Blanche was Not a Ditz–or a Frump–Just a Human Being
In the movie, Blanche Barrow was depicted as an absolute ditz who screamed her head off the entire time she was with Bonnie and Clyde, as well as a self-entitled twit who expected to get a cut of money for a bank job she had nothing to do with. Because of this depiction, she is often hated by fans of the movie, to such an extent that some have even joked about wishing she had been killed.
Although it’s most likely that Blanche Barrow cried at times, the movie paints a misleading picture as to why she was that way. In real life, Blanche was a law-abiding citizen who had never been in trouble a day in her life. She was so morally upstanding that when she found out, as a newlywed, that Buck was an escaped convict, she begged him to turn himself in peacefully–which he did–and pushed for his parole.
When Buck was pardoned, Blanche expected her husband to live life on the straight and narrow. Instead, he insisted on reuniting with Clyde for a reunion, knowing full well that his younger brother was a known fugitive wanted for murder. Although Bonnie and Clyde had conducted several secret family meetings without anything bad happening, Blanche was dead set against the reunion, worrying that Buck would go bad. Buck refused to listen and insisted that there would be nothing to it. Blanche, still in “I Can Save Him” mode begrudgingly agreed and joined him, perhaps in the hopes of steering him on the right path in case he was tempted into a life of crime again.
Instead, the worst happened–the day before she and Buck were going to pack their bags, police were tipped off about Bonnie and Clyde’s hideout, leading to the major shootout shown in the movie where Blanche is screaming as she runs down the street in her apron.
I don’t know about you, but I’d have screamed, too, if I were in Blanche’s position. One minute she was just chillaxing and the next minute, bullets were tearing through windows and walls. So, if Blanche had screamed, it was because she had reacted to this shootout as any law-abiding citizen would have–with sheer terror. But to further bolster Bonnie and Clyde as a cool criminal couple–and to downplay the level of danger and violence–Arthur Penn’s movie took the human reaction of a non-criminal and played the entire thing for laughs. Rather than recoil with horror along with Blanche–as audiences would have–people saw her as being melodramatic.
Even getting hit in the eye was played for laughs, to mislead audiences into believing that maybe the worst Blanche Barrow had suffered was a flesh wound and that she had, once again, overreacted. But in real life, she had been blinded by flying glass and never regained sight in her eye again.
Another very interesting point about Blanche’s misleading depiction was her appearance and demeanor. Appearances shouldn’t matter in a biopic or docudrama, but it speaks to the cynicism of Arthur Penn’s film the extent to which it tried to hype Bonnie and Clyde up as this super elegant, drop-dead gorgeous couple who were also calm, cool and collected under pressure. In the movie, Blanche is turned into another dopey character with clownish expressions and facial features, like the C.W. Moss composite, to make Bonnie and Clyde look better in comparison.
In real life, Blanche Barrow was a stunner, with a demeanor that was anything but dopey. She was also less chicken-with-its-head-cut-off, as wild jungle creature fiercely defending its mate. When she was captured, she was described as a “tigress” by the press, as well as “mean and nasty” by the lawmen who captured her.
Blanche Barrow also never gave anyone away to the police; in fact, she inadvertently caused someone else to almost take the rap for a murder the Barrow Gang had committed, after giving them a fake name when they demanded to know who her accomplices were. So, Blanche was anything but the simpering ditz who screamed and cried the entire time, or the halfwit who got tricked into betraying W.D. Jones (the C.W. Moss character). However, to boost Bonnie Parker as a smoldering sexpot, she had to be completely misrepresented as an idiot or, in the words of the actual Blanche Barrow–who was irate over the movie–a “horse’s ass.”
Wow, you touched on everything I dislike about this movie. Great article! The only way I can come close to enjoying this movie is to pretend I’m watching a fictional film whose lead characters happen to be named Bonnie and Clyde.
The only thing I wonder is how much of the blame can be placed on Warren Beatty himself. He was the producer and the star, and from what I’ve read he had just about influence on the tone of the picture as Arthur Penn. A moot point, possibly, but worth mentioning…
In researching this article, I do believe you’re correct about the extent of his influence. I remember reading that the real life Blanche Barrow and some other people were either approached by him personally or were made to understand that he was the one who was behind the entire project.
Fortunately, there were a few people that, when the film was released, saw it for what it was. Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko wrote a piece where he used quotes from of some of the pair’s victims to show that they were not heroes in any sense of the word. Also, the Mad Magazine parody ended with Beatty announcing his next picture – a film about another cute, fun-loving couple of the 1930’s: Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.
Unfortunately, much of the cultural elite of the time got on the ‘New Hollywood’ bandwagon, even going so far as to lambast film critics that saw the film for what it was, a cynical effort to cash in on youth coulture.
I remember reading a book on the history of film criticism that belittled an older NYT critic by saying “and he didn’t even get Bonnie and Clyde!” Well, maybe he did, and just didn’t like what he saw.
I’m currently trying to fill in the gaps of what I thought I knew about New Hollywood (to counter the decades of propaganda), and in all the material that I’ve read, it’s been nothing but infuriating to read how the cultural elites you talked about successfully used this movie as a cultural flashpoint. From what I understand, it was Pauline Kael who led the vanguard, who–ironically (or maybe not)–later got screwed over by Warren Beatty himself out of spite for having poorly reviewed Heaven Can Wait.
What’s so ironic about the movie being lauded as oh, so countercultural was that it was actually subverting it. Folk music had exploded in the 1960s when American youth rediscovered the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who had been the voice of the dispossessed and laborers during The Great Depression. When the folk music renaissance was at its peak, this movie appropriated it to glamorize two criminal sociopaths who killed police and robbed and steal out of cowardice.
What resulted were two things: a subliminal message to The Establishment that this is what the countercultural movement really stood for (violence and mayhem), as well as spoiling the folk music renaissance so that the true members of the counterculture would immediately abandon it. This subversion was so beautifully played that I have to wonder if it wasn’t planned.