Sunday, February 26, 2012

They Were Young, They Were Critics, and They Praised Mediocre Movies

Oscar night. It’s been years since I took more than a passing interest in Hollywood’s annual back-slapping ritual, partly due to the preponderance of Oscar groupies on the web for whom the award matters more than the films. There are also too damn many awards these days. Instead of adding my two cents to the already crowded field, I’m going back almost half a century to look at one of 1967's most significant films (an Oscar nominee) that, alas, I have never been able to appreciate. I know that I'm probably in the minority on Bonnie & Clyde, but this is how I felt in 2006 (when I wrote the following in my journal) and how I feel now:

Roger Ebert praised Bonnie & Clyde upon its 1967 release, and in his essay on the film in The Great Movies proudly takes some credit for the phenomenon that the film became since the only “ecstatic opening-day newspaper review” for the film was his own. A song inspired by the film, Georgie Fame’s “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” became a major hit, and the film’s 1920s fashion was all the rage for a time. The flick was a huge box-office hit, in almost constant release (often double-billed with Bullitt) through 1969, and it picked up a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, winning best supporting actress for Estelle Parsons, and the best cinematography prize for Burnett Guffrey. It also became a lightning rod of controversy for its then taboo-shattering depictions of violence.

But the phenomenon was a while in coming. When first released in August 1967, Bonnie & Clyde, advertised with the tagline, “They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people,” was a bomb, sunk in part by negative reviews in Time (“grisly”), Newsweek (“gross and demeaning”), and, most significantly, The New York Times whose chief critic, Bosley Crowther, dismissed it as “cheap, baldfaced slapstick comedy. . . reddened with blotches of violence of the most grisly sort,” being pawned off as art by a “raw and unmitigated campaign of sheer press agentry . . . ”

Pauline Kael, a critic whose influence was just beginning to be felt, made her name when coming to the film’s defense, saying “Bonnie & Clyde needs violence. Violence is its meaning.” Ebert, then less than six months into his gig as film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, and an admirer and protege of Kael, hailed the Arthur Penn directed film as “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.”

Legend has it that Warren Beatty, who produced the film as well as starred, got down on his hands and knees and begged Jack L. Warner, then still calling the shots at the studio that practically invented the gangster film with 1931's Little Caesar and Public Enemy, to re-release Bonnie & Clyde to take advantage of those rapturous reviews.

Bonnie & Clyde was reissued and was now a hit, especially with young people. Time ran a second, now favorable, review by another critic, Newsweek ran a second, now favorable, review by the same critic who panned it initially, and Bosley Crowther stuck to his guns in The New York Times, still negating the film that he argued was “as pointless as it is lacking in taste.” Soon thereafter, Crowther was replaced by Vincent Canby as the paper’s principal film critic.

I think Crowther was right.

Bonnie & Clyde is an example of the publicity machine triumphing over art. Bonnie & Clyde is no more profound than The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Roger Corman’s bloody depiction of the battle between Al Capone and Bugs Moran that was released the same month, but neither Corman nor 20th Century Fox thought to market it as anything more than popcorn entertainment.

Beatty and company were shrewder, more media savvy, and as producer, Beatty stood to make millions, which he did while gaining a foothold in Hollywood as one of the town’s most powerful players. Bonnie & Clyde was such a pop culture phenomenon that it mattered little that its star remained off-screen for three years, an inordinately long sabbatical for a film star in those days, not headlining another feature until 1970's The Only Game in Town, a dud co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and directed by George Stevens.

Bonnie & Clyde turned up on the cover of Time for the week of December 8, 1967 where it was the centerpiece for a story on “The New Cinema: Violence . . . Sex . . . Art.” That same week, the cover of The New York Review of Books caricatured President Johnson as Clyde, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk as Bonnie. Faye Dunaway, who won the role of Bonnie after Jane Fonda turned it down, was Life’s cover girl for January 12, 1968 (“Bonnie: Fashion’s New Darling”) and was called the “with-it girl of the ‘60s” in another cover story in Newsweek.

A phenomenon?


A great movie?

I’ve seen Bonnie & Clyde many times through the years, and since I am consistently unimpressed, my habit is to read as much critical analysis of the film as I can to determine if I’m missing something. Roger Ebert, in his original 1967 review and again in a more recent essay, and Richard Schickel, in a retrospective piece for a National Society of Film Critics book called The A Movies, both failed to convince me that the film is a masterpiece, though they succeed somewhat in hailing the film as a defining moment in cinema.

Yes, it clearly inspired such films as Badlands, Thelma and Louise, and Natural Born Killers, and its portrayal of violence was trendsetting, but the parallels that Schickel - or was it Ebert? - drew to the student protestors of the ‘60s and the war in Vietnam sound like so much pretentious posturing.

“The fact that the story is set 35 years ago doesn’t mean a thing,” Ebert wrote in 1967. “It had to be set sometime. But it was made now and it’s about us.”

Schickel includes an attack on Bosley Crowther in his piece, dismissing him as a “fud” and “clueless.” I would argue that Schickel was clueless about the merits of this thoroughly routine gangster film. From here it looks like many of the critics who praised the film were following the pack, imitating Bonnie and Clyde and those student radicals, by thumbing their nose at the Establishment, the old guard like Crowther who they needed to displace before establishing themselves as the “new breed of critic,” rogues who were seduced by the French and their “auteur” theories, and by Pauline Kael.

Crowther, despite a long tenure as film critic for The New York Times, is now probably best-known for panning Bonnie & Clyde. He’s ridiculed right along with the spokesman for the Grand Old Opry who told Elvis Presley that he should stick to driving a truck, and the record company executive who explained that “groups were out” when deciding against signing the Beatles to a recording contract.

But alas, even Crowther came around, or at least conceded that he believed he was wrong about the impact that Bonnie & Clyde had on cinema.

“I still hold that (my major criticisms) were valid in the broader context of a moral point of view,” he wrote in 1978, but now he agreed that Bonnie & Clyde was “a cinematic trailblazer.”

I can’t argue with that. Bonnie & Clyde blazed a trail, all right, but that doesn’t make it a great film. I would have to agree with Variety, whose critic Dave Kaufman reviewed the film after it premiered at the Montreal Film Festival, and found it “erratic” with uneven direction and inconsistent performances. Beatty is never convincing as the psychotic Clyde, and the film’s explanation for his love of big guns and violence (he’s impotent) wouldn’t seem so silly if his potency wasn’t miraculously restored after Bonnie praises his prowess in a poem. It is, as Crowther said, “ludicrous” and “crude.”

I agree even more with The UK Critic, Ian Waldron-Mantgani, who revisited the film in 2003 and said “Every time I see the film, I want to resist it less, and end up resisting it more . . . It plays likes a glorification, and has immortalized its characters as figures to be admired rather than understood.” Influential and popular?

No question about it.

A work of art?

The fact is, you won’t find any works of art in the filmographies of the film’s two principal “auteurs.”

Director Arthur Penn’s name is still uttered with reverence by many film critics, but none of his films before or since Bonnie & Clyde approach greatness. In the 1995 edition of A Biographical Dictionary of the Film, critic David Thomson asks, “What has happened to Arthur Penn? In the last fifteen years, he has been nearly a nonentity. In the fifteen years before that, he was one of the best directors in America, and the filmmaker with the most acute sense of what the audiences dreamed and feared.”

Actually, Penn was something of a nonentity throughout his career. Before Bonnie & Clyde, he made a handful of good films, including 1962's The Miracle Worker, but following Bonnie & Clyde he made a handful of perfectly average, though sometimes overpraised, movies. There was 1969's Alice’s Restaurant, 1970's Little Big Man, and 1975's Night Moves, the latter described by Thomson as “a perplexing film noir, more unclear than disturbing, its allegory tangled with its anecdote.” Penn’s last major film was also his worst: 1976's The Missouri Breaks, which teamed Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, made more critic’s 10 worst lists than any other major film that year and was such a bomb that Penn never made another major film.

As for Warren Beatty . . . Shirley Maclaine’s younger brother may be a star, but it seems he’s always been more popular with the press than the public, and his career has been marked by pretension and mediocrity. His ambition has always overwhelmed his talent, and though he is, along with Orson Welles, the only person to be Oscar nominated for producing, directing, acting, and screenwriting in the same year, and inexplicably surpassed Welles by doing it twice, neither the featherweight comedy Heaven Can Wait nor the ambitious Reds (for which Beatty won his lone Oscar as best director) are equal to Welles’ muddled but interesting Lady from Shanghai, let alone a threat to Citizen Kane. His worst film, which he took credit for co-writing, is 1975's Shampoo, a smug sex farce masquerading as a commentary on political apathy. (You see, all the characters are too busy screwing to vote against Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election. Deep, deep stuff.)

Bonnie & Clyde is a masquerade of sorts, too: a shallow farce given an illusion of depth simply because it was released in such perilous times.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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