Anyone who knows me knows that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are two of my favorite historical figures and I find them interesting for the way that they have entered into popular culture as romanticized folk heroes and what their lives have to say about the time period they lived in. It’s a perfect case of history making great fiction and I’m not surprised that the story of Bonnie and Clyde has been adapted for stage and screen a number of times.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The film that launched a fashion for mid length skirts and a brief fad for banjo music. Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 film by Arthur Penn, struck a chord with the anti authoritarian zeitgeist of the late 1960s because of its story about young lovers on the run from the law. This movie is also noteworthy for as one of the first graphically violent films, ushering in the gritty and bloody slasher films of the 70s and 80s. I often describe this version as the comicbook version, tending as it does towards stylism. It is intended to be more of the legend of Bonnie and Clyde rather than historical fact. At points the film feels like a parody of the type of movie it is but that is by no means a bad thing.
Bonnie and Clyde is usually categorized as an action/adventure romance but it could also work as a comedy because the film is filled with hysterical vignettes, hijinks, and bits of dialogue. A scene which always cracks me up happens in the beginning when Clyde goes in to rob a bank, only to find that the bank has gone under and therefore there is no money. Clyde then forces the teller to go outside to tell Bonnie about the situation and she starts bursting out laughing. Another scene which never fails to get a laugh out of me happens right after, when Clyde is robbing a grocery store and has the grocer at gunpoint while reading out a shopping list. A butcher then attacks him with a meat cleaver and a fight breaks out between him and Clyde. After Clyde is able to escape and drives off with Bonnie and is horrified that someone would attack him. The action and chase scenes are funny in a Roadrunner cartoon type way, with the wily Barrow Gang always managing to outrun and humiliate their would be captors. In my opinion, the comedic highlight of the film is the scene with the then relatively unknown Gene Wilder, who plays the man in a couple that is kidnapped by the Barrows when the go after the gang for stealing their car. Here is a clip from that portion of movie.
Some of the film’s strong points are the performances of its lead actors, Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, who are both very charismatic and enjoyable to watch. Dunaway is great as the sexy, tough-as-nails gunmoll and also has a southern belle haughtiness. Beatty, as Clyde, is charming, badass, and oh-so smooth with a puppyish vulnerability. He has the snort laugh which is very dorky and cute. Their iconic portrayals are perhaps what first comes to mind when you think of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
Bonnie and Clyde’s best known scene is the final one, the violent deaths of its two lead characters. A quick burst of gunfire then dies down to complete silence and those near by creep out to see the carnage and it is subtle and powerful. For all the film’s humor, there are also some emotionally heavy moments as the Barrow Gang’s crimes begin to catch up with them. Bonnie and Clyde‘s moral is perhaps “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”
The film is an enjoyable ride with plenty of laughs and a bloody end and I highly recommend it.
Bonnie & Clyde (2013)
A two part History Channel miniseries which aired in December of 2013 but Netflix Instant Watch steams it as one two and a half hour movie. I very much enjoyed this version when I first watched it but when I watched it a few more times, I began to see the flaws in it. I still enjoy it and recommend it but I would not say it’s the strongest adaptation of the Bonnie and Clyde story.
The 2013 version of Bonnie & Clyde is intended to be more realistic and historically accurate than its 1967 predecessor. But when it does stray from realism and historical accuracy, it strays a lot. I’ll get to that later. An interesting part of this story is that there is plenty of focus is put on the time period that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow lived through and the experiences that formed them, things which are only alluded to in the 1967 version, and the actual crime spree, the focus of the 1967 version, makes up only about half of the run time. The 1967 version begins with its two lead characters meeting and going on their joy ride, while the 2013 miniseries goes into what came before all the car chases and shoot outs, things like Bonnie getting married very young and separating from her husband and Clyde going to prison and suffering from abuse there.
Clyde, played by Emile Hirsch, is this version’s central character and posthumous narrator. Hirsch’s Clyde comes off as basically a decent guy who fell into a life of crime because he came from a poor family and did not have many options because of the Great Depression. He expresses a desire to go straight at several points it the story but circumstances, perhaps fate, keeps bringing him back. One of the oddest plot threads in the 2013 version is that Clyde get visions of things that happen later on in the story, such as his brother Buck getting shot and killed and Bonnie being badly burnt in a car crash, because he survived an illness as a child. This perhaps is a reference to descriptions of Clyde Barrow having a knack for avoiding and getting out of scrapes. The vision plot thread seems out of place and does not add much to the plot. It also distracts from the realistic tone the series is going for. But other than that, I really enjoy Emile Hirsch’s performance; he has the slickness and charisma necessary for the character but is more deadpan than Warren Beatty’s Clyde and always seems 100% done-with-this-shit. I think I like Hirsch’s Clyde better than Beatty’s in the way the character is written because his background is more developed and motivations are clearer.
One thing I do not like in this version is Bonnie, played by Holliday Grainger. Holliday Grainger is an actress I really enjoy and I loved her as Lucrezia in The Borgias and I was excited to hear she was going to play Bonnie Parker. The problems I have with the character are in how she was written. Perhaps I was expecting the character to be something like Lucrezia from The Borgias, since when one thinks about it, Bonnie Parker and Lucrezia Borgia have a lot in common besides having been played by Holliday Grainger. Both have gone down in history as two of its greatest bad girls; both of them did not have the best taste in or luck with men; both were hyped up to be worse than they probably were. Lucrezia, despite being characterized as a poisoning black widow in the histories written by Borgia enemies, was mostly likely just a pawn of her family. There’s also no evidence that Bonnie ever killed anyone either. Bonnie in Bonnie & Clyde is something of an attention whore who gets wrapped up in the publicity and excitement of the crime spree and I think Grainger was going for some of Dunaway’s sexy menace but comes off as more of narcissistic beauty queen than as a gal who would cut a bitch and pop a cap in their ass. There’s a plot point that Clyde’s family does not like her, for a example, Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche bad mouths her at one point. But in the interactions we see between Bonnie and Blanche, Bonnie is perfectly nice to her and we do not see why Blanche would talk crap about her, other than that Blanche is catty and Bonnie and a bit of a bitch. Bonnie in this version does not work as a nice girl we’re supposed to like or as a bad girl we’re not supposed to like. Maybe she’s supposed to be morally ambiguous, one might argue. But a morally ambiguous character should be interesting. I think the story tries to explain why she is the way she is but the character just falls flat.
One of the 2013 version’s biggest deviations from history is when Bonnie callously shoots two motorcycle policemen while high on painkillers. This is based on an accounted from a nearby farmer who claimed that they saw a man and a woman step out a car and shoot the policemen. But most historians accept an account where two men stepped out of the car, one was Clyde Barrow, and the other was a gang member named Henry Methven. The Methven family was promised a pardon for Henry in exchange for ratting out the Barrow Gang (Henry Methven’s father would be the one to betray Bonnie and Clyde in the end), so the killing was pinned on Bonnie. The killing may have even been a misunderstanding since the account says the Clyde gave the orders to “take them,” possibly meaning that he wanted to kidnap them but Methven though meant kill them. I can imagine Clyde face palming after this.
I would recommend this version to fans of historical mini-series and fans of Bonnie and Clyde. The flaws I find in it mostly come down to personal preference but these flaws in it are major and prevent me from enjoying it as much as I did when I first watched it.
Bonnie & Clyde (2012)
In its off Broadway incarnations, Bonnie & Clyde received encouraging reviews and appeared to be a promising show when it made its way to Broadway. But the show closed after only sixty-three performances, like Bonnie and Clyde themselves, being killed off young. The consensus among critics at the time was that the musical was sappy and overly romanticized, but it was acknowledged that the story felt relevant in the post recession of 2008 age of reality television and trashy idiots from nowhere becoming famous for being famous and the performances of its two lead actors, Broadway favorites Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan, did receive some praise. After its short life, Bonnie & Clyde gained a posthumous fan following and there is a something of a conspiracy theory that critics were prejudiced against the show because of the previous failures of its creators, Frank Wildhorn and Don Black. I have to admit that I am one this show’s fans and think it may have been judged unfairly.
Bonnie & Clyde is a sort of combination of the 1967 version and the later 2013 version. It is similar in tone to the 1967 version, rollicking and comical but with some emotional and tragic moments, and similar in content to the 2013 version, being book-ended by the violent deaths of its two lead characters and its first half dealing with what lead up to the famous crime spree. Also like the 1967 version, it works in ways which may have not been intended. It is sappy and overly romanticized because that is how the two lead characters behave. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in this version come across as naive fools with delusions of grandeur.
Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan are both very talented and enjoyable performers and they are part of what makes the show work. Osnes was an odd choice to play Bonnie; being a soprano had made her something of a perpetual ingenue which some felt was inappropriate for the part. Her portrayal of Bonnie is a girl who is blinded by love to the point of being delusional which is a fair way of viewing her when one looks at the actual history. Jordan, as Clyde, is slick, charming, cocky, and borderline psychotic and is really fun to watch. Osnes and Jordan have perhaps the strongest chemistry of the three pairings I have discussed. You buy that Jordan’s Clyde could sweep Osnes’s Bonnie off her feet at their first meeting and you buy the bond between them which is one of the most important elements needed to make the story work
Bonnie & Clyde, like it’s 1967 predecessor, is a story meant to get us to laugh along with two crazy kids and their crazy antics and feel bad for them when these antics have their inevitable consequences and like the 1967 version, I feel it succeeds.
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