Nope. This isn't the father of everyone's favorite El Chapo-interviewing method actor, Sean Penn. Sorry to disappoint.
After directing a bunch of TV dramas in the early and mid 1950's, Arthur Penn turned to film in 1957, directing an offbeat western about the outlaw Billy the Kid called The Left-Handed Gun. It failed, and hurt his career for a while. But, after a big comeback in 1962 with The Miracle Worker, Penn was again in demand…only to have another big failure in 1965 with a film called Mickey One, the story of a standup comedian who feels he's being pursued by sinister forces.
Oddly enough, though, his two big failures shared important similarities with his biggest success, Bonnie and Clyde. The Left-Handed Gun dealt with similar subject matter, a young outlaw who's misunderstood and treated sympathetically. Mickey One was very "New Wave" in its sensibility and style, and it marked Penn's first collaboration with Bonnie and Clyde's producer/star Warren Beatty.
What Penn did in both of these films, and especially in Bonnie and Clyde, was to capture the restless, disenchanted mood of the times, particularly among young people. Although Bonnie and Clyde is set more than thirty years earlier, during the most difficult years of the Great Depression, its tone is very much in the counter-culture 1960's spirit.
After Bonnie and Clyde, Penn continued to direct films regularly until the early 1980's, when he began to work more infrequently. Among his other major films are Alice's Restaurant (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Night Moves (1975) and The Missouri Breaks (1976). He died in 2010 just one day after turning eighty-eight.
Jack, meet Warren. Warren, meet Jack. Now: you two guys go fight to the death about the future of American cinema.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Starting at the beginning: the company that bankrolled and distributed Bonnie and Clyde was Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. Yes, the Warner Brothers; one of the great old brands of U.S. movie making. The company that brought you The Maltese Falcon, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Bugs Bunny cartoons, and countless other entertainments since the early days of the 20th Century.
At the time, the key production executive at Warner was Jack Warner himself. And for about fifty years, he'd run the studio's production unit with an iron hand. In the process, he helped to make major stars out of actors such as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney. He was truly one of the movie business's great old warhorses—an industry giant.
But, by 1967, Warner was also part of an era that was fast fading away, and it was hard for him to understand—let alone appreciate—all the radical changes that were occurring in the film industry during the 1960's.
While Warner Brothers bankrolled and distributed Bonnie and Clyde, the film's actual prime mover and producer was its star, an up-and-coming actor named Warren Beatty. Beatty was known at the time for being matinee idol-handsome, and many people assumed that his stardom had to do more with his looks than his intelligence or talent. So he had some serious things to prove.
He also had as big an ego as Jack Warner did, and the two had a super uneasy working relationship. There's one story of Warner pointing to the studio's water tower with the familiar initials "WB" on it, and asking Beatty whose studio this was. Beatty responded that this might be Warner's studio but the initials—"WB"—were his, Warren Beatty's. (Source)
But the main problem between the two was "a generational thing." Warner was part of a fading Hollywood era, and Beatty was a young buck out to do things in a new and very different way.
It's interesting, too, that just as Bonnie and Clyde has been called "the first modern American film," the film was also an example of the changing of the guard in Hollywood. Shortly afterwards, Warner would retire. (Source)
And the film would launch Beatty on his long and successful career as an actor, producer, writer, and (sometimes) director.
These two literary dudes met while they were working for Esquire Magazine in New York in the early 1960's—Esquire at that point was less "what cologne to wear" and more "check out this story by Norman Mailer."
Benton, who was from rural Texas, told Newman the story of how his father had attended the separate funerals for both Bonnie and Clyde back in the 1930's…and the screenplay started to develop from there.
Both men were also big fans of French New Wave films, which were super popular in New York at the time. And the script—a mixture of Benton's boyhood stories of rural Texas in the 1930's, elements of traditional American gangster films, and New Wave influences (especially in the film's unusual editing for the time)—took shape.
Originally, Benton and Newman, neither of whom had any film credits at the time, liked the idea of getting one of the leading French New Wave directors (such as Jean Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut) involved with the project.
After hearing about their script, actor Warren Beatty—anxious in getting into the production end of filmmaking—read it, loved it, and bought it. Beatty offered the script to both Godard and Truffaut and, when both declined, offered it to a number of established American directors including George Stevens and William Wyler. Finally, another American director, Arthur Penn—who had had great success with his film adaptation of the play The Miracle Worker in 1962—accepted.
As it did for Beatty, Penn, and many of its actors, Bonnie and Clyde launched Benton and Newman's screenwriting careers. For a few years, they worked as a team on such films as Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? in 1972. Afterwards, they went their separate ways.
Newman was probably best known for his writing contribution to three very popular movies about Superman in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Increasingly, he worked with his wife, Leslie, on many of his scripts. He died in 2003 at age 66.
Benton went on to have a successful filmmaking career of his own as a director as well as a writer. Nominated for numerous Academy Awards (including his and Newman's screenwriting nomination for Bonnie and Clyde), he has won Oscars for both writing and directing the 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer and a third Oscar for writing the script for his very touching 1982 rural drama, Places in the Heart.
From our 21st Century perspective, we can see Bonnie and Clyde as a traditional film. It's a classic, right? It was shot on film stock, most of it was shot on location in various rural American settings, and many of the interiors were shot in studios. It lacks bells and whistles (although it most certainly does not lack banjo music and gunfire).
And even back in the 1960's there were some pretty straightforward things about this film. The story of Bonnie and Clyde is organized in a very traditional way—it flows in a straightforward, linear fashion. There are no flashbacks, bizarre dream scenes, or disorienting crane shots.
But several elements (such as the nontraditional, chopping editing techniques, and the ironic use of music during the car chases) give it a specific twist.
If you want to look and how Bonnie and Clyde was super-influential, though, mosey on over to Point of View.
If you were to watch an isolated clip of Bonnie and Clyde—say, one of the car chases set to twang-tastic bluegrass music, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this film was a comedy. There's nothing more hilarious than seeing a cop car roll down a hill to the strumming of a banjo. (No, no one gets hurt in that scene. We're not monsters.)
This music was principally the work of two bluegrass and country musicians, guitarist Lester Flatt, and banjo player, Earl Scruggs, who were also known as the Foggy Mountain Boys. And the piece used most often in the film is perhaps their best-known work, "The Foggy Mountain Breakdown," written and first performed in the late 1940's.
By the way, Flatt and Scruggs were major figures in bluegrass and country music for decades—from the 1940's to the 1970's. In addition to "The Foggy Mountain Breakdown," another extremely well-known piece they wrote is "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies television show in the 1960's.
People talk about this musical choice so much because, in many cases, people didn't know what to make of it being used in this film. They'd hear this music at—what many considered to be—the oddest times. A bank has just been robbed. Gunshots have been fired. People have also been wounded or killed. The Barrow Gang's getaway car rolls out of town. People in the cars keep shooting at each other.
It all sounds dead serious, doesn't it? But then we hear this music. It's a fast-paced tune that's fast, light, fun, and almost comical. It seems surreal—and distinctly out of place.
Well, all of that was intentional. Drawing on some of the French New Wave characteristics that had impressed him, director Arthur Penn wanted to make a point. For Bonnie, Clyde, and the other gang members, all this—the robberies, car chases, etc.—is a big game at first.
They're like children playing cops and robbers with toy guns. Bonnie, Clyde, and the others are being portrayed as little more than children in a fantasy world. They don't see that what they're doing will have serious and perhaps deadly consequences. For the moment, they're just living in the moment, having tons of fun and enjoying their thrills and spills.
As the story continues, however, the horrible violence becomes more real to the members of the Barrow Gang, and the lighthearted music isn't used any more.
Finally, the use of this music in the car chases was hugely influential. Many movies and TV shows copied it after Bonnie and Clyde. But, nearly all just used it for comic effect, without the ironic undertones Arthur Penn had in mind when he inserted it in Bonnie and Clyde.
While Bonnie and Clyde has certainly reached legendary status as a film, it doesn't have the cult following that, say, the Star Wars has. That's right, there aren't currently any Bonnie and Clyde conventions or cruises.
But, if you go back to the late 1960's, the costumes Faye Dunaway wore as Bonnie sparked a fashion craze of midi skirts and berets. This is totally understandable: who doesn't want to look like Faye Dunaway as Bonnie?
Also, history buffs love to look at the real-life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. There are lots of articles online about them, and there's even a travel article (check out our Best of The Web for more) that tells you how to have your own B & C road trip.
Although we highly suggest not going full Bonnie and Clyde on your trip through the Southern Midwest. Come on, guys: you've seen how the movie ends. Keep the bank robbing to a bare minimum—and by "bare minimum" we mean "0% bank robbing."