1967 hits ‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ ‘The Graduate’ brought innovations to American moviemaking
The New York Times panned it, and studio chief Jack Warner thought the movie was a bomb, but “Bonnie and Clyde” was a game-changer during the summer of 1967.
The Hollywood revolution the Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway vehicle began would be bolstered by another sleeper hit released at the end of 1967 — “The Graduate.” Within two years, the major studios would start rolling out a new breed of frankly adult films that would include “Midnight Cowboy,” “Easy Rider” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”
Heavily influenced by the artistic freedom of European films of the early 1960s, such as “La Dolce Vita” and “Jules and Jim,” this new wave of serious, mature movies would cause the Motion Picture Association of America to create a new rating system in 1968 that included two adult labels — the R and the X.
“Bonnie and Clyde” had a rocky reception at first. The Warner Brothers studio leadership viewed the 1930s-era bank robbers tale as a B-picture that might be best suited to drive-in theaters in the South. It was only due to the intense lobbying of Warren Beatty — who was making his debut as a producer, as well as starring in the movie — that the film was opened in New York City and Los Angeles to see if it might stir up enough interest to warrant a national release.
The film’s treatment of sudden violence shocked many of those early moviegoers, with the quick changes from comedy to horror upsetting audiences whose idea of a fun night out was the new Doris Day picture, “The Ballad of Josie,” or the hit Julie Andrews musical, “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was so upset by “Bonnie and Clyde” that he attacked it before and after it opened in Manhattan on Aug. 13, calling the film “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie.’”
Time magazine’s Alan Rich called the film “a strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap.” (A few months later, after the movie took off at the box office, the same magazine ran a cover story on the impact “Bonnie and Clyde” was having on Hollywood, with the tagline “The New Cinema: Violence ... Sex ... Art.)
The treatment of violence and the presentation of bank-robbing killers as characters worthy of sympathy disconcerted even sophisticated reviewers like Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek (now a critic at the Wall Street Journal), who first panned “Bonnie and Clyde” and then retracted that review a week later after giving the movie a second look.
Years later, Morgenstern told film historian Mark Harris, “I got it wrong. I was not ready for the violence and kind of shrank from it.”
Although the new female star of “Bonnie and Clyde,” Faye Dunaway, was in the tradition of Hollywood glamour girls, Beatty and director Arthur Penn looked to the character-actor pool in New York City to cast the other leads: Gene Hackman (in his first major role), as Clyde’s brother, Estelle Parsons, as Hackman’s wife, and the ultra-quirky Michael J. Pollard as the gas station attendant who becomes the gang’s getaway driver.
Four months after “Bonnie and Clyde” opened, one of Hackman’s New York City roommates, Dustin Hoffman, would cause an upheaval in Hollywood’s notions of what constituted a movie star when he caused a sensation in the title role of the Mike Nichols film, “The Graduate.”
In the original novel by Charles Webb, the recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock was a WASP-y golden boy. Nichols’ first casting idea was Robert Redford, with whom the director had worked on the Broadway hit “Barefoot in the Park.” But the more he thought about it, the more Nichols believed Redford or a Redford type might be too on-the-nose for Benjamin, so he decided to put a more down-to-earth, nebbishy looking guy in the part. Hoffman was already pushing 30 when he made the movie, but Nichols’ hunch paid off, and it opened the door to a whole new breed of leading men that would include Hackman, Elliott Gould and Jack Nicholson.
The following year, the casting revolution represented by Hoffman would be further expanded when Barbra Streisand was allowed to do the movie version of her Broadway hit, “Funny Girl,” despite the studio’s fear she was not attractive enough to headline a big-budget film. Other actresses were considered, including Anne Bancroft, but Columbia Pictures decided to give the 25-year-old stage and recording star a shot. The gamble paid off with a huge box office success, an Oscar for Streisand and the launching of one of the biggest new movie stars of the 1970s.
The days of Rock Hudson, Doris Day and other conventionally attractive stars of the 1960s were suddenly numbered.
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