Monday, August 13, 2012

The Enduring Myths of 'Bonnie and Clyde'

Faye Dunaway has played some villainous characters in her career.

But her portrayal of infamous outlaw Bonnie Parker — along with Warren Beatty's turn as her equally infamous outlaw boyfriend Clyde Barrow — was rated #32 of all the bad guys in the history of motion pictures by the American Film Institute.

AFI also rated "Bonnie and Clyde" — which premiered 45 years ago today — #42 on its list of the Top 100 movies of all time.

But, in reality, was Bonnie really that villainous?

Of the story, I guess it can be said that it was proof that truth really is stranger than fiction. You probably couldn't make up a story that was stranger than the real–life saga of Bonnie and Clyde.

And yet ...

That sure hasn't kept the media from embellishing that story and fueling its myths.

The adventures of the "Barrow Gang," as it was known, captivated the nation in the early 1930s — although the media of the time tended to exaggerate things. Based on the poems Bonnie wrote, the reality of life on the run was grittier than the popular narrative.

Bonnie was often said to have at least been present for, if not a participant in, dozens of robberies and shootings. But a member of the gang later said he didn't think she had ever fired a weapon at an officer.

The more mundane details of Bonnie and Clyde's story were left out, I suppose.

The modern media was a little more honest. Director Arthur Penn did create what came to be regarded as a landmark film, but he still relied heavily on the sometimes romantic, more often brutal stories and images that sold so many newspapers about 35 years earlier.

Ironically, movie audiences were very nearly deprived of the opportunity to see the film because Warner Bros. almost didn't make it. Beatty had to talk studio executives into financing it — and then it turned out to be Warner's second–highest grossing film.

I guess that was evidence of the ongoing fascination the public had with that story — not unlike its obsession with the sinking of the Titanic.

"Bonnie and Clyde" had something in common with film versions of "Romeo and Juliet," too. Like the lead characters in Shakespeare's play, Bonnie and Clyde were simply too young to be portrayed by most people their actual age. They were in their early 20s.

But Beatty and Dunaway didn't miss by much. Both were older, but Dunaway was 26 when the film premiered, and Beatty was 30.

Historically, it was Bonnie who gave the gang their popular appeal. Without her, I have heard it said, Clyde might well have been overlooked by the media of the day as just another punk with a gun. And I suspect that was true.

Movie trivia buffs who watch "Bonnie and Clyd" today will see Gene Wilder in his movie debut, Gene Hackman in his first Academy Award–nominated performance and Estelle Parsons in her only Oscar–winning role.

One more thing.

I have often heard it said that the scene in which Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed was the bloodiest scene ever filmed — and, in the late 1960s, I am quite sure that was so.

I never saw the movie on the big screen. I first saw it on TV about five or six years after its debut, and, in my comparison of what I remember seeing on that occasion to edited versions I have seen since that time, I believe the first version I saw was much more heavily edited.

It was a violent scene. I'll grant you that. But it really had to be — if it was going to be true to the facts. The posse that had been tracking the outlaw couple unloaded about 130 rounds.

There's no way to whitewash that, and I don't think Penn tried. I think his portrayal of that event was realistic — even if the censors of that time and years that followed had trouble with it.