Arthur Penn, who died yesterday of congestive heart failure at his Upper West Side apartment in New York, may have had the strangest career arc of any major Hollywood director. That's Penn, standing on the right, on the set of "Bonnie and Clyde," with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
For the better part of a decade, from "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) to "The Missouri Breaks" (1976), he was pretty much it among American directors until Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese came along. There was a special excitement attached to Penn's name. And why shouldn't there have been? "Bonnie and Clyde" was the most revolutionary movie made in this country since "Citizen Kane." No movie since has matched its impact. Its blend of humor and tragedy, its frank yet poeticized presentation of violence, the across-the-board excellence of its acting, even the hilarious yet pitch-perfect way it used Flatt and Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown": All these elements and more combined to blow open the doors of Hollywood and usher in its Silver Age. There's lots of credit to go around (Beatty, who produced as well as starred; Robert Benton and David Newman's script; Robert Towne's script-doctoring; Dede Allen's gangbusters editing; the cast, too, of course). But it was Arthur Penn's movie.
Penn had made his reputation as a director of live drama on television (he contributed a lot of the gold to the Golden Age of Television) and won even more acclaim as a director on Broadway. His staging of "The Miracle Worker" led to his directing the film version, which earned him his first of three Oscar nominations. "Bonnie and Clyde" was the second (he lost to Mike Nichols -- Mike Nichols, the most overrated director of the past half century! -- for "The Graduate"), and "Alice's Restaurant" (1969) was the third. His film-directing debut had been "The Left-Handed Gun," in 1958, with Paul Newman as a very revisionist Billy the Kid. Already one could see the hallmarks of Penn's filmmaking: a love of actors (which was very much requited), a feel for the idiosyncratic, a fondness for the subversive, and, very much related to that last quality, a profound ambivalence to the mainstream. The most obvious examples of that ambivalence would be "Alice's Restaurant" -- it's hard to get less mainstream than a movie version of an Arlo Guthrie song, especially if you cast Arlo Guthrie in the lead -- and "Little Big Man" (1970), which does to the reputation of George Armstrong Custer what Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow did to Texas savings-and-loans. But it's also there in a big-budget extravaganza like "The Chase" (1966) and the almost willful murkiness of "Mickey One" (1966), which first brought together Penn and Beatty. It's also the closest thing to a European art movie to come out of Hollywood until Coppola made the "The Conversation" eight years later.
So? So something happened -- or, more accurately didn't. "The Missouri Breaks" was the most anticipated movie since "Godfather II." Seriously. It really was. Brando, in his first role since "Last Tango in Paris"! Nicholson, in his first role since "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"! A western scripted by Tom McGuane! And Penn's participation was the clincher. By that point, people realized something had changed in Hollywood. Not only had things gotten interesting. They'd gotten consistently (if still unpredictably) interesting. This was a movie with the promise of taking things to a whole new level, as had been done by "Bonnie and Clyde" and then "The Godfather" (a movie in many ways unthinkable without the example of "Bonnie and Clyde"). It didn't do that, of course. What "Breaks" is best remembered for is the sight of Brando, as a frontier "regulator," going about his murderous business wearing a Mother Hubbard. We can now see his performance as the beginning of his descent (plunge is more like it) into burlesque and self-parody ("Last Tango in Wardrobe"?). It's a wonderfully quirky movie, right down to its surely being the only western ever to have a "Tristram Shandy" reference, but it's more or less a mess.
That was pretty much that for Penn. Coppola and Scorsese were artistically more ambitious and productive, and the emergence of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg changed the economics of moviemaking. Penn directed just four features in the '80s -- "Four Friends" (1981), "Target" (1985), "Dead of Winter" (1987), "Penn & Teller Get Killed" (1989) -- which you may or may not have heard of and, almost certainly, none of which you've seen. "Target" at least reunites Penn with Gene Hackman, who was so good as Buck Barrow, in "Bonnie and Clyde," and as the hero of that grayest of neo-noirs, "Night Moves" (1975).
There have been other directors who have blazed so brightly and briefly -- think of Preston Sturges in the first half of the 1940s or, yes, Coppola in the '70s -- but they kept on working or else suffered grievous personal setbacks. Think of the number of movies Orson Welles made after "Kane" and "Ambersons" -- and how all of them have interesting things in them, often lots of interesting things. Penn was a different story. He stopped trying to play the Hollywood game and the few movies he made seemed like going through the motions. Even rarer for a director in his position, he stayed sane and centered, a man without bitterness or grandiosity. How lacking in grandiosity? His email address was email@example.com.
I got to see firsthand the man's modesty and good humor two and a half years ago. The Harvard Film Archive had scheduled a retrospective of his work, and I went down to New York to interview Penn for the Globe. It was a double assignment. Earlier that day I would be reviewing a show of Irving Penn's portraits at the Morgan Library. Many people are unaware that Arthur and Irving were brothers -- this side of Henry and William James, maybe the most impressive fraternal pair American culture has produced. I got a kick out of the conjunction of the two Penn assignments and figured Arthur would, too. He did -- as I found out sooner than I'd expected.
The show was so good I got caught up in it and lost track of the time. Leaving the Morgan, I was mortified to see that I was supposed to be at Arthur's apartment in ten minutes. There was no way I could travel 60-plus blocks in that amount of time on a Friday afternoon. Utterly chagrined, I called Arthur to explain my situation and apologize. He immediately put me at ease. He was amused and, I think, pleased, actually, by what had happened. My lateness was a tribute to his big brother, after all. Unlike certain other famous sibling pairs (Thomas and Heinrich Mann, say, or Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine), Arthur and Irving shared a deep affection and respect. In their very different way, they were no less a great tandem than Bonnie and Clyde were. They came to a much happier end, too.
He was a lovely man.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
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