Pictures at a Revolution (48 page)

In the weeks that followed, Crowther's unwillingness to let up on
Bonnie and Clyde
began to backfire; his obstinacy turned what had been long-simmering annoyance with him into open warfare. Crowther had been disdained by many of his colleagues for years. In 1963, his slack-jawed rave for
Cleopatra
, about which he repeatedly used the word
brilliant
, had been publicly mocked by Sarris and had even drawn groans from within the
Times;
the paper's movie business reporter Murray Schumach complained to his bosses that the review was just one more example of Crowther's tendency to coddle big, expensive studio films, and editors Arthur Gelb and Turner Catledge were embarrassed by the fulsomeness of his praise for a film that they themselves thought was overblown trash.
25
In the last year, critics had begun to mass against Crowther, not for his determinedly middlebrow taste, but for his propensity to bully anyone who didn't share it. Crowther's contempt for a small movie could kill it in its first week and sometimes prevent it from even
having
a first week. When he saw Orson Welles's
Falstaff
(
Chimes at Midnight
) at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, he made his hatred of the picture so plain that its U.S. distributor, the small company Peppercorn-Wormser, tried for almost a year to avoid opening it in New York. (“Crowther, Please Stay Home,”
Variety
pleaded in a story about his ability to keep audiences away from art-house movies.)
26
When
Falstaff
finally arrived, many critics found Crowther's review malicious. In the
Village Voice
, Sarris called him a “power-oriented critic…. What I object to is the implication that he is going to punish the distributors for bringing
Falstaff
to America against his express wishes.” He added that Crowther “can call [Welles] old-fashioned and dated and used-up, as if critics stayed young forever and only directors became senile.”
27

“He was a very good man, especially on civil rights and politics, but he had a withering effect on foreign films and art films,” says Sarris. “As films got more difficult, he gave courage to people who wanted to believe that if a movie was difficult to understand, it probably wasn't any good. That was particularly pernicious. But I was involved in a lot of critical feuds back then, and being at the
Times
and having a kind of philistine-ish style, he was an easy target, and we took advantage of it.”
28

In late 1966, Sarris, Morgenstern, John Simon, Hollis Alpert, and seven other reviewers formed the National Society of Film Critics, an awards-giving group intended to counterbalance the New York Film Critics Circle, which at the time was dominated by Crowther and a number of stodgy hacks from daily newspapers who tended to follow his lead. (In the National Society's first year, its membership awarded Best Picture and Best Director to
Blow-Up
, while the New York group gave its top prizes to
A Man for All Seasons
.) When Crowther aimed his fusillade at
Bonnie and Clyde
, he suddenly found himself the target of increasingly personal and public counterattacks. Praising its treatment of violence as “thoughtful and piercing,”
The New Yorker
's Penelope Gilliatt, among the first major critics to review the movie positively, wrote that “
Bonnie and Clyde
could look like a celebration of gangster glamour only to a man with a head full of wood shavings.”
29
And Sarris, though he was not a particular fan of the film, went after Crowther, too: “To use the pages of the
New York Times
for a personal vendetta against a director and actor one doesn't like is questionable enough. To incite the lurking forces of censorship and repression with inflammatory diatribes against violence on the screen is downright mischievous…. The slanders in the
Times
emerge as exercises in dull spite.”
30
By the end of August,
Variety
had taken notice and wondered if Crowther's negative review had “hurt the cause of serious filmmaking in America by shooting down a work of art…. These concerns over violence might spark a return to the…days of movie-making when every ‘commercial' picture had to make an explicit statement of its point.”
31

Whatever his other failings, Crowther had not called for a return to a more restrictive Production Code in any of his pieces. He had in fact spent thirty years fighting film censorship harder than almost anyone else in his profession; his reviews were even cited in the 1952 Supreme Court decision that ruled that movies were protected by the First Amendment.
32
He was stunned and hurt by accusations that he was advocating a return to a more restrictive era, and he lashed out. Even the
Times
began to exploit the controversy, running a flurry of letters from readers who called Crowther “blinded” and “insensitive” and excitedly praised
Bonnie and Clyde
as “deep—deep” and “a totally new thing—it's real and unreal.”
33
Crowther responded with a fourth attack, expressing bewilderment at the “upsurge of passionate expressions of admiration” for a “deliberately buffoonized picture” that he felt was defined by a “kind of cheating with the bare and ugly truth.” He concluded by digging himself a deep rhetorical hole, comparing
Bonnie and Clyde
to a movie that attempted to treat Lee Harvey Oswald or Adolf Hitler sympathetically.
34
“There came a certain point when the more he went after us, the more we enjoyed it,” says Benton. “Bosley Crowther was far from the worst critic out there, but what he wasn't prepared for was something that would undermine the good, traditional, craftsmanlike, ‘well made' movie, not only morally, but stylistically. It pushed some button in him. And it became impossible for him to stop.”
35

Then Pauline Kael stepped into the fray. After
The New Republic
rejected her
Bonnie and Clyde
piece, she took it to William Shawn at
The New Yorker
, which ran the essay, at its full length of seven thousand words, in its October 21 issue. Kael had written one long article for the magazine before—an essay on how television ruins and distorts movies, a favorite hobbyhorse of cinephiles in the mid-1960s
36
—but this was the first time she had taken on a single film for the magazine, and it was unmistakably an audition. At forty-eight, Kael had been putting together a living by talking and writing about movies for fifteen years; she had begun on the West Coast, writing film notes for Berkeley revival houses and making funny, combative appearances on San Francisco radio shows. By the mid-1960s, she was already so well-known in film circles for her pieces in
Partisan Review
that, after
McCall's
fired her,
Newsweek
ran a story discussing the growing “Kael cult.” An attention getter by instinct, Kael relished any opportunity to position herself as the informal, gut-driven voice of sanity rising in opposition to whatever she defined as the current orthodoxy. While she was on the West Coast, she wrote, “I razzed the East Coast critics and their cultural domination of the country”;
37
now that she had come east, she chose more specific adversaries.

Kael knew that she could get herself noticed by picking a fight, as she had done a few years earlier when she went after Andrew Sarris with a piece in
Film Quarterly
that mocked him and twitted American auteurist critics for elevating what she felt was disposable work by minor talents to the status of art.
38
On the page, she was a mass of theoretical contradictions—a snob who railed against elitism, an epicure who boasted of her taste for vulgarity, an undeniably auteurist champion of her own pet directors who mocked auteurism in others, and a critic who so enjoyed writing in reaction against her colleagues that her desire to be iconoclastic at all costs sometimes clouded her judgment. But she was also the wittiest and most provocative writer that the field of film criticism had ever produced, and her article on
Bonnie and Clyde
put her at the center of an ongoing conversation about American movies over which she presided for the next fifteen years.

From its first sentence—“How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?”
39
—Kael's impassioned, forceful defense of
Bonnie and Clyde
, which she identified as the gateway to a new kind of American moviemaking, was as much about the film's detractors as it was about the film itself. “
Bonnie and Clyde
brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about,” she began. “And once something is said or done on the screens of the world, once it has entered mass art, it can never again…be the private possession of an educated, or ‘knowing' group.” She applauded the movie's violence as central to its meaning: “It is a kind of violence that says something to us; it is something that artists must be free to use…. Will we, as some people have suggested, be lured into imitating the violent crimes of Clyde and Bonnie because Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are ‘glamorous'?…It's difficult to see how, since the characters they play are horrified by it and ultimately destroyed by it….
Bonnie and Clyde
needs violence; violence is its meaning.” She brushed off complaints about historical inaccuracy and bad taste as irrelevant. And she left little doubt as to whom she meant when she said, “Too many people—including some movie reviewers—want the law to take over the job of movie criticism; perhaps what they really want is for their own criticisms to have the force of law.”

Kael's statement that “the whole point of
Bonnie and Clyde
is to rub our noses in it, to make us pay our dues for laughing,” her understanding that “we don't take our stories straight anymore—
Bonnie and Clyde
is the first film demonstration that the put-on can be used for the purposes of art,” and her awareness of the “eager, nervous imbalance” in which the movie intended to hold its audience all seemed uncannily in synch with the intentions of Robert Benton and David Newman. It was no accident. Though she didn't disclose it in the piece, she had taken the screenwriters out to lunch before writing her essay
40
and gotten an earful of their motives, their admiration for the French New Wave, and their storytelling strategy. Her remark that “though one cannot say of
Bonnie and Clyde
to what degree it shows the work of Newman and Benton…there are ways of making guesses” was deeply disingenuous but very much in line with her pooh-poohing of “the new notion that direction is everything.” Unsurprisingly, she made it clear that she didn't see the movie as Arthur Penn's accomplishment, although she praised him for the staging and editing of the dance-of-death sequence, which she called “a horror that seems to go on for eternity, and yet…doesn't last a second beyond what it should.”

Kael's piece marked a decisive shift of the critical consensus on
Bonnie and Clyde
against Crowther and won her the job as one of
The New Yorker
's two permanent film reviewers; she replaced Brendan Gill, sharing duties with Gilliatt in six-month shifts that began in early 1968. But her rave did not, as has often been claimed, turn
Bonnie and Clyde
's fortunes around. For one thing, Kael was uncharacteristically late to the brawl; the movie had already been open for two months by the time her article appeared. In its two New York engagements and one Los Angeles theater, it was continuing to do strong, steady business and was also doing well in single-screen bookings in Chicago, Denver, and Baltimore. But Warner Brothers had little faith in the picture's ability to draw a broader audience. On October 4, the studio grudgingly began what it called a “midwest saturation” run, actually a barely publicized test release in which
Bonnie and Clyde
was booked in thirty-five theaters in and around Kansas City and Omaha.
41
With little in the way of support or promotion from the studio, the results were predictably unimpressive. Just as Kael's piece reached readers, Warner Brothers all but gave up. On October 10, the studio pulled the movie from the Forum, the New York theater where big crowds were still lining up to see what all the fuss was about, and replaced it with the Elizabeth Taylor–Marlon Brando melodrama
Reflections in a Golden Eye
.

 

Bonnie and Clyde's
failure at the box office was overshadowed by what the trade papers were calling “Sidney Poitier Month.”
42
In September,
In the Heat of the Night
and
To Sir, with Love
were, respectively, the number one and number two movies in the country. Though not a blockbuster, after eight weeks in release,
Heat
had easily earned back its $2 million budget and was on its way to what would be a healthy U.S. gross of about $7.5 million by the end of the year.
43
In October,
To Sir, with Love
, a much bigger hit that was then in its fourth month in theaters, took over the top spot again.
44
Box Office
magazine now ranked Poitier as the fifth-biggest star in Hollywood, ahead of Sean Connery and Steve McQueen.
45
His drawing power was a shock to an industry that had, until recently, treated his employment in movies as something akin to an act of charity, and Hollywood greeted his new popularity with an orgy of self-congratulation, treating it as a further affirmation of the progress that his Oscar a few years earlier had purported to signify.

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