As the Berlin Film Festival takes time to give director Arthur Penn its lifetime achievement award, on Feb. 15, it’s easy to overlook that what’s being honored here is only one-third of a remarkable artist’s career. Before he ever helmed such seminal films of the mid-20th century as “The Left Handed Gun,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Night Moves,” there were estimable forays into TV and on Broadway.
Penn directed live TV in the 1950s, from “Playhouse 90” to “Philco Television Playhouse,” and he enjoyed a Broadway career that began with “Two for the Seesaw” in 1958 and, as recently as 2002, brought Tony Awards to Alan Bates and Frank Langella for their turns in “Fortune’s Fool.”
“It was extremely gratifying,” Penn says of that most recent double-thesp honor. “With Bates and Langella, the awards were exquisitely appropriate, which is not always the case. Flashy,” as he observes, often takes the prize. “But not necessarily deeply felt or deeply original, as it was in those two cases,” the helmer adds.
The success Penn enjoyed with his “Fortune’s Fool” headliners, unfortunately, serves to point up that this director’s last feature movie effort, the underpraised and little-seen “Penn & Teller Get Killed,” with a multiple-suicide ending that is as comic as “Bonnie and Clyde” ‘s bloody ending is harrowing, came 18 years ago, in 1989.
Now 84, Penn takes the philosophical approach on where some careers end and others endure. Where his art requires million-dollar budgets, that of his older brother, famed photographer Irving Penn, is much less cash-dependent.
But no matter.
“I can’t really do that,” he says of still photography. “I don’t stop, I keep pushing it. I love motion. We couldn’t be more different: Irving preserves the moment. I dash through it to some headlong culmination.”
In some ways, to see what Arthur Penn does on stage is to witness his TV and film work. The three media are leitmotifs weaving together, one informing the other. For example, the “Penn & Teller” movie.
“I love their wonderfully clever, bright and spirited sense of comedy,” he says of the duo’s brand of psychotic magic tricks. In that 1989 film, made over a decade before reality TV overpopulated the tube, Penn Jillette, playing himself, taunts a TV audience to murder him, and then spends the next 90 minutes being stalked.
“What intrigued me there,” says the director, “is that I have a streak of strong appreciation for vaudeville, which I saw quite a bit of when I was about 14, and it was still around. I’d see these wonderful actors who could do that one act for 10 years, and they would travel from place to place, three shows a day, with it.”
When he recalls a particularly hilarious skit about airport metal detectors from “Penn & Teller,” it brings to mind similarly themed material of bureaucratic madness from the legendary Broadway show “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” which he directed in the 1960-61, a season that also featured such Arthur Penn hits as “Two for the Seesaw,” “The Miracle Worker” and “Toys in the Attic.”
“I learned a lot about comedy from Nichols and May,” he says. “They came along at a period when America was restrictive, Eisenhowerish. But they didn’t do one-line snappers, Bob Hope jokes. They were talking situations, and it was hilarious because they were skating on the events of that time.”
That kind of thoughtful comedy informs the serious socio-politics that followed in Penn’s films “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Little Big Man,” “Night Moves” and “Four Friends,” which have oft been interpreted as allegories for McCarthyism, Vietnam and Watergate, among other maladies of modern America.
In turn, it was TV that brought Nichols to Penn. The future director of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate” saw a Penn-helmed episode of “Playhouse 90,” which starred the blond teen heartthrob Tab Hunter, in 1958. Was Nichols thinking, If he could make somebody named Tab look good, then Penn could make anybody look good?
“Tab Hunter did some very free things as an actor that you wouldn’t associate with him. It was a new kind of acting for him,” Penn says of the actor’s turn in the “Portrait of a Murderer” television drama. “Mike had liked it very much.”
Actors, in whatever the medium, like Arthur Penn very much. And for good reason.
While his movies contain an abundance of wordless visual bravura – Helen Keller grasping the sheets on a clothes line, Bonnie and Clyde being gunned down – it is the actor who occupies center stage in Arthur Penn’s world.
“The essence of theater is the clarity of language to be able to go into the mystery of characterization,” he says. “In film, it is the look in the eyes. It’s that intimate. Those are the great moments.”
On his most underrated film:
” ‘Night Moves’ (1975) was made out of a lot of pain. It’s a film about a detective (Gene Hackman), who in a certain sense becomes a kind of replacement figure for his own father, and fails to perceive that he is in some way largely culpable. I think we were all feeling a kind of nonspecific generalized guilt. It staggered the civil rights movement and it staggered the program for social change. It was after the assassination of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King – the idea of disagreeing and then shooting somebody. There was no responsibility for the government for what was taking place, and there were an awful lot of guns around. Alan Sharpe wrote the very good script, and it was a mournful period that is characterized by two lines in the film: ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ ‘Which Kennedy?’ ”
On his most famous film:
“With ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967), my contention all along was that we mustn’t make them into sophisticates. Bonnie and Clyde were these agrarian bumpkins, and if they had this kind of sophisticated sexual organization of a ménage a trois (Bonnie, Clyde and C.W. Moss), we’ll never achieve a kind of sympathy for them. They will remain killers. That was bothering me with the original concept. Warren Beatty was drawn away from the ménage a trois aspect, and so were (screenwriters) Robert Benton and David Newman very quickly. Then we settled on Clyde’s being impotent. And in the course of talking, Warren said, ‘Let me do it once. Let me consummate it.’ So Bonnie and Clyde do. That decision was really definitive for me. I saw the film’s ending clearly: We must allow the romance that we feel for these two people to emerge, it mustn’t end, it must move into some mythic form, as opposed to their being just dead meat. That’s how the ending came to me.”