Bonnie and Clyde (1967): New Family Structures and Values

In Hollywood movies of the late 1960s and 1970s, professional peer groups served as alternative structures and functional substitutes to the previously prevalent bourgeois family.

In Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn in 1967, the Barrow gang combines different forms of interaction and ties: blood (Clyde and his brother), marital (Clyde’s brother and his wife Blanche), romantic (Bonnie and Clyde), and social-professional (Moss and the other members). Providing emotional support, the gang is an intimate primary group, the only meaningful relationship in the members’ lives.

The film celebrates nihilism and outlawry as way of life, in defiance of conventional mores and legitimate authority. Bonnie and Clyde are outsiders, an ex-sharecropper and a waitress (dreaming to become an actress). Unable to assimilate dominant culture, they devise their own structure and norms. Each member suffers physical and/or psychological stigma. The limping and sexually impotent Clyde tells Bonnie that he’s “not much of a lover boy,” but makes sure to spell out he “doesn’t like boys either.” But when his brother asks if Bonnie is the best, Clyde says, “she’s even better.” Moss is another victimized kid, oppressed and misunderstood by his weird father.

Institutional authority, represented by the law and business world, is depicted as rigid and corrupt. The deputy sheriff is ironically named Homer, a typically small-town name. Rigid and dumb, Homer is ridiculed by Bonnie, who poses for a picture with him. The bureaucratic police are portrayed as mercilessly brutal, using an armored car at the end. Bankers are depicted as greedy, which makes the gang’s robberies more sympathetic: Their targets are organizations, not human beings.

Until they form the bond, Bonnie and Clyde are alienated from society and from themselves, powerless youths, living a meaningless life. The America Dream and its Puritanical ethics of hard work are rejected. Accepting culture’s strong emphasis on monetary success, they substitute the acceptable means for achieving success (hard work, formal education) with illegitimate means (crime, violence). In Robert Merton’s typology, Bonnie and Clyde’s mode of adaptation is that of innovation.

Though innocent, they are not perceived as society’s passive victims. They take their lives into their hands, demanding recognition. Bonnie and Clyde devise unconventional strategies to elevate themselves into legend. When Bonnie writes poems about their adventures and sends them to the press, Clyde says with pride, “You made me somebody they’re gonna remember.” The otherwise anonymous and powerless (“The Lonely Crowd”) members of mass society are determined to achieve celebrity status and command center-stage, if only for a few moments. They are even willing to die for it. These motifs of celebrity-obsession and pathological narcissism will reappear in the cycle of nihilistic movies in the mid-1970s.

As other films of the Depression, Bonnie and Clyde acknowledges the importance of movies as unifying agent of integration. Bonnie watches with admiration Busby Berkeley’s musical, We’re in the Money (l933), and Moss says he would love to watch films with Myrna Loy. The Barrow gang visits a migrant camp, a commune (in the mold of Grapes ofWrath) and receives a welcome, but it’s not an alternative lifestyle for them. At the same time, they don’t reject traditional family bonds. When the Bonnie sadly complains, “I have no family,” Clyde says, “I’m your family.”

The narrative also acknowledges the functions fulfilled by kinship, stressing love between parents and children. When Bonnie terribly misses her mama, the ever-responsive Clyde arranges for a meeting with her family in an outdoor picnic. It is one of the film’s most emotional scenes, shot in soft focus against blue skies and white clouds, as if it were a pastoral dream.

The festive occasion is brought to a halt, when Clyde approaches Bonnie’s mother, a strong matriarchal figure (like Mother York). “Don’t worry, Mother Parker,” says Clyde, “When this is all over, Bonnie and I will settle down not three miles from you.” “Try to live three miles from me and you’ll be dead!” says the weathered-looking woman. Bonnie and Clyde find their deaths in what is possibly the most stylized and most imitated sequence in American films. But artistic innovation aside, their slow-motion death, culminating in an embrace, bears ideological meaning: defying realism, it’s a mythic death, glamorizing the lives of two folk heroes.