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Arthur Penn, director of 'Bonnie and Clyde,' dies at 88

Arthur Penn was able to coax memorable performances from actors such as Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman.
Arthur Penn was able to coax memorable performances from actors such as Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman. (Cbs Via Associated Press)

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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 10:25 PM

Arthur Penn, a film director who ushered in a new era in American moviemaking with his embrace of sex and violence in the 1967 gangster tale "Bonnie and Clyde," died of congestive heart failure at his home in New York on Sept. 28, the day after his 88th birthday.

Fascinated throughout his career by mythical characters living on the fringes of society, Mr. Penn used an amiable soft-spokenness to coax memorable performances from actors such as Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman.

He launched his career during the 1950s in television, directing more than 100 plays broadcast live on NBC. Then he shifted to Broadway, where he found resounding success directing plays such as "The Miracle Worker," about the stormy relationship between the deaf and blind Helen Keller (played by Patty Duke) and her determined teacher, Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft).

"The Miracle Worker" was a commercial hit for which Mr. Penn received widespread acclaim and a 1960 best-director Tony Award. When he made it into a movie in 1962, critics raved over his harrowing and effective translation of the story from stage to screen.

New Yorker writer Brendan Gill wrote that Mr. Penn had "drawn marvelously selfless performances" from Bancroft and Duke, who both won Academy Awards for their roles.

The sudden emergence of Mr. Penn, who was nominated for a best-director Oscar, "has probably been the quietest assumption of authority ever to take place in show business," Brock Brower wrote in the New York Times in 1962.

So unassuming and patient was Mr. Penn that even his own mother asked whether actors paid him any attention. And they did. When Warren Beatty - who starred in "Mickey One," Mr. Penn's 1965 homage to experimental European filmmaking - became a producer for "Bonnie and Clyde," he chose Mr. Penn to direct the film.

Mr. Penn was uninterested at first. He was fresh off the disappointment of "The Chase" (1966), a widely panned film written by Lillian Hellman and starring Brando as a Texas sheriff who tries to protect an escaped convict from bloodthirsty vigilantes.

Beatty, promising more artistic autonomy, convinced Mr. Penn to take on "Bonnie and Clyde." The movie, starring Beatty and Faye Dunaway, was about outlaws who travel the Dust Bowl against the backdrop of the Great Depression, leaving a trail of blood in their wake as they become unlikely folk heroes.

In Mr. Penn's hands, it also became a politically tinged statement about the incalculable human toll of the Vietnam War and the frustration of an entire generation.

Mr. Penn said in 1968 that he aimed to make audiences "feel disgust, to experience horror when they see all this death around them, just as I do."

At the same time, the film manages to balance violence with comedy. In one memorable scene, Bonnie and Clyde are unable to find their getaway car after robbing a bank. Moments later, after they find their vehicle, the sly humor dissolves when Clyde fatally shoots a bank teller who has jumped onto their car.


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