So cable TV is taking a crack at Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Three networks -- History, Lifetime, and A&E -- have joined for a simulcast of the mini-series Bonnie & Clyde, scheduled to begin on December 8. In dramatizing a violent episode from America’s past, they’re hoping for the sort of ratings bonanza enjoyed by last year’s Hatfields & McCoys. The reviews I’ve seen don’t make the simulcast (starring Emile Hirsch and Holliday Grainger as the doomed outlaws) sound promising. I’m guessing it will have no more impact than a Broadway musical about the pair, which eked out a mere 36 performances in 2011.
One problem, of course, is that it’s tough to measure up to Arthur Penn’s brilliant 1967 film, which unerringly walked the fine line between comedy and tragedy. Penn’s two leading actors, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, were perfectly cast. Beatty was also the film’s dauntless producer, sweet-talking Jack Warner into financing his passion project and then, when Warner hated the finished film, rescuing it from oblivion and delivering it into the hands of influential critics like Pauline Kael.
Bonnie and Clyde became a hit partly because it meshed so well with the concerns of its day. The story of two Depression-era outlaws might have meant nothing special to audiences in some other decade. But in 1967, in the wake of the JFK assassination and the escalating war in Vietnam, violence had become a national obsession. And hip young audiences were also increasingly sensitive to questions of social inequality. When I spoke to Arthur Penn in 2008, he made clear the extent to which he had added to Robert Benton and David Newman’s sexy New Wave-inspired script a social consciousness that grounded the lovers’ story in the realities of the 1930s, while also touching on issues that mattered hugely to the emerging Baby Boom generation.
Vietnam was very much on Penn’s mind. In World War II he had seen combat as an infantryman at the Battle of the Bulge. The experience quickly convinced him of the insanity of war: “It was not glorious, not organized, nothing. Nobody knew what the hell they were doing; it was just save your life and chaos.” That’s why, when he came to make Bonnie and Clyde, “I had decided not to mollycoddle the audience about shooting and death. This, after all, was wartime.”
Penn was also remembering the Kennedy assassination, which suggests itself subliminally in the way Clyde’s head is blown apart during the final ambush. Penn emphasized what he considered a fundamentally American bloodlust in the “Ring of Fire” sequence where the outlaws, including a badly wounded Buck Barrow, are surrounded by a circle of men with shotguns. The whooping and the hollering and the rebel yells as the posse moves in on its prey reveal that these representatives of law and order enjoy bloodletting as much as the criminals do.
Penn also showcases the plight of society’s disenfranchised from a Sixties perspective. He doesn’t just focus on Okies, but also positions in the background of many scenes the sort of humble rural black man who three decades later would be the focus of the civil rights movement. At climactic points in the story you can spot down-home African-Americans lounging on a bench or driving past in a truck, essentially functioning as a silent Greek chorus. Once Clyde briefly clasps a black man’s hand in friendship, a taboo gesture in 1930s Texas. Just one more reason why young viewers in the Sixties connected so viscerally with a drama about a pair who’d lived, loved, and died thirty years before.
It’s a strange segue from killers to a man of peace, but I want to at least mention the passing of the remarkable Nelson Mandela. Ironic indeed that a new biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, is just now coming into theatres. I gather that its focus is Mandela the saint, rather than the more complicated flesh-and-blood human being, but it seems worth attention nonetheless.