Pictures at a Revolution (6 page)

Jacobs first heard that the rights to
Doctor Dolittle
might be available on December 5, 1963. Six days later, he met with Silbert in New York, pitched the attorney the idea of doing the film as a musical, and dangled two names in front of him: writer-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and Rex Harrison. By Christmas, Jacobs had met with Josephine Lofting,
43
and she and Silbert had agreed to give him an option without asking for a single dollar up front, on one condition. They were no longer willing to wait for a movie that never seemed to materialize. “Bernie Silbert said, ‘You're not getting two years—you have six months,'” says Christopher Lofting. “‘If you don't have a deal [with a studio] by then, you're toast.'”
44

Time pressure didn't intimidate Jacobs, whose years in publicity had taught him that sometimes the way to solve a problem was to move so quickly that everyone was on board before there was time for a second thought. That strategy allowed him to overcome the first of many hurdles he would face over the next four years: the fact that neither Lerner nor Harrison had committed himself to
Doctor Dolittle
, or even knew about it, at the time he floated their names to Silbert.
45
Jacobs gambled that the main lure of the project for each man would be the chance to work with the other again. Lerner was already a major force in both musical theater and Hollywood (he had won three Academy Awards, one for
An American in Paris
and two for
Gigi
), and Harrison was a well-respected stage actor who had finally broken through to stardom with Lerner and Loewe's
My Fair Lady
, which had run on Broadway for six and a half years and proved to be the biggest hit either Lerner or Harrison had ever had. The show's success had convinced Jack Warner to pay $5.5 million for the movie rights,
46
and expectations were high for the movie, which had just finished shooting and was due to open in 1964.

Lerner was the first to be approached,
47
and he said yes to
Doctor Dolittle
with a swiftness that Jacobs might have taken as a warning sign had he been more aware of the writer's volatility and propensity for overenthusiastic commitment (Lerner was, at the time, battling through his fourth of eight marriages). Jacobs made a deal to co-produce the film with Lerner's company, and, acting as his own publicist, promptly planted an item in
The New York Times
announcing the movie, Lerner's participation, and a budget, apparently completely fictional, of $6 million on January 6, 1964.
48

One week later, Jacobs met with Rex Harrison, who had arrived in New York City and was staying at the Colony Hotel.
49
Jacobs had plenty of experience dealing with the narcissism, ego, and insecurity of aging stars, and Harrison, not an easy man under the best of circumstances, was at a delicate moment in his career. His most recent movie, 20th Century-Fox's
Cleopatra
, had opened six months earlier, and although it was widely regarded as a creative debacle, Harrison, almost alone in the cast, had escaped with his reputation intact. And although the movie version of
My Fair Lady
was regarded in the industry as an almost sure thing, Harrison had not won the right to reprise his stage role as Professor Henry Higgins without enduring a serious measure of humiliation from Warner Brothers. The fifty-five-year-old actor had to sit by and wait, fuming, while Jack Warner pursued a fresher face,
Lawrence of Arabia
's thirty-year-old Peter O'Toole, for the role. Harrison's feelings were understandably hurt, especially since he knew that Warner had earlier wooed Cary Grant, who was fifty-nine, to play Higgins: “I had heard that the film moguls were saying, ‘Rex looks old,'” he wrote in his autobiography.
50
When negotiations with O'Toole finally fell apart, Harrison had to take a salary of $200,000 while his costar, Audrey Hepburn, got $1 million.
51
The experience left the actor bruised and paranoid.

Harrison could be explosive, impatient, capricious, and vain, but also charming, apologetic, and compliant, sometimes within the same conversation or at different points during the same stiff drink. That day at the Colony, the actor was apparently at his most amiable. Hearing that Lerner was involved, he agreed to do the picture on the spot. It was January 14, 1964.
52
Just five weeks after making his first inquiries, Jacobs now had a star, a writer, and enough publicity to make his rival for the material, Helen Winston, realize that she had been trumped. Now all he needed was a composer, a director, a leading lady, and a studio willing to foot a bill of $6 million, give or take. He had five months left.

THREE

F
rançois Truffaut was, it turned out, serious about
Bonnie and Clyde.
At least he seemed to be. Nobody knew if he really meant to make the movie. He was impetuous, his moods changed quickly, his marriage was disintegrating; push him too hard, and all would be lost. Truffaut had effectively taken the reins of the project the minute he received the treatment, well before it was even translated for him. “
Please explain to me
your precise relations with the writers of the script,” he had written to Helen Scott in January. “Are they themselves the screenwriters or is there someone else? Did they offer it to anyone else? Do they want to sell it to a producer? Were they commissioned to write it? Was it their own idea to offer it to me?” Truffaut was already thinking about how the movie could be made—“It's such a simple and inexpensive film to shoot that I could [produce] it myself,” he wrote—and about where to get the money to do it: He wanted to work with United Artists,
1
which at the time was alone among the major studios in offering great freedom to independent producers and directors to shape projects without taking away the right of final cut or forcing on them a studio house style, a crew, or contract players.

Simply by being the person on whom everybody else's hopes were hanging, Truffaut, with his take-charge tone and fusillade of questions, immediately became the de facto engine of
Bonnie and Clyde;
without having read a word of it, he was now the boss. Benton and Newman were exhilarated by the mere possibility of his involvement and did a couple of readings of their treatment for friends. “One of the people who came was a girl I was trying to get into bed with at the time,” says Benton, “and I did, so I knew it was a good script!”
2
And they started mapping out their own idea for what the movie would be, earmarking the Flatt and Scruggs music they had played while writing as a perfect idea for the score of the film itself and fixing on Timothy Carey, a stone-faced character actor with a cult following from a couple of early Kubrick movies, to play Frank Hamer, the ex–Texas Ranger who tracked Bonnie and Clyde relentlessly in 1934.
3
But Truffaut wasn't ready to talk to Benton or Newman at all in January, much less to discuss ideas that specific.

In New York, Elinor Jones took steps to formalize her and her brother's role as producers. In February, she had Robert Montgomery start to draft a contract that would give them an eighteen-month option on
Bonnie and Clyde.
4
Truffaut, unclear about whether Jones or her boss, Lewis Allen, was attached to the script, learned of Jones's involvement from Helen Scott and cautioned Scott, whom he was using as a go-between, not to overstate his commitment to the film, for which he still didn't have a completed French translation. “I won't speak to you about
Bonnie and Clyde
until I've read the script,” he wrote on February 22. “Then I'll send a detailed note to the writers…in case they start taking it in another direction from the one I want; unless I'm disappointed by it and decide not to do the project.”
5

When Truffaut finally got his hands on a translation, he was interested enough to make time for Benton and Newman on his upcoming trip to New York. He had several reasons for coming to the United States: He wanted to continue researching his book on Hitchcock, he needed to meet with Allen about the still gestating
Fahrenheit 451
, and he was planning a side trip to Chicago to visit his friend Arthur Penn, who was there shooting
Mickey One
with Warren Beatty and Alexandra Stewart, a young French Canadian actress who was an intimate friend of Truffaut's.

Truffaut arrived in New York on March 26, 1964. Meeting Elinor Jones, he played it cool—
“Pas mal,”
he murmured when he walked into the Joneses' eighteenth-floor apartment and saw their spectacular view of Central Park.
6
But with Benton and Newman, he was more openly enthusiastic and offered his time and advice in a way that profoundly affected the direction they took in turning
Bonnie and Clyde
from a treatment into a screenplay.

Truffaut invited “the boys,” as he called them, to his hotel room, where, with Helen Scott translating and Elinor Jones taking notes, he spent two or three days working with them in a combination brainstorming session/tutorial. He had brought with him line-by-line suggestions. Taking each scene in order, he walked through the treatment with Benton and Newman and gave them a marathon seminar in writing for the movies. Some of his notes were technical: He recommended high-angle shots on Bonnie and Clyde's car for some of the getaway driving scenes.
7
Some were dramaturgic: He found places to add humor and sensuality, raising the stakes in a scene in which Bonnie and Clyde take Hamer hostage and humiliate him by having Bonnie force a kiss on him. “Truffaut said, ‘It's got to be more than just catching a criminal—there's got to be a sexual aspect to it,'” says Elinor Jones. And some of his ideas were so fully thought through that it became clear he was already shooting and editing at least some sequences from the treatment in his head. His suggestion to cut from Bonnie scribbling out her self-aggrandizing poem for the newspapers to the newspaper itself in the hands of a Texas Ranger, then back to Clyde reading the paper delightedly to Bonnie, made it into the finished film virtually intact.
8

Truffaut found the issue of historical accuracy even less compelling than Benton and Newman did. Before arriving in New York, Truffaut had broken their seventy-five pages into “what he called ‘unities,' i.e., blocks of the film which stood as [separate] emotional and dramatic entities,” Benton and Newman wrote later. “He demonstrated to us the difference between ‘real time' and ‘film time,' pointing out where we had goofed…in sacrificing the emotional curves of the film for factual or actual purposes.”
9
Events could be elided or skipped, he told them; they were necessary sacrifices to the style that would define the movie.

That was exactly what Benton and Newman wanted to hear. Their original treatment had gone to Truffaut with a prefatory note of several pages from them, intended largely to provide historical context about Parker and Barrow to a director who might not have heard much about them. But it also contained an explicit announcement of the film's ideological intent: “Bonnie and Clyde were out of their time in the 30s,” they wrote. “If Bonnie and Clyde were here today, they would be hip. Their values have become assimilated in much of our culture—not robbing banks and killing people, of course, but their style, their sexuality, their bravado, their delicacy, their cultivated arrogance, their narcissistic insecurity, their curious ambition have relevance to the way we live now. Of course, what makes them beautiful is they didn't know it…. They are not Crooks,” the introduction finished with a flourish that Benton and Newman themselves later called pompous.
10
“They are people, and this film is, in many ways, about what's going on now.”
11

Truffaut got the point and helped the young writers move past the didacticism to which that statement of principle could have led and toward a kind of storytelling in which their concerns could be integrated organically. Though he was only a few months older than Benton, he proved to be a generous teacher, and Benton and Newman, elated to be in the presence of one of their idols, absorbed everything he had to say. Truffaut also let them know that, as much as they thought their idea was indebted to the French, they needed to look deeper into film history, particularly at some of the neglected American crime dramas that had inspired the directors of the Nouvelle Vague in the first place. While in New York, Truffaut arranged a screening of Joseph H. Lewis's
Gun Crazy
, a superbly unsettling B picture from 1949 about a thrill-seeking, amoral young couple (John Dall and Peggy Cummins) on a crime spree. The movie prefigures
Bonnie and Clyde
in several ways: its suggestion that the couple's criminal life begins almost as a game, its skillful depiction of violence and gunplay as a means of sexual excitement, and even the stylish beret that Peggy Cummins's remorseless Annie Starr wears cocked to one side. Truffaut watched the movie with Benton and Newman and also invited his friend Jean-Luc Godard, who sat in the front row with his wife, actress Anna Karina. “The boys” could scarcely keep their eyes on the screen. “I thought, this is the closest to heaven that I've ever gotten in my life,” says Benton.
12

What was going through Truffaut's mind at that moment is harder to discern; there's no knowing whether his decision to invite Godard to the screening was a gesture to a friend or something else—an attempt to find his own potential replacement. At the end of his week with Benton and Newman, Truffaut gave them marching orders to spend the next two or three months working on the
Bonnie and Clyde
screenplay
13
and was enthusiastic enough about its possibilities to mention to Marcel Berbert, a production manager, that he thought the script could be “terrific” and might even “substitute” for
Fahrenheit 451
on his schedule.
14
At the same time, he made it clear to Benton and Newman that
Fahrenheit
, the project he had long wanted to be his English-language debut, was his priority and that if financing and a cast came together for that movie, he could make no commitment to
Bonnie and Clyde.
15

 

That spring,
both Truffaut and Godard flew to Chicago to see what Arthur Penn was doing with
Mickey One.
Their visits, which were made separately, were exploratory—Godard was almost as interested in making a movie in the United States as Truffaut, and both men were curious to see what an American director might do with their techniques. But the trip was also ambassadorial, an expression of respect for a director whose work was admired in France and who had already made clear his esteem for French moviemaking.

That
Mickey One
got financed by a major studio at all was a testament to the willingness of Mike Frankovich, the newly appointed vice president in charge of production at Columbia Pictures, to take a chance. In the early 1960s, Frankovich was the first studio head to pick up on the United Artists model of giving producers and directors control over their own movies as long as the budget was right. The price of
Mickey One
was low, though not nearly as modest as its commercial potential. Penn shot the wintry film in bleached, deliberately raggedy black and white, and it was assembled with muffled sound; an impressionistic, only semidiscernible plot that cast Beatty as a minor nightclub comedian on the run from a group of Detroit mobsters; jumpy, discontinuous editing; and a surreal climactic scene involving a performance artist whose work eventually bursts into flames and is destroyed, a reasonably appropriate metaphor for the movie itself.

What Truffaut and Godard encountered in Chicago was the production of a movie that, says Warren Beatty, “nobody wanted to make. Nobody.”
16
And Truffaut came away disappointed. “Penn…films every scene from twelve different angles, out of ignorance,” he wrote to Scott later that year.
17
Only the charge of ignorance was inaccurate. Penn, still feeling burned by his abrupt firing from
The Train
, was determined to make this movie his way. Although nothing in the script required elaborate setups, the shoot dragged on interminably. “Forty and fifty takes for some scenes!” says associate producer Harrison Starr. “Arthur was playing William Wyler, and God knows what role Warren had, but he had an opportunity that he might not have had when he was working with someone like Kazan to express himself more fully, and he took it.”
18

Coming off the noncollaborative experience of making
Lilith
with Robert Rossen, Beatty was no longer going to keep his mouth shut when he had something to say. He and Penn would argue daily: Beatty would tell his director that the movie's stew of symbolism, absurdism, and narrative ellipsis was “too fucking obscure,” a point that Penn, years later, conceded. (“He now believes I was right?” says Beatty, laughing. “That's funny, because I now believe I was wrong.”)
19
But their conflicts never became angry; rather, they were discovering a working rhythm that both men found nourishing. “Sometimes it was about who was gonna win, who was gonna get their way,” says Starr. “But they weren't at loggerheads in a direct or personal way—it was just about the intensity with which they both worked on the film.”
20

Alexandra Stewart, Beatty's costar, saw the conversations between Beatty and Penn as productive, not problematic. “
Lilith
, I think, was not easy for Warren. He was very intelligent and had humor, but coming after Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, you fear, maybe, that you are a ‘sub' version of them, and with Rossen, the littlest thing…So he liked working with Arthur, who would talk and listen. And Arthur, because of his theater training, could maybe deal with Warren better than some other directors.”
21

Those involved in the production of
Mickey One
differ on how—and if—
Bonnie and Clyde
became part of the conversation. Stewart says Truffaut mentioned the treatment to her when he visited the set, which seems likely given the recent intensity of his involvement with Benton and Newman. “And I remember saying to Arthur and to Warren, ‘Do you know who this couple is, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie whatever-her-name-was?' And they said, vaguely, not too much,” she says.
22

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