Oscar Directors: Penn, Arthur, Bonnie and Clyde Director, Dies at 88

Arthur Penn, who directed the seminal “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Little Big Man,” died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan of congestive heart failure, a day after his 88th birthday.
Oscar nommed three times, for “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Miracle Worker” and “Little Big Man,” Penn was known for his ability to extract a range of expression from his actors, whom he often allowed to improvise. Often tangling with Hollywood studios over the vision for his films, he lived in New York most of his life where he bookended his career directing for the theater and feature films with stints in TV.
After first making his name on Broadway as director of the Tony Award-winning plays “The Miracle Worker” and “All the Way Home,” Penn rose as a film director in the 1960s, his work inspired by the decade’s political and social upheaval.
“Bonnie and Clyde,” with its mix of humor and mayhem, encouraged moviegoers to sympathize with the lawbreaking couple from the 1930s, while “Little Big Man” told the tale of the conquest of the West with the Indians as the good guys.
Penn’s other films included his adaptation of “The Miracle Worker,” featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Anne Bancroft; “The Missouri Breaks,” an outlaw tale starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson; “Night Moves,” a Los Angeles thriller featuring Gene Hackman; and “Alice’s Restaurant,” based on the wry Arlo Guthrie song.
Penn returned to television in his later years, serving as exec producer on “Law and Order,” for which his son Matthew was directing episodes, sharing in the show’s 2001 Emmy nom. He also helmed an episode of A&E Network’s “100 Centre Street,” exec produced by Sidney Lumet.
Penn originally wasn’t interested in “Bonnie and Clyde” but he was persuaded by Beatty, who earlier starred in Penn’s “Mickey One” and produced “Bonnie and Clyde,” which was written by Robert Benton and David Newman.
Penn was in his 40s when he made “Bonnie and Clyde,” but he felt strong affinity with the gorgeous stars, played by Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and with the story, as liberal in its politics as it was with the facts — a celebration of individual freedom and an expose of the banks that had ruined farmers’ lives.
Released in 1967, when opposition to the Vietnam War was ballooning and movie censorship crumbling, “Bonnie and Clyde” was shaped by the frenzy of silent comedy, the jarring rhythms of the French New Wave and the surge of youth and rebellion. The robbers’ horrifying death, a shooting gallery that took four days to film and ran for less than a minute, only intensified their appeal.
“I thought that if were going to show this (violence), we should SHOW it,” Penn said in the documentary “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.”  With a glib tagline, “They’re young … they’re in love … and they kill people,” it was a film that challenged and changed minds. Beatty worked for a reduced fee because the studio, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, was convinced that “Bonnie and Clyde” would flop. Released in August 1967, then rereleased early in 1968 in response to undying attention, “Bonnie and Clyde” appalled the old and fascinated the young, widening a generational divide not only between audiences, but critics.
Daily Variety’s reviewer was one of many who didn’t quite get the film. “Conceptually, the film leaves much to be desired, because killings and the backdrop of the depression are scarcely subjects for a bundle of laughs,” the review said, “However, the film does have some standout interludes.”
But Pauline Kael, starting her long reign at The New Yorker, welcomed “Bonnie and Clyde” as a new and vital kind of movie — an opinion now widely shared — and asked, “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?”
“‘Bonnie and Clyde’ brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things people have been feeling and saying and writing about,” Kael wrote.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but won just two, for supporting actress Estelle Parsons and for cinematographer Burnett Guffey.
Penn, who had fought — and lost to — the studios over the editing of “The Left Handed Gun” and “The Chase,” now was able to realize a long-desired project — an adaptation of “Little Big Man,” based on the Thomas Berger novel.
None of Penn’s other films would have the impact of “Bonnie and Clyde,” but the director regarded “Little Big Man,” released in 1970, as his greatest success, with Dustin Hoffman playing the 121-year-old lone survivor of Custer’s last stand. It was, again, a violent and romantic overturning of the past and an angry finger pointed at the war and racism of the present.
Among his other films were the well-reviewed “Four Friends” in 1981, political thriller “Target” with Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon and “Dead of Winter” in 1987. Departing from his usual choices, the 1989 “Penn and Teller Get Killed,” was a quirky black comedy starring the magicians being pursued by a serial killer.
His last theatrically released picture was “Inside,” a Showtime-produced apartheid drama in 1996.
Among Penn’s other stage credits: “All the Way Home,” which won both the Tony and Pulitzer Prize in 1961 as best play; “Two for the Seesaw”; the musical version of “Golden Boy”; and “Wait Until Dark.” One of his final gigs was directing a Broadway production of “Fortune’s Fool” in 2002.
Born in Philadelphia, he moved frequently with his mother after his parents divorced, living in New Jersey and New York City. At age 14, Penn returned to Philadelphia to live with his ailing father and help him run his watch repairman’s shop.
He said Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” ‘staggered” him, and along with Welles and Charlie Chaplin, Penn greatly admired Akira Kurosawa and the French New Wave directors, especially Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, whose “400 Blows” he said greatly resembled his own youth.
Penn’s older brother was photographer Irving Penn, who died in October 2009. Arthur Penn later said that he saw little in common with his brother’s and rarely discussed it.
He served in WWII in an infantry unit that fought in the Battle of the Bulge, then attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina alongside John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller. After a period studiying literature in Italy, he studied with the Actors Studio in New York. He found work as a floor manager on NBC’s “Colgate Comedy Hour.”
By the early 1950s, Penn was writing and directing TV dramas. In 1956, he debuted as a Broadway director, but “The Lovers” closed after just four days.
While working in TV, he advised Senator John F. Kennedy during his influential debates with Richard M. Nixon in 1960, directing Kennedy to look directly into the lens of the camera. His direction helped win converts to Kennedy’s confident delivery.
Penn was awarded the lifetime achievement award by the Los Angeles Film Critics (LAFCA) in 2002.
He is survived by his wife of 54 years, actress Peggy Maurer, son Matthew, a director, daughter Molly and four grandsons.