Dramatizations focusing on real life people, be they famous or infamous, require a certain mindset from the viewer. First, understand that it’s not a documentary. What you see may be different than what you have read. Second, expect the filmmakers to take some dramatic license in order to add interest and color to the story. All of this is in play for the wonderful and classic Bonnie and Clyde from 1967.
To put this time period into perspective, know that the movie was released 46 years ago, and depicts a period during the Great Depression that was approximately 32 years prior to filming. That’s correct. The film’s release date was closer in time to the Great Depression than today is to the film’s release date. It’s also important to note that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were 23 and 24, respectively, at the time of their violent deaths at the 1934 Gibsland Ambush. Their ages and the times certainly played a role in their reckless ways and poor judgment.
Sadly, there is a generation of movie-goers who have little knowledge of Warren Beatty’s place in Hollywood history … or worse, their only recollection is of his clunky political rapping in 1998’s Bulworth. By 1967, Beatty was already a heartthrob and up-and-coming actor, but it’s his role and contract as producer of Bonnie and Clyde that set him up as a Hollywood power player (not to mention, financially set for life). His 40% of gross pay plan has made him tens of millions over the years. In addition to his producer duties, Beatty is at his physical peak here … a glamorous actor going all out in a career-defining role.
Faye Dunaway plays Bonnie as first, a bored youngster who comes to life due to the danger and sexual attraction she senses with Clyde. She then transitions into a spirited woman very comfortable with the spotlight of notoriety and fully understanding how to pull the strings of her man. Dunaway’s career is best marked by her work as Bonnie, and her roles in Chinatown and Network … though many know her best as the mother with an aversion to wire hangers.
There are three writers associated with the film: David Newman (he also wrote the Christopher Reeve Superman scripts), Robert Benton (Oscar winner for Kramer v Kramer and Places in the Heart) and Robert Towne (known best for his Oscar winning Chinatown script). Mr. Benton was inspired by the fact that his father had attended the Texas funerals of both Bonnie and Clyde. The basic outline is based on the true stories – Joplin, Missouri; Ruston, Louisiana; Texas Ranger Frank Hamer; the numerous stolen cars; the role of Clyde’s brother and his wife; the visit to Bonnie’s mother; and even Bonnie’s poem “The Trail’s End” (aka The Story of Bonnie and Clyde). But as expected, many liberties are taken. Unlike in the movie, Frank Hamer never crossed paths with Bonnie and Clyde prior to the final ambush. Blanche (played by Estelle Parsons) was very upset at her portrayal after seeing the movie … she claims to have not been such a lunatic. The CW Moss character is actually an amalgam of drivers affiliated with the gang. Also, there is no mention of the horrible accident that left Bonnie’s legs badly burned … to the point where Clyde had to carry her everywhere those last few months.
Director Arthur Penn was an Oscar winner and also gave us such fine films as The Miracle Worker (1962), Alice’s Restaurant (1969), and Little Big Man (1970). He and Beatty had many arguments while on set, but the finished project is packed with energy, emotion and action. Beatty and Dunaway give us an engaging couple with a dark destiny. Excellent support work is provided by Gene Hackman (as Clyde’s brother Buck), Michael J Pollard (as CW Post), Denver Pyle (as Frank Hamer), Dub Taylor (as CW’s dad), Evans Evans (the real life wife of director John Frankenheimer), Gene Wilder (in his film debut), Mabel Cavitt (as Bonnie’s mom, she was literally yanked from the group of Red Oak, Texas onlookers during filming), and Patrick Cranshaw (you might know him as Blue in Old School). It should also be noted that the violence displayed was groundbreaking at the time. The use of squibs … packets of stage blood used to enhance the gunfights … were used generously throughout. Previously, gunshot wounds rarely had blood shown onscreen.
The film received 8 Oscar nominations with wins for Estelle Parsons (Best Supp Actress) and Burnett Guffey (Cinematographer). The Best Picture winner that year was In the Heat of the Night, and nominations also went to The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. This was one of the first 100 movies inducted into The National Film Registry, and it brought Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs into the mainstream with their “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. Initially released as a “B” movie playing drive-ins, things changed dramatically once critic Pauline Kael’s raving review was published in The New Yorker.