DIRECTOR ARTHUR PENN DIES




ARTHUR PENN, the stage, television and motion picture director whose revolutionary treatment of sex and violence in the film BONNIE & CLYDE transformed the American film industry, died on Tuesday night at his home in Manhattan, the day after his 88th birthday.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to his son MATTHEW.

A pioneering director of live television drama in the 1950s and a Broadway powerhouse in the 1960s, Mr. Penn developed an intimate, spontaneous and physically oriented method of directing actors that allowed their work to register across a range of mediums.

In 1957 he directed William Gibson’s television play THE MIRACLE WORKER for the CBS series Playhouse 90 and earned EMMY nominations for himself, his writer and his star TERESA WRIGHT.

In 1959 he restaged THE MIRACLE WORKER for Broadway and won TONY AWARDS for himself, his writer and his star ANNE BANCROFT.

And in 1962 he directed the film version of the Gibson text, capturing the BEST ACTRESS OSCAR for Ms. Bancroft, the BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS ACADEMY AWARD for her costar PATTY DUKE and nominations for writing and directing.

Mr. Penn’s direction may have also changed American history.

He advised Senator John F. Kennedy during his watershed television debates with Richard M. Nixon in 1960 (and directed the broadcast of the third debate). Mr. Penn’s instructions to Mr. Kennedy — to look directly into the camera and keep his responses brief and pithy — helped give him an aura of confidence and calm that created a vivid contrast to Nixon, his more experienced but less telegenic Republican rival.

But it was as a film director that Mr. Penn left his mark on American culture, most indelibly with BONNIE & CLYDE.

“Arthur Penn brought the sensibility of 60s European art films to American movies,” the writer/director PAUL SCHRADER said.

“He paved the way for the new generation of American directors who came out of film schools.”

Many of the now classic films of what was branded the New American Cinema of the 1970s — like FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S THE GODFATHER — would have been unthinkable without BONNIE & CLYDE to lead the way.

“A society would be wise to pay attention to the people who do not belong if it wants to find out…where it’s failing,” Mr. Penn said.

Loosely based on the story of two minor gangsters of the 1930s – BONNIE PARKER and CLYDE BARROWBONNIE & CLYDE was conceived by its two novice screenwriters, ROBERT BENTON and DAVID NEWMAN, as an homage to the rebellious sensibility and disruptive style of French New Wave films like JEAN LUC GODARD’S BREATHLESS and FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT’S SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER.

In Mr. Penn’s hands, it became something even more dangerous and innovative: a sympathetic portrait of two barely articulate criminals, played by WARREN BEATTY and newcomer FAYE DUNAWAY, that disconcertingly mixed sex, violence and comedy, set to a bouncy bluegrass score by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

Not only was the film sexually explicit in ways unseen in Hollywood since the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 — when Bonnie stroked Clyde’s gun, the symbolism was unmistakable — it was violent in ways that had never been seen before. Audiences gasped when a comic bank robbery climaxed with Clyde’s shooting a bank teller in the face and were stunned when the glamorous outlaws died in a torrent of bullets.

Reporting on the film’s premiere on the opening night of the International Film Festival of Montreal in 1967, BOSLEY CROWTHER the chief film critic for THE NEW YORK TIMES was appalled, describing BONNIE & CLYDE as “callous and callow” and a “slap happy colour film charade.”

Worse, the public seemed to love it.

BONNIE & CLYDE was initially released in August of 1967 and then rereleased early in 1968 in response to unflagging interest. It appalled the old and fascinated the young, widening a generational divide not only between audiences, but with critics as well.

“Just to show how delirious these festival audiences can be,” Mr. Crowther wrote, “it was wildly received with gales of laughter and given a terminal burst of applause.”

Similar reactions by other major critics followed when the film opened in the United States a few weeks later. The film, promoted by WARNER BROTHERS with a memorable tag line — They’re young. They’re in love. And they kill people. — floundered at first but soon found an enthusiastic audience among younger filmgoers and won the support of a new generation of critics.

“A milestone in the history of American movies,” wrote ROGER EBERT in The Chicago Sun Times.

PAULINE KAEL, writing in THE NEW YORKER, described it as an “excitingly American movie.”

“How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?”

“The accusation that the beauty of movie stars makes the antisocial acts of their characters dangerously attractive is the kind of contrived argument we get from people who are bothered by something and clutching at straws,” Ms. Kael wrote.

BONNIE & CLYDE received 10 OSCAR nominations but won only two (for Burnett Guffey’s cinematography and Estelle Parson’s supporting performance).

That outcome reflected the Hollywood establishment’s ambivalence over a film that seemed to point the way out of the creative paralysis that had set in after the end of the studio system while betraying the values — good taste and moral clarity — that the studios held most dear.

But the floodgates had been opened: BONNIE & CLYDE was followed by a host of other youth oriented, taboo breaking films that made mountains of money for Hollywood.

Mr. Penn was perceived as a major film artist on the European model, opening the way for a group of star directors — including TERRENCE MALICK and HAL ASHBY — who were able to work with comparative artistic freedom through the next decade.

The film generation had arrived.

ARTHUR PENN was born on SEPTEMBER 27, 1922 in Philadelphia. His father, a watchmaker, and his mother, a nurse, divorced when he was 3 and Arthur and his older brother IRVING (who would achieve fame as a photographer), went to live with their mother in New York and New Jersey, changing homes and schools frequently as she struggled to make a living.

Mr. Penn traced his affinity for alienated heroes to a traumatic childhood. He once said that Truffaut’s 400 BLOWS “was so much like my own childhood it really stunned me.”

At age 14, Mr. Penn returned to Philadelphia to live with his ailing father and help him run his watch repair shop.

“He was an excellent mechanic…His hands were magical,” Mr. Penn recalled.

“But he was an evasive man for someone to try to make contact with. I think I’m like him in some ways. I’m not the most available of men – emotionally or personally.”

He was no filmgoer as a child; books and baseball mattered more. Mr. Penn was frightened by a horror movie when he was 5 and said he did not see another movie until his teens, when ORSON WELLES’ CITIZEN KANE ”staggered” him.

Along with ORSON WELLES and CHARLIE CHAPLIN, Mr. Penn greatly admired AKIRA KUROSAWA and the French New Wave directors.

He was known for allowing actors to improvise — and getting a wide range of expression from them in return. He believed words are to the theatre as action is to film: “A look – a simple look – will do it.”

He joined the Army in 1943 and, while stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, organized a theater troupe with his fellow soldiers; later, while stationed in Paris, he performed with the Soldiers Show Company.

After the war he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend the unconventional Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where his classmates included John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller.

He went on to study at the Universities of Perugia and Florence in Italy, returning to the United States in 1948.

Intrigued by the new psychologically realistic school of acting that had grown out of the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski — broadly known as the Method — he studied with THE ACTORS STUDIO in New York and with Stanislavski’s rebellious disciple Michael Chekhov in Los Angeles.

Back in New York, Mr. Penn landed a job as a floor manager at NBC’s newly opened television studios. In 1953 an old Army buddy Fred Coe gave him a job as a director on The Gulf Playhouse, also known as First Person, an experimental dramatic series in which the actors addressed the camera directly.

The series, broadcast live, introduced Mr. Penn to writers who would make their names in the television drama of the 1950s, among them PADDY CHAYEFSKY and HORTON FOOTE.

As Mr. Coe moved on to the expanded formats of The Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90, he took Mr. Penn with him. His Playhouse 90 production of Mr. Gibson’s THE MIRACLE WORKER, starring PATRICIA McCORMACK as HELEN KELLER and Ms. Wright as the blind girl’s determined teacher ANNIE SULLIVAN, was shown on February 7, 1957 and earned glowing reviews for Mr. Gibson and Mr. Penn.

Their television success allowed Mr. Penn and Mr. Gibson to return to the original arena of their ambitions: Broadway. With Mr. Coe producing, they mounted Mr. Gibson’s play TWO FOR THE SEESAW, about a Midwestern businessperson (HENRY FONDA) contemplating an adventure with a New York bohemian (ANNE BANCROFT).

Opening in January of 1958, it was an immediate success.

Sensing themselves on a roll, Mr. Penn and Mr. Coe decided to tackle Hollywood. With Mr. Coe producing, Mr. Penn directed his first film THE LEFT HANDED GUN (1958), for WARNER BROTHERS. Based on a GORE VIDAL television play, the project was an extension of the Playhouse 90 aesthetic: a low budget black and white western about a troubled inarticulate young man (PAUL NEWMAN, in a performance stamped with ACTORS STUDIO technique) who happened to be Billy The Kid.

As the critic Robin Wood wrote in a 1969 book about Mr. Penn, THE LEFT HANDED GUN provides “a remarkably complete thematic exposition of Penn’s work.”

Here all ready is the theme of the immature unstable outsider who resorts to violence when rejected by an uncaring establishment — a configuration that Mr. Penn would return to again and again in his work.

Unfortunately, the film earned mediocre reviews and quickly sank from view. But Mr. Penn had a backup plan. Returning to New York, he mounted THE MIRACLE WORKER for Broadway with ANNE BANCROFT as ANNIE SULLIVAN and Ms. Duke as HELEN KELLER.

Mr. Penn’s highly physical approach made the show a sensation and the production ran for 719 performances.

During that run Mr. Penn found time to stage three more hits: LILLIAN HELLMAN’S TOYS IN THE ATTIC, AN EVENING WITH MIKE NICHOLS & ELAINE MAY (the Broadway debut for that comedy team) and ALL THE WAY HOME, an adaptation of James Agee’s novel A DEATH IN THE FAMILY.

When Hollywood beckoned again, Mr. Penn returned in strength in 1962 to direct the film version of THE MIRACLE WORKER, which became a popular and critical success.

But he was dismissed from his next project THE TRAIN after a few days of filming by its temperamental star BURT LANCASTER.

Mr. Penn’s subsequent film MICKEY ONE (1965), an absurdist drama about a nightclub comedian (Mr. Beatty) on the run from mobsters, wore its European art film ambitions on its sleeve and baffled most American critics, though it was admired by the iconoclastic young critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, the French magazine that championed the New Wave.

Mr. Penn had another frustrating experience with THE CHASE (1966), a multi character, morally complex drama set in a Texas town where the sheriff (MARLON BRANDO) is on the lookout for a local boy (ROBERT REDFORD) who has escaped from prison. Adapted by LILLIAN HELLMAN from a HORTON FOOTE play, the drama was taken away from Mr. Penn and re edited by its producer SAM SPIEGEL.

But even in its mutilated form, THE CHASE remains one of Mr. Penn’s most personal and feverishly creative works.

An embittered Mr. Penn returned to Broadway, where he staged the thriller WAIT UNTIL DARK with LEE REMICK and ROBERT DUVALL. But he eventually returned to Hollywood, summoned by Mr. Beatty to take over the direction of a project originally offered to Truffaut.

“Frankly, I wasn’t all that certain I wanted to make another film,” Mr. Penn wrote in an essay for Lester D. Friedman’s 2000 anthology ARTHUR PENN’S BONNIE & CLYDE.

“And if I were to do another film, I felt it should be a story with a broader social theme than a flick about two 30s bank robbers whose pictures I remembered as a couple of self publicizing hoods holding guns, plastered across the front page of The Daily News.”

But Mr. Beatty, who had an option on the property, persuaded Mr. Penn to join the project with promises of autonomy and the rare privilege of having the final cut.

Working with the screenwriters, Mr. Penn eliminated a sexual triangle among Bonnie, Clyde and their disciple C. W. Moss, a composite character, that he felt was too sophisticated for the characters — “farmers or children of farmers, bumpkins most of them,” Mr. Penn wrote.

“We talked and moved in the direction of a simpler tale,” he added, “one of narcissism, of bravura and, at least from Clyde’s point of view, of sexual timidity.” They had also settled on a tone.

“It was to start as a jaunty little spree in crime, then suddenly turn serious and finally arrive at a point that was irreversible,” Mr. Penn wrote.

After the grand success of BONNIE & CLYDE, Mr. Penn had his choice of Hollywood projects. But he decided to make a small personal film, very much in the spirit of the American independent cinema that would emerge in the 1980s.

ALICE’S RESTAURANT (1969) revisited many of the social outsider themes of BONNIE & CLYDE – but in a low key, gently skeptical, nonviolent manner. Starring ARLO GUTHRIE and based on his wry freewheeling song about being turned down for the draft because he had once been fined for littering, the film stands as one of Mr. Penn’s most engaging works, a warm and deeply felt miniature.

Next came the epic ambitions of LITTLE BIG MAN (1970), a sprawling, ironic, antiwestern that tried to explain American imperialism through the abstract figure of Jack Crabb (DUSTIN HOFFMAN), the sole (though fictional) non American Indian survivor of The Battle Of Little Bighorn, as he bumbled through a glumly revisionist version of the Old West.

“Originality is filtered out like tar is filtered out of cigarettes,” Mr. Penn once complained.

“I have not had a lot of success with the suits — or the dresses. Executives are executives. They’re going to interfere as much as they can.”

“(Little Big Man) didn’t happen until I had so much clout I sort of made it happen.”

The director considered LITTLE BIG MAN his greatest success.

After that, Mr. Penn mostly laid low before returning in 1975 with the modest thriller NIGHT MOVES.

Starring GENE HACKMAN as a Hollywood private detective who loses himself on a case in the Florida Keys, the film made explicit the existential despair that had long permeated American film noir, ending on a daring note of irresolution.

But audiences were losing patience with daring notes, flocking instead to the popcorn pleasures of STEVEN SPIELBERG’S JAWS, summer’s runaway hit in 1975. Suddenly Mr. Penn’s kind of artistically ambitious, personal filmmaking was out of style.

He returned to Broadway, where he staged a pair of successes: Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox and Mr. Gibson’s Golda.

Mr. Penn’s subsequent film career was one of violent ups and downs. A reunion with Brando for THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976) yielded a surreal western with moments of brilliance but a meandering tone. With FOUR FRIENDS (1981), Mr. Penn returned to the subjects of youthful uncertainty and social upheaval.

He seemed less committed to TARGET (1985), a paranoid political thriller with Mr. Hackman and Matt Dillon that uneasily matched a father/son conflict with conventional suspense and DEAD OF WINTER (1987), a partial remake of Joseph H. Lewis’ 1945 gothic thriller MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS.

“I just like to flex my muscles every once in a while and do something relatively mindless,” Mr. Penn told RICHARD SCHICKEL.

It came as a pleasant surprise, then, when Mr. Penn uncorked the 1989 independent production PENN & TELLER GET KILLED, a black comedy in which those two magicians are pursued by a serial killer. Full of wild jokes, bizarre reversals and extravagant gore, this tiny film bristles with a youthful spirit of experimentation.

A dutiful drama of South African apartheid produced by Showtime, INSIDE (1996), would be Mr. Penn’s last theatrically released film.

In his last years Mr. Penn returned to television, serving as an executive producer on several episodes of LAW & ORDER – a series on which his son MATTHEW worked as a director. He also helmed an episode of 100 CENTRE STREET.

One of his final works for the theater was the 2002 Broadway production FORTUNE’S FOOL, an adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s 1848 play. True to Mr. Penn’s form, it won TONY AWARDS for its stars ALAN BATES and FRANK LANGELLA.

Mr. Penn met his wife of 54 years, the actor PEGGY MAURER, when he auditioned her for a television drama in the 1950s.

Besides Ms. Maurer and his son MATTHEW, Mr. Penn is also survived by a daughter MOLLY PENN and four grandsons.

Mr. Penn’s brother IRVING died in 2009.

Both GENE HACKMAN and WARREN BEATTY talked openly of their admiration for Mr. Penn.

“I loved working with Arthur,” Mr. Hackman said in a statement.

“He had his own clear vision, but he was really excited to see what you could bring to a scene, every take. You could feel him over there, just by the camera, pulling for you. However rough and tough his films are, you can always sense his humanity in them.”

Mr. Beatty fondly remembered working with the director: “I will always treasure the singularly honest, joyful, adventurous intelligence of Arthur Penn both as a collaborator and as a loving friend.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Penn never lost his flair for the spontaneous, his remarkable ability to capture an emotional moment in all its pulsing ambiguity and messy vitality.

“I don’t storyboard,” Mr. Penn explained to an audience at THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE in the 1970s, referring to the practice of sketching out every shot in a film before production begins.

“I guess it dates back to my days in live television, where there was no possibility of storyboarding and everything was shot right on the spot — on the air, as we say — at the moment we were transmitting. I prefer to be open to what the actors do, how they interact to the given situation. So many surprising things happen on the set and I have the feeling that storyboarding might tend to close your mind to the accidental.”

As a boy, Mr. Penn had little success learning the watchmaker’s trade from his father, who died without having seen any of his son’s films.

“He went to his grave despairing I would never find my way in the world and the movies rescued me.”

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