'Bonnie and Clyde' director dies at 88

9:01 AM PST 09/29/2010 by Duane Byrge, AP

Arthur Penn won awards for TV, film and Broadway

Arthur Penn, the director of the polarizing "Bonnie and Clyde" whose films often flew in the face of American mythology, died Tuesday, one day after his 88th birthday.

Daughter Molly Penn said her father died of congestive heart failure at his Manhattan home. Longtime friend and business manager Evan Bell said Wednesday that Penn had been ill for about a year.

A product of the golden era of live television and an accomplished theater director, Penn's work on "The Miracle Worker" earned him an Emmy nomination in 1957, a Tony in 1959 and an Oscar nom in 1962. At one time, Penn had five hits running simultaneously on Broadway.

Penn was one of a group of directors -- including John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Norman Jewison -- whose films were intelligent glimpses into politics, morals and social institutions. Often, they were met with controversy.

His movies debunked the allure of the gunman, the folk hero or the man of the law. Often, the lead characters were outsiders, and the narrative took on sacred cows and popular illusions about the nature of folk heroes.

In addition to 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Miracle Worker," Penn earned an Oscar nomination for the counterculture classic "Alice's Restaurant" (1969). Other memorable films include "The Left-Handed Gun" (1958), "Mickey One" (1965), "The Chase" (1966), "Little Big Man" (1970) and "The Missouri Breaks" (1976).

Penn's greatest work came with the powerful "Bonnie and Clyde," which starred Warren Beatty and newcomer Faye Dunaway as 1930s outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. The film evoked a sensational reaction, getting praised on one hand and being condemned for its torrid, slow-motion violence on the other. The film showed the often bumbling ineptitude of the couple's crime spree and their debilitating personal problems, which included Clyde's impotence.

With its French New Wave stylings, "Bonnie and Clyde" earned 10 Academy Award nominations, bringing Oscars to supporting actress Estelle Parsons and cinematographer Burnett Guffey. It also was nominated for best picture (losing out to "In the Heat of the Night"), screenplay (David Newman and Robert Benton), actor (Beatty), actress (Dunaway), supporting actor (Gene Hackman) and costume design (Theadora Van Runkle).

Penn was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 27, 1922. The son of a watchmaker, he showed a flair for drama as a high school student when he began voicing local radio plays, then directed small theater after graduation.

He was drafted to serve in World War II, where he finished out his duty by requesting a reduction in rank from sergeant to private so that he might begin directing for a military stage troupe organized by Josh Logan; playwright Paddy Chayefsky and actor Mickey Rooney were among its contingent.

Following military service, Penn enrolled at Black Mountain College in South Carolina, taught acting and then left to study in Europe, attending universities in Florence and Perugia, Italy.

He returned to the U.S. and got work as a floor manager at NBC for "The Colgate Comedy Hour," then worked his way up to directing segments for "Playhouse 90" and "The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse." He balanced his directing in the new medium of TV with Broadway, directing "Two for the Seesaw" and "Miracle Worker," and became actively involved in the Actors Studio in New York.

On the strength of his stage successes, Penn won his first film assignment, helming Warner Bros.' "Left-Handed Gun" for Fred Coe (who also produced "Miracle Worker" on TV and Broadway). Starring Paul Newman, it was a variation on the Billy the Kid legend, showing the hair-trigger contrast between the youthful exuberance of the fabled gunslinger and, in the next instant, his heartless cruelty.

Beginning a prolific period during the '60s, his "Miracle Worker" won the best actress Oscar for Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and the supporting actress Oscar for her co-star, Patty Duke, as the blind Helen Keller.

Next up was "Mickey One," which starred Beatty as a comic, then "Chase," adapted by Lillian Hellman from a Horton Foote novel about an escaped convict (Robert Redford) whose imminent return to his hometown has the community in a panic.

Warners hated "Bonnie and Clyde," causing Beatty to roll around on the office floor of a studio executive to get an acceptable release schedule. The film debuted in August 1967 and after a slow start was wildly embraced by audiences.

Penn followed up with a sharp-eyed look at the exuberance, as well as inanity, of hippy-dom in "Alice's Restaurant." The film was based on a rambling folk song from Arlo Guthrie based on his misadventures with society and, more pointedly, the draft board.

A celebration of the era's countercultural ethos, "Alice" shows surprising resilience today, especially in its depiction of the dysfunctional nature of the dropout world, not recognized by college audiences at the time.

The nextyear, Penn delivered "Little Big Man," starring Dustin Hoffman as an aged Native American; again, it was a revisionist look at the mythology and heroics of the Old West.

Always deliberate, Penn took a five-year sabbatical from directing during the early '70s to be with his family. His only credit during that time was for shooting a segment on pole vaulters for the 1973 Olympics film "Visions of Eight." He did not helm a feature again until 1975's "Night Moves"; starring Hackman as a Los Angeles detective hired to find a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith), it played to lackluster boxoffice and decidedly mixed reviews.

The following year he did "Missouri Breaks," another debunking of the Western myth. Adapted from the Thomas McGuane novel, it starred Jack Nicholson as a horse thief and Marlon Brando as the lawmen who comes to bring him in. Widely anticipated, it was a desultory mess, capped by Brando's munching a carrot out of a horse's mouth.

More recently, Penn directed the films "Four Friends" (1981), "Target" (1985), "Dead of Winter" (1987) and the idiosyncratic "Penn & Teller Get Killed" (1989) as well as a few television shows.

In addition to his daughter Molly, survivors include his wife of 54 years, Peggy; a son, director Matthew Penn; and four grandsons. Penn's older brother, photographer Irving Penn, died in October.

A memorial service will be held before year's end.

The Associated press contributed to this report.
comments powered by Disqus