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Exposing the Lies of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde were Neither Lusty Sexpot and Hot Stud Muffin or 1960s Fashion Plates–Just Baby-Faced Pipsqueaks with Guns

One of the reasons why I consider Arthur Penn’s movie so despicable is that it exploited several human weaknesses to turn two sociopaths into a pair of extremely likable, cool role models. For instance, Bonnie Parker was transformed into a lusty ice blonde sexpot with raging hormones on the prowl getting turned on by Clyde Barrow, a stud just oozing with testosterone.

Not only were Bonnie and Clyde given raw sex appeal, they were turned into the ultimate fashion plates, looking stylish in the sharpest clothes and with the best hair and makeup. Dunaway and Beatty cut such a stylish figure that the movie actually inspired “Gangster Chic” in the fashion world as soon as it came out, one that had1960s bohemians trading their love beads and bellbottoms for the “Bonnie and Clyde” look.

So, what were the real gangster couple like–really? In real life, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow couldn’t have been further removed from their onscreen counterparts. Not only were the pair just out of their teens physically or mentally, they looked like it, too. Bonnie Parker, while cute by 1930s standards, was nevertheless a kewpie doll of a woman who looked less 1967 Playmate of the year than Clara Bow. Her hair wasn’t “Swedish blonde”, either–more strawberry blonde (blonde with red highlights). It’s neither here nor there, because Bonnie would dye her hair different shades throughout the duration of her and Clyde’s crime spree.

Clyde Barrow, in real life, was also not a hunk, but a baby-faced punk with dimples and jug ears. Again, like Bonnie, he might’ve been somewhat cute by the standards of the time, but hardly a fully mature gigolo or ladies’ man just oozing pheromones out of every pore.

The real Clyde Barrow vs the movie version

The real Clyde Barrow vs the movie version

As for their physique, both were small–particularly Bonnie, who was a doll-like figure under 5 feet and weighing less than 100 pounds. Clyde Barrow wasn’t exactly tiny, but just slightly below the average for males, which was 5’7′. So, he and Bonnie were hardly the statuesque figures depicted by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow

Nor were they the chic and cool runway models as depicted in the Arthur Penn film. Bonnie was more or less dressed like all women did at the time, in the outfits and hairstyle of a frumpy, conservative middle-aged dowager, covered from head to toe with hemlines down to her ankles.

Clyde wore stylish suits, yes, but looked more like a grown-up Alfalfa from Our Gang cosplaying as John Dillinger or some other popular gangster at the timeYou can see how impish he looked standing next to two of his buddies, Henry Methvin and Raymond Hamilton.

Clyde Barrow, the shrimp to the left, along with two of his buddies striking a pose.

Clyde Barrow, the shrimp to the left, along with two of his buddies, striking a pose.

How disappointing, huh? The real-life Bonnie and Clyde were not gorgeous runway models in super chic outfits, and certainly not sexpots oozing with sex appeal and looking like they came out of a Playboy centerfold or a stag film. They were baby-faced pipsqueaks with guns who dressed and groomed in the stuffy conservative style of their parents and grandparents. Of course, to sell this couple as cool and badass, the Arthur Penn movie had to reinvent a pair of runts in a way to appeal to shallow 1960s hipsters, so that’s what it did.


  1. Scott Lueck

    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…

    • Comment by post author

      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.

  2. Scott Lueck

    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.

    • Comment by post author

      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.

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