An old lady once told me, “You never know what a picture meant, what it really meant” — and her great opal eyes widened to show how vast and heady a thing meaning might be — “unless you saw it the weekend it opened.”
As a principle, it’s as intriguing as it is debatable, but I was respectful of what she said, not just because of how steady and luminous she was (she was about 83), or even because she was Lillian Gish. We were talking about D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which was already very hard to take in 1979, when we talked, and which becomes increasingly problematic as the years pass. I couldn’t tell Lillian Gish that Birth of a Nation was dangerous hogwash. I daresay she knew that line of argument as early as 1915. She put her cold hand on mine and she said, “Garbo when she began, Mr. Griffith in 1915 — they drove people mad. That’s what films can do. But they’ll never drive you mad if you see them years later.”
I think that is so, and I believe it is a condition of moviegoing that we overlook at our peril. I know, for myself, that whereas No Country for Old Men stunned me in its first weekend, by the time it won Best Picture I had come to feel what a bleak trick it is. But I find myself still close to tears with Bonnie and Clyde, even though I know it shot for shot, and I’m not sure now whether I am moved by Warren and Faye, by the idea of cinema, or by the bloodshot summer of 1967. I cannot forget that when the picture opened (for me) in London that August, I saw it day after day, leaving the job I dreaded and telling myself that my life had to change, even if I ended up shot to pieces with those two shampooed darlings. After all, death was their best moment; it was when they looked in each other’s eyes with rapture and knew that machine-gun bullets were the trigger for the shuddering orgasm they longed for.
It’s still an ending that leaves you hushed, not just because of what may have been the fate of two very homely Texan outlaws on May 23, 1934, but because of the power that movies can have. The reason I insist on August 1967, in a London that was getting ready to swing is because of the uncanny way in which Bonnie and Clyde collapsed time: Everything looked like 1934, as far as spiffy art direction and costumes could get it, but all of it — starting with the staggering self-love in the faces of Beatty and Dunaway — began with 1967 and the way you (or I) could smell the fuse burning. The fuse? Buddhist priests setting fire to themselves in Vietnam. The mounting casualties in that jungle war, and the TV coverage of it. Race riots in so many American cities. The Six-Day War. China’s first hydrogen bomb. The anguish on LBJ’s face; the mask of McNamara. Respectable women getting close to naked on the streets. The loss of control. And the way any hooligan could stand up and shout “Me!” and expect to be heard for a few minutes. Under the beguiling veil of a Warner Bros. gangster film — a rural gangster film, please note — the new Warners had somehow made a picture that was as true to the jittery, destructive-expressive urges in the London starting to swing as Mick Jagger’s sneer or the Mary Quant skirts that went up every couple of months.
Of course, the new Warners didn’t know where they were at. In part, that was because by 1967 the world had pretty well given up on movie studios as powerhouses. Jack Warner was still alive and he was driven bananas by Bonnie and Clyde — the dailies, the rough cut, the finished film — so that the marketing department was at a loss. But in 1967, in London, as a film buff, I went to see it as the new Arthur Penn film — something in the tradition of The Left Handed Gun, The Miracle Worker, Mickey One and The Chase. And the picture easily fit, in that it understood the ambiguity of violence serving as self-expression, like that great line in The Miracle Worker: “The room’s a wreck, but she folded her napkin.”
I felt more in 1967, but I couldn’t identify it. I saw the blazing smile on Warren’s face and the “Have-you-ever-tasted-ice-cream-with-a-TNT-flavor-before?” look in Faye’s wicked kiss-curl. But I didn’t know that Beatty’s look of shy triumph came from producing the film. I didn’t know that two guys from the world of magazines — Robert Benton and David Newman — had set out to write an American script inspired by the crazy spontaneity of Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim. I didn’t know that they’d offered this script to François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard before Beatty had ever heard about it. If I’d been a better guesser, I might have felt the lyric upheavals and mood shifts of the French New Wave in this Texas story. Yet I had no way of knowing that Beatty had taken a friend, Robert Towne, to the Texas location, and that Beatty and Towne had stayed up each night rewriting the next day’s stuff until they had it right — or at least the way they wanted it.
I had no idea then, in 1967, in what seemed like a moment of startling beginning, that many people had done the best work they were ever going to do. But we’ll come to that in a moment.
Now Bonnie and Clyde is out again — not that it’s ever been away — in a restored and dressed-up DVD version, looking as smart and virile as anyone can at the age of 41. Some of you may even look at it for the first time in your lives — with what impact, I wonder, supposing you have little idea of old-fashioned gangster pictures, the faintest recollection of what the French New Wave was, and not a notion of who Warren Beatty was, or wanted to be? There are a lot of kids around who fit that bill and wonder why they should look at old movies.
Bonnie and Clyde still works, but like an antique. The culture knows now that the hero and his moll are shot to pieces, and there is a rumor of slow motion and so many bullets. So our chilled connoisseurs of violence wait for the ending — to see how it was done. “Pretty cool!” they may say, and pass on. There is nothing left like the shock from 1967 and nothing close to its perilous identification with the young hoodlums. These days, kids look at the actors and know they don’t look much like rural Texas. They’re right, but in 1967 that disparity simply wasn’t noticed. Beatty the producer insisted that the unit go to Texas, to get away from Warners’ interference and to stand up for rural authenticity. These days, that “authenticity” is a joke: How could anyone as gorgeous as this Bonnie be holed up in a country diner? Why isn’t Clyde an actor in Burbank? They look so gloriously attractive, so movielike. And these days, you have only to flash a bit of that existential glamour at the kids and they start laughing at a picture.
In 1967, it was a matter of tremendous audience concern and need — whether Bonnie and Clyde could survive, get their rocks off and be famous before Bonnie’s mother’s foreboding set in. It’s a boy-meets-girl film in which he offers to rescue her from the warm-grease life of a waitress if she will write about him in the papers. (“You told my story! You told my whole story right there, right there!”) Beatty seized upon it, with ferocious accuracy, as a secret issue of the ’60s, that wondering in young people whether they could ever be known — not just famous, but in the light safe from the dark that cloaked the huddled masses of America. It’s no exaggeration to say that the couple is thieving and murdering and going through the clumsy foreplay simply to sit in glory, to be like Sonny and Cher. But these days, every kid knows his or her duty to mock and abuse the idiots washed up on that desolate shore.
In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde, Faye and Warren, looked like what they became — models in Carnaby Street windows and icons on the cover Rauschenberg shot for Time (at the end of the year, by which time the movie had shrugged off its early doldrums and become a sensation). Audiences didn’t see the fakery, no matter that they were buying Bonnie berets. They hardly registered the cockamamie attitude to banks. There it was, that emblematic scene where the dispossessed tenants come by and the beautiful children say “We rob banks!” and shoot up the bank sign on the house where the farmers once lived. In 1967, that meshed with the greedy antiestablishment feeling, and no one noticed that Warners and Beatty were stacking their money away in … banks, and trusting that such pillars of the establishment would be well looked after.
At the moment, you see, the sensationalism always wipes away the white lies. So, No Country for Old Men describes an untenable country where Cormac McCarthy and Tommy Lee Jones (and millions of others) continue to live in some kind of ease and pleasure. Movies cheat at the time, and their magic is a matter of preventing us from seeing the sham. Birth of a Nation may have been a reckless, shameless account of the death of the old South, but it was a sensational, backhand acknowledgment of the birth of a business — that of movies.
The one point established by the new Bonnie and Clyde DVD is that it was its producer’s film. I am not out to deny or minimize the work of Arthur Penn, for he is truly a fascinating figure in his extraordinary clutched-hands style — one hand for tenderness, the other for violence. The editing (by Dede Allen) is so skilled and so intuitive about the characters. Burnett Guffey was a veteran cameraman who seemed a die-hard to the younger filmmakers, but his color is shot through with blood. The acting is still riveting: Estelle Parsons and that whining voice as Buck’s wife; Evans Evans and Gene Wilder as the couple the gang pick up; Denver Pyle, taking Bonnie’s lewd kiss and vowing vengeance.
But don’t forget Michael J. Pollard as C.W. Moss — that scruffy, druggy Texas kid, the perfect mechanic and … well, in the Newman-Benton script he was supposed to give both Bonnie and Clyde a sweet time in bed before they found each other. That wasn’t true to the history, but it was fair to the ’60s. Beatty the producer and the destined lover-boy thought it might be confusing and enough to take a few million dollars off the gross.
That is not said cynically. Producers need to like money as much as movies. I still think that Bonnie and Clyde was Beatty’s triumph, and there is extra material on the DVD that testifies (inadequately) to the battle he fought to save the picture after early reviews that were poor or worse. What really influenced Hollywood in the ’70s was Beatty’s example of taking responsibility for Bonnie and Clyde and insisting on it — with the studio, with critics, with projectionists if necessary. He knew that to make the film was only part of the battle.
And that brings us to the oddest conclusion 41 years later. What has happened to Beatty? We can be happy for the married man and the father of four — and I will be surprised if the kids aren’t remarkable, or if they don’t have to overthrow one of the quietest control freaks of our time. But if you look at Beatty’s career, there has been nothing as wicked or beautiful as Bonnie and Clyde again. Did the film satisfy his search for money, glory, women and self? Did he say it all there? I’m talking about Warren Beatty — oh, you must remember him. Just look him up in the books. He knew Norma Desmond!
Bonnie and Clyde (Two-Disc Special Edition and Ultimate Collector’s Edition) is released by Warner Home Video on Tuesday, March 25.