CultureZohn: Bonnie and Clyde and Me

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Bonnie and Clyde courtesy J. "Boots" Hinton

American Experience is airing their season opening film tonight on Bonnie and Clyde. It's comprehensive and thoughtful, and grounds the story most of us came to know through the 1967 film directed by Arthur Penn starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

The real depression era story is only 50 percent as glam. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow did excite the down-at-the-heels country with their derring-do, it was an age when gangsters offered some relief against the powerlessness most felt. Clyde was an expert at hot-wiring cars (they didn't actually rob as many banks), Bonnie had stars in her eyes. Their short-lived spree ended in tragedy.

The real Bonnie and Clyde death scene

It points up that sometimes fiction is much more fun than truth, and in the case of this film, another species entirely.

Bonnie and Clyde trailer, 1967

Here I must confess partisanship right off the top. I have loved Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde since I first saw the film. The whole conversation in the '60s about its violence is rendered entirely moot by the degree of violence now on screens large and small. The whole conversation about Clyde's ambiguous sexuality also moot. (The real Clyde was supposedly repeatedly raped in prison. In the film he is portrayed as impotent or libidinally-challenged and Bonnie as sexually assertive.) It mattered not one jot, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are so beautiful and alluring as to take your breath away. (The real Bonnie and Clyde were very short.) Arthur Penn's direction (the film was first offered to Truffaut, then Godard, then many other well-known American directors and finally Penn agreed to do it; Warren Beatty was the pro-active producer) has hallmarks of the French New Wave in style and substance. It opens with a documentary feel then goes tight on Bonnie-Faye's gorgeous mouth with the spit curl Clyde-Warren makes her put behind her ear.

I dressed like Bonnie-Faye for an entire year. I wore berets. I cut bangs and had a bob even though I have curly hair. I hunted vintage stores for those great silk shirts. For a gal on the lam who often had to get on the road in a hurry, she sure did have a deep wardrobe. Bonnie-Faye didn't wear a bra and neither would I, I decided. I mean it was the '60s!

The film's trailer has a little bit of this bifurcation of eras going on. Check out the titles totally pop. The '60s had some of the same counter-culture vibe as the roaring '20s. David Newman and Robert Benton had the idea and wrote the script (with an slyly credited Robert Towne doing a pass). Estelle Parsons and Gene Hackman are also superb. I worked with Parsons on a PBS special years later and drilled her about the making of the film. Morgan Fairchild was Dunaway's stunt double!

They say actors don't like to watch themselves when they were younger, but all I can say is Faye and Warren, my hat's off to you, and mother nature, both. (Faye's 75th birthday was just a few days ago, Warren is 78.) I'd watch it every night!

The web is filled with wonderful things about the outlaw pair. In addition to the trailer, there are the photographs that were discovered in their Joplin, MO hideout that make the word selfie look tame.

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Courtesy J. "Boots" Hinton

Bonnie had always wanted to be an actress and had a taste for the expensive and had joined up with Clyde to get away from her boring Dallas upbringing and she is filled with show biz in these shots. She was also a fledgling poet who immortalized the duo.

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Bonnie Parker, courtesy J. "Boots" Hinton

There is another good BBC documentary, a great early music video of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot singing their complimentary song, and an FBI file.

Serge Gainsbourgh and Brigitte Bardot

Forgive me, American Experience, for digressing. (In fact not once does the documentary reference the film. I found that incredible.) By all means watch the documentary and then the film if by chance you live on this planet and have not seen it yet. (The film just aired on TMC, so I don't think it will come round again soon but keep checking. In the meantime, you can get it on iTunes.)

And buy a beret. For just $3.27 you will have a touch of Bonnie-Faye's moxie as soon as you put it on.