967 release, but it sparked a delayed response. This was before the days of wide release, and critics had considerable influence on the months-long rollout of films. Most outlets slammed the film, with many objecting to its cavalier violence. The New York Times 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 “Bonnie and Clyde” caught on with others, notably Pauline Kael. Her 9,000-word New Yorker review called it the most exciting American movie since “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). “The audience is alive to it,” wrote Kael.

Others flip-flopped. Months after Time magazine labeled it “a strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap that teeters uneasily on the brink of burlesque,” the magazine put it on its Dec. 8 cover (“The New Cinema: Violence … Sex … Art”), calling it a “watershed picture.” After making $2.5 million in 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” grossed $16.5 million in its 1968 re-release, making it one of the top 20 highest grossing films.

“The general opinion at the time was that if you have that kind of violence, you can’t mix it with humour. Well, we did,” said Beatty.

The film is connected with Beatty for far more than his leading performance. Beatty, after hearing from Francois Truffaut about Robert Benton and David Newman’s script, optioned it. Though actors now routinely produce their films, it was then unheard of. The gangster film was seen as a little passe then, too, especially by then-Warner Bros. head Jack Warner.

But Beatty — an up-and-coming star then thanks to “Splendor in the Grass” — fought for it. He developed the film and negotiated himself a remarkable 40 per cent of the profits. He brought in Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) to doctor the script and cast, among others, a young actor he had previously shot one scene with: Gene Hackman.

“In the case of Bonnie and Clyde,’ it was important for me to have control,” said Beatty.

Few thought there was much money to be made, including the nearly dozen directors that turned down Beatty, including George Stevens, William Wyler and the man who eventually relented, Arthur Penn.

Beatty, now 80, isn’t much inclined to diagnose the considerable influence of “Bonnie and Clyde.”

“I thought that it was good,” Beatty said. “But I’m really of the opinion — and it seemed to me even then — when you make a movie, you don’t really know what you’ve made until years later. It takes time to separate one’s opinion from the gamble of the moment. It’s impossible to factor out all of the nonsense that accompanies trying to sell something.”

But Beatty does believe strongly that the patience required to let audiences catch up to “Bonnie and Clyde” holds important lessons for today’s opening-weekend-centric Hollywood.

“The way movies were released in those times gave the public the time to become interested,” he said. “Now that has been eliminated with what we call mass release. We’ve now reached a point in the movie business where the marketing of a low-cost picture costs quite a bit more than the making of the movie. I think the chaos that has resulted from that is leading us to different approaches.”

It’s a subject that over the course of more than an hour’s conversation Beatty returned to frequently. It was no doubt a factor in the disappointing reception for Beatty’s last film and — his first time directing in nearly two decades — “Rules Don’t Apply,” a ’60s-set film much inspired by Beatty’s own arrival to Hollywood.

As to whether the notoriously indecisive Beatty will make another movie, he quickly answered, “Sure.” ”I’ve always been fortunate enough to not rush and get away with it,” he said. “I’ve never made movies until I couldn’t avoid it any longer.”

But Beatty has grave misgivings about the effect digital technologies have had on both the movie business and politics.

“There are so many changes brought about in the new technology that it makes you think about Guttenberg more often than you would like,” said Beatty. “I don’t think the general public has come to grips with the need to command attention in this new technology. The requisite narcissism needed to gain attention in the entertainment business is somewhat dwarfed by what we see happening in all fields.”

And it’s the current political climate that Beatty alludes to when asked about the best-picture flub at the Academy Awards in February. It was, after all, the anniversary of “Bonnie and Clyde” that prompted the film academy to put Beatty and Dunaway on the stage for that moment.

“It was kind of silly,” said Beatty. “I feel bad for the people who made the mistake. But I don’t think it’s an earth-shaking matter.”

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