Director Arthur Penn, who helped bring a new style to Hollywood filmmaking with “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Little Big Man,” died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan of congestive heart failure, a day after his 88th birthday.
Oscar nommed three times, for “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Miracle Worker” and “Little Big Man,” Penn was known for his ability to extract a range of expression from his actors, whom he often allowed to improvise. Often tangling with Hollywood studios over the vision for his films, he lived in New York much of his life, where he bookended his career directing for the theater and feature films with stints in television.
Penn started his career as a floor manager on NBC’s “Colgate Comedy Hour.” By the early 1950s, he was writing and directing TV dramas. In 1956, he debuted as a Broadway director, but “The Lovers” closed after just four days.
Penn first made his name on Broadway as director of the Tony Award-winning plays “The Miracle Worker” and “All the Way Home,” and he rose as a film director in the 1960s, his work inspired by the decade’s political and social upheaval.
“Bonnie and Clyde,” with its mix of humor and mayhem, encouraged moviegoers to sympathize with the lawbreaking couple from the 1930s, while “Little Big Man” told the tale of the conquest of the West with the Indians as the good guys.
DGA prexy Taylor Hackford said on Wednesday, “A daring and innovative filmmaker, Arthur’s influence on cinema through legendary films like ‘Mickey One’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ inspired a generation, introducing American audiences to a vibrant style of filmmaking that broke the mold of films that had come before.”
Penn’s other films included his adaptation of “The Miracle Worker,” featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Anne Bancroft; “The Missouri Breaks,” an outlaw tale starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson; “Night Moves,” a Los Angeles thriller featuring Gene Hackman; and “Alice’s Restaurant,” based on the wry Arlo Guthrie song.
Penn returned to television in his later years, serving as exec producer on “Law and Order,” on which his son Matthew was a director, sharing in the show’s 2001 Emmy nom for drama series. He also helmed an episode of A&E’s “100 Centre Street,” exec produced by Sidney Lumet.
Penn originally wasn’t interested in the “Bonnie and Clyde” helming job but was persuaded by Warren Beatty, who earlier starred in Penn’s “Mickey One” and produced “Bonnie and Clyde,” which was written by Robert Benton and David Newman. The gig had already been turned down by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.
“I will always treasure the singularly honest, joyful, adventurous, intelligence of Arthur Penn both as a collaborator and as a loving friend,” Beatty said.
Penn was in his 40s when he made “Bonnie and Clyde,” but his heart was very much with the stars, Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and with the story, as liberal in its politics as it was with the facts — a celebration of individual freedom and an expose of the banks that had ruined farmers’ lives.
Released in 1967, when opposition to the Vietnam War was ballooning and movie censorship crumbling, “Bonnie and Clyde” was shaped by the frenzy of silent comedy, the jarring rhythms of the French New Wave and the surge of youth and rebellion. The robbers’ horrifying death, a shooting gallery-style scene that took four days to film and ran for less than a minute, only intensified their appeal.
With a glib tagline, “They’re young … they’re in love … and they kill people,” it was a film that challenged and changed minds, and was at first disliked by many critics upon its August 1967 release from Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. Daily Variety’s reviewer was one of many who didn’t quite get the film. “Conceptually, the film leaves much to be desired, because killings and the backdrop of the Depression are scarcely subjects for a bundle of laughs,” the review said, “However, the film does have some standout interludes.”
But Pauline Kael, just starting her long reign at the New Yorker, welcomed “Bonnie and Clyde” as a new and vital kind of movie — an opinion now widely shared — and asked, “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?”
” ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things people have been feeling and saying and writing about,” Kael wrote.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but won just two, for supporting actress Estelle Parsons and for cinematographer Burnett Guffey.
None of Penn’s other films would have the impact of “Bonnie and Clyde,” but the director regarded “Little Big Man,” released in 1970, as his greatest success, with Dustin Hoffman playing the 121-year-old lone survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. Among his other films were the well-reviewed “Four Friends” in 1981, political thriller “Target” with Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon and “Dead of Winter” in 1987. Departing from his usual choices, the 1989 “Penn and Teller Get Killed” was a quirky black comedy in which the magicians of the title are pursued by a serial killer.
His last pic released theatrically was “Inside,” a Showtime-produced apartheid drama in 1996.
Born in Philadelphia, Penn was greatly influenced by Orson Welles, whose “Citizen Kane” “staggered” him, Charlie Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa and the French New Wave directors, especially Godard and Truffaut, whose “400 Blows” he said greatly resembled his youth.
He served in WWII in an infantry unit that fought in the Battle of the Bulge, then attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina alongside John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller. After a period learning literature in Italy, he studied at the Actors Studio in New York.
While working in TV, Penn advised Sen. John F. Kennedy during his influential debates with Richard Nixon in 1960, directing Kennedy to look directly into the lens of the camera. His direction helped win converts to Kennedy’s confident delivery.
Penn served on the DGA’s national board of directors from 1997-99 and was an alternate board member from 1999-2003. He also served on the DGA’s Eastern Directors Council from 2000-02.
“Arthur was crucial in reinvigorating member participation on the East Coast,” Hackford said. “He was a teacher and a mentor, and his wise counsel meant a great deal to students and his fellow filmmakers.”
Penn was awarded the lifetime achievement award by the Los Angeles Film Critics in 2002, and he was lauded with lifetime achievement kudos by the Berlin International Film Festival in 2007.
In addition to his son Matthew, Penn is survived by his wife of 54 years, actress Peggy Maurer; daughter Molly; and four grandsons.