Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, and director Arthur Penn on the set of Bonnie and Clyde.
From Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/.
On Aug. 13, 1967, Bonnie and Clyde changed film. The bloody biopic, starring Warren Beatty and an ascendant Faye Dunaway, hit theaters and—to the surprise of Warner Bros.—was a smash with audiences, who rushed to see the gangster picture. It had an unprecedented amount of violence for a studio film of that era, and soon became a darling within the industry; the movie was nominated for several key Academy Awards, including acting nods for its core and supporting cast, best writing, best director, and best picture. It lost that year (to the Sidney Poitier vehicle In the Heat of the Night), but still ushered in a new wave of inspired films in the 1970s.
It would be natural to think, then, that critics at the time were also keen on this groundbreaking film. But that‘s not quite what happened. Some did champion the movie, including leading voices like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. But many others savaged it, criticizing Bonnie and Clyde as a bloody, empty project that degraded modern cinema. Here are a few of those reviews:
Variety: Critic Dave Kaufman began by thrashing the script, saying the titular bank robbers had been depicted as “inept, bumbling, moronic types.” He moved on to slam Arthur Penn’s directing style, calling it inconsistent, before praising Dunaway—and tearing into Beatty, as well as Michael J. Pollard and Gene Hackman, who “are more clowns than baddies as gang members.”
New York Times: Critic Bosley Crowther’s second paragraph makes his opinion extremely clear: “It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Like many others at the time, Crowther was put off by the film’s violence and Penn’s “aggressive” directing style in that regard. The film could have been “a candidly commercial movie comedy,” if it wasn’t for those “blotches of violence of the most grisly sort . . . this blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste.”
Time: The headline for this review just about gives it all away: “Low-down Hoedown.” It doesn’t get better from there; the film was criticized for being “a strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap that teeters uneasily on the brink of burlesque.” The script also didn’t get away unscathed, shredded for creating characters with “no discernible shape.” The plot “rides off in all directions and ends up full of holes.”
This was par for the course for Bonnie and Clyde. That said, the film did have a few extraordinary champions, including:
Roger Ebert: The legendary critic gave the film four perfect stars, presciently calling it “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.” He also applauded the movie’s audacity: “It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life.”
Pauline Kael: The New Yorker critic who famously never watched anything twice had a similar view to Ebert, attuned to the film’s contemporary nature. “Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American movie since The Manchurian Candidate,” she wrote. “The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.”
Joe Morgenstern: The Newsweek critic was the most curious case in the bunch. At first, he wrote a bitter review of Bonnie and Clyde, tearing it apart like so many of his colleagues. But then he saw the film again on a Saturday, this time in a theater full of thrilled audience members. He had a change of heart and did something critics rarely do—he immediately wrote a second review, disavowing his initial response. “On Monday morning, I went into Newsweek and wrote a six-column review,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “It began with a description of the previous review, and then I said, ‘I am sorry to say I consider that review grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate. I am sorrier to say I wrote it.’”
“That night I met Pauline Kael at a Chinese restaurant and she said, ‘I read your review and you really blew it,’” he told the Times. “And all I could say was, ‘Wait until you see the one next week.‘”
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