Arthur Penn: The Miracle Worker of Bonnie and Clyde

Director Arthur Penn, whose new-wave take on American legends reinvigorated Hollywood, died Sept. 28 at age 88

  • Everett Collection

    Director Arthur Penn on the set of his 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde

    The film's publicity tag line told the truth: "They're young. They're in love. They kill people."

    Bonnie and Clyde was the movie that changed movies, for a while. A true-crime love story told with a modernist flair, this 1967 hit certified Warren Beatty as a prince among actor-producers and made a star of Faye Dunaway. Its epochally violent climax announced that Hollywood was ready to become a full-time munitions factory. The movie defined the careers of that generation's film critics: the New York Times ' Bosley Crowther excoriated it, and abruptly retired four months later; Newsweek 's Joe Morgenstern panned the film one week, recanted and raved the next; a young Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael, in one of her first New Yorker reviews, loved it. Its script, a first-time effort by Esquire staffers David Newman and Robert Benton, brought a European art-house sensibility to the very American themes of (in Kael terms) kiss-kiss and bang-bang. And it turned Arthur Penn into the director du jour.

    Penn specialized in rebel movies that were in sync with their bold times and often a little ahead of the mass audience. His 1965 Mickey One was a Kafka-Camus tale of a stand-up comic (Beatty) in a perpetual state of existential flight. Alice's Restaurant , the 1969 film version of Arlo Guthrie's 19-minute talking-blues FM-radio hit, was an elegy for two generations: the hippie young and the restless middle-age marrieds. The following year, in Little Big Man , he directed a comic dirge itemizing the white man's extermination of native Americans. But Penn didn't dress the part of a wild auteur; he kept his hair short and his manner calm. In 1956 he married the actress Peggy Mauer; 54 years later she was with him at their Manhattan home when he died Sept. 28, the day after his 88th birthday, of congestive heart failure.

    Born in Philadelphia, Arthur performed in Army theater troupes in World War II, then enrolled at the experimental Black Mountain College, studied at two universities in Italy and trained at the Actors Studio. In 1953, Fred Coe, the decade's most influential producer of dramatic anthology shows, promoted the young man to director on The Gulf Playhouse . Penn was thus a charter member of the Golden Age of TV drama, along with such future filmmakers as Sydney Pollack, John Frankenheimer, Norman Jewison and Robert Altman. In the next few years Penn would direct original plays by Paddy Chayefsky ( A Gift from Cotton Mather, The Strong Woman, Catch My Boy on Sunday ), Horton Foote ( The Tears of My Sister, John Turner Davis ) and Rod Serling ( The Dark Side of the Earth ). One TV play — Gore Vidal's The Death of Billy the Kid , starring Paul Newman and originally directed by Robert Mulligan — became Penn's first feature film. Another TV play soldered the director's career in three media.

    William Gibson's The Miracle Worker was a portrait of the young Helen Keller — the blind and deaf girl who rose to be an important author, suffragist and socialist — and her half-blind teacher, Annie Sullivan. Dramatists have stumbled and truckled so many times attempting true-life inspirational films and TV movies; Gibson eschewed sentiment to focus on two strong wills locked in battle. Penn, always a master at unleashing his actors' ferocious physicality, staged one dining-room fight, in which Annie tries to impose some rudimentary table manners on the wild child, as a 10-min. siege of ultimate fighting and impeccable choreography. (At the end an exhausted Annie tells Helen's mother, "The room's a wreck, but her napkin is folded.") On TV the roles were played by Patty McCormack and Teresa Wright; in the Broadway and film versions that followed, by Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft. Bancroft and Penn and Gibson and designer George Jenkins all won Tony awards. Duke and Bancroft both received Oscars for the film, and Penn the first of three Academy nominations. (The other two were for Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant ; he never won.)

    In the early '60s Penn was considered a prominent theater director who dabbled in movies. In addition to The Miracle Worker , he staged Gibson's Two for the Seasaw , Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic , the Broadway debut of the comedy sketch duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the musical Golden Boy and, in 1966, Frederic Knott's thriller Wait Until Dark — another blind girl in peril. Jenkins later recalled standing in the lobby with Penn during that play's tryout and hearing, inside, the audience's collective scream when the villain (Robert Duvall) leaped out of the shadows to attack the heroine (Lee Remick). The director and the designer hadn't realized this frisson would have such a visceral, audible impact. A year later, Penn would give moviegoers a more seismic shock with Bonnie and Clyde .

    When showered with acclaim, Penn would not take the safe road but the rough one. The Miracle Worker confirmed his success, but instead of going Hollywood he went indie. Mickey One , from a script by Alan Surgal, was the story of a rebel without applause: a flailing stand-up comic (Beatty) who flees Detroit for Chicago when his life is threatened. "Hiding from you-don't-know-who, for a crime you're not even sure you committed?" asks the sympathetic Alexandra Stewart. "And the only thing I know," Beatty says, "I'm guilty." Guilty of what? "Of not bein' innocent." A performer for whom the spotlight has the blinding intensity of a third-degree interrogation or the awful radiance of a demon deity, Mickey does one last stand-up routine under the gun. "Is there any word?" he calls out to the person — perhaps his soon-to-be killer — manning that spotlight. Silence. "So this is the word." The end.

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