LONDON — One of filmdom’s great whoppers is getting retold yet again.
The recent death of “Bonnie and Clyde” co-screenwriter David Newman has led to the latest retelling of an enduring, but largely erroneous, fable: how critic Pauline Kael singlehandedly saved the pic from instant extinction. According to this legend, “Bonnie and Clyde” was a failure in its initial 1967 release, garnering nearly unanimous critical dismissal, and Warner Bros. displayed, at best, no interest in the film.
But in Hollywood, where the lines between myth and history often blur, the true details of “Bonnie and Clyde’s” so-called rediscovery belie the legend of studio misgivings and mishandling. In fact, they suggest that while the studio’s toppers disdained the pic, its lower-level publicists and ad men quietly supported “Bonnie and Clyde” and built it into a hit.
“Bonnie and Clyde” was Newman’s first screenplay, penned with writer-director Robert Benton, and though he went on to co-write the hit film “Superman,” nothing in his career ever matched the critical acclaim and cultural resonance of this film.
In the 36 years since its release, “Bonnie” has grown in stature, which is saying something when you consider that Time magazine called it “a watershed picture” back then and compared it to “Birth of a Nation” and “Citizen Kane.”
So why has a film of such obvious importance also generated so much bad reporting, almost from day one?
Why have so many otherwise scrupulous journalists and critics helped perpetuate the yarn, and why has the whopper continued growing, unabated by simple fact-checking?
Here’s the oft-reported legend, beginning with the New York Times obituary (June 28) of Newman by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt:
“Reviewers were shocked by the seemingly farcical treatment of the two Depression-era bank robbers … commentators deplored what the film’s violence might be doing to the youth of America.
“But the mass of viewers disagreed, forming lines around the block to see the movie. Pauline Kael, celebrating ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ at length in the New Yorker magazine, called it a turning point in American cinema, particularly the writing.”
Earlier this year, in an epic New Yorker piece (Feb. 17 and 24) called “Paris, Texas: How Hollywood Brought the Cinema Back from France,” Louis Menand again presented Kael as the film’s savior.
Menand sketches the film’s reception at the hands of a nearly unanimously hostile press, including the Saturday Review, followed by the solemn pronouncement, “Then Kael herself weighed in.”
In Menand’s retelling, even the mighty, lone voice of Kael was not enough to save the picture, because “the movie was gone from theaters in America, and Kael’s reconsideration did not bring it back. It came back because Time, in December, ran a Robert Rauschenberg collage of images from ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ on the cover. The day it reopened, it received 10 Academy Award nominations.”
But no one paints the story more dramatically than Peter Biskind in his book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”
In New York, “Bonnie and Clyde” opened Aug. 13, Biskind recounted. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther had seen the picture at the Montreal Film Festival and hated it. The rest of the notices were nearly as savage as Crowther’s. But the Times began to receive letters from people who had seen the film and liked it, Biskind asserted.
What’s more, wrote Biskind, Kael loved “Bonnie and Clyde.” She saw right away that Warners was too hidebound to understand what they had.
Biskind quoted (uncredited) co-screenwriter Robert Towne, who with typical verbal color recalled, “Without her (Kael), ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ would have died the death of a fuckin’ dog.”
Again, Kael’s heroics were no match for studio stupidity.
Biskind supposedly quoted the film’s star and producer Warren Beatty’s version of events — a version that he now denies — that despite Kael’s solitary championing, and typical of the studio’s “hidebound” treatment of the film, studio head Jack Warner and exec Benny Kalmenson continued to dismiss the pic. Kalmenson’s review of the film remained succinct: “It’s a piece of fucking shit.”
The result, according to Biskind: ” ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ opened in Denton, Texas, on Sept. 13, went wide through the South and Southwest the next day. After two weeks, it was shoved aside.”
Warners marketing exec Richard Lederer finishes the tale sorrowfully: “And it died. It was finished by the end of October. I never felt it could be resurrected.”
But, in the grand tradition of miraculous Hollywood comebacks, Menand recounts, “The picture reopened on the day the Academy nominations were announced. ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ got 10.”
A closer look
So what’s wrong with this history?
Let’s start with the studio’s purportedly indifferent handling of the film.
- Variety (Aug. 9, 1967) reported that the film’s Montreal bow was “an occasion, a coup,” and “It also provided Warners-7 Arts with a valuable world premiere setting for a film that invites a certain discussion clash. Warners-7Arts supported the film with its full promotion team. Publicist John Springer was present as personal representative of Beatty.”
- Warners supported the film with a two-page spread in Variety on Aug. 16. The studio managed to find seven national critics who loved the film, not including, interestingly enough, the critic for the New Yorker! Yes, before Kael’s brave, lone crusade, her own publication had praised the picture.
Also on board in praise of the film were that year’s “film critic of the year,” Judith Crist, and a newcomer to film criticism named Roger Ebert. And remember Menand’s contention that the Saturday Review hated the film? Warners quoted the Review’s Hollis Alpert as calling the film “vivid, fascinating… captures a sense of the period. A high point in the directional work of Arthur Penn.”
- That Sept. 13 Denton, Texas, bow that Biskind so drearily painted (and noted that Beatty wouldn’t attend) was viewed in the Variety of Sept. 20 as “a day of news conferences, a barbecue under a circus tent, tours of the area where the film was made. All 1,300 seats of the Campus Theater were sold out for the premiere showing. Warren Beatty flew here from London. At least 14 motion picture officials were here from New York, Kansas City, Dallas and Hollywood.”
- The National Society of Film Critics already had “Bonnie and Clyde” on its recommended list when Kael wrote her “defense” of the film. It had opened in London three weeks earlier, with Warners again promoting the film in Variety, noting that it had received the best reviews “in London history” and gushing that “it has done the biggest business in the theater’s history” outside of “My Fair Lady.”
- As for the famous Time magazine reversal in December, it’s worth noting that the original review was written by a substitute critic, not by Stefan Kanfer, the magazine’s regular critic and the author of the December cover story.
Both Menand and Biskind seem to think the picture sprung back to life after this momentous Time “reversal” of opinion and “on the same day it received 10 Academy nominations.”
- The “reversal” ran the first week of December and the Academy noms were on Feb. 20, the week Variety reported the film in its 16th week, with “some original runs, some return engagements.”
So were the “saviors” of “Bonnie and Clyde” a legendary New York film critic who went on to work for Warren Beatty and a major New York publishing entity that bravely reversed itself to support a movie that had disappeared weeks earlier?
Or was “Bonnie and Clyde” carefully nurtured from Montreal to Manhattan with both studio and private promotion, solid reviews and solid business and given time to build into a breakout hit just as dozens of other films of the era had?
Variety suspected back then that the latter might be closer to the truth, and those suspicions were printed the same week as the Time cover story.
In parentheses after a piece on Time magazine reversing its review of “Clyde,” there is this note: As the film “seemingly hardens into a cinematic legend, dividing the modern buffs from the older generation of moralists, it should be put on the record that many observers see an extremely clever campaign behind the release. It is recalled that when the film first showed at the Montreal Film Festival in August, the entire W7 promotional echelon was present under Lederer.
“Also present, working for Beatty personally, was Springer, himself a longtime film buff as well as freelance publicist. Latter’s expertise in marshalling the weight of buff opinion for the film is credited, and/or suspected. –Ed.”
Was it an independent publicist, John Springer, not Pauline Kael, who “saved” “Bonnie and Clyde,” by simply, quietly, toiling at his craft behind the scenes?
Appropriately enough, it was a movie, John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” about a man who never took credit for the act of the title, that perhaps provides the operative phrase: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”