Clyde wasn’t Impotent–He Just Wasn’t that Into Bonnie in the Beginning–and Sexually Conservative
The 1967 film portrayed Clyde as being an impotent virgin, as part of a cheesy story arc trying to make some kind of equally cheesy statement about guns and virility. For instance, as Bonnie kisses him, he shoves her away and yells that he’s not a stud service. In another scene, he shoves her away again when she tries to blow him.
Now, what about the real Clyde Barrow? Was he a sexually impotent virgin? Of course not. In real life, Clyde had had several girlfriends before Bonnie, and was so into them that he got a tattoo of one, stole a car to make up with another, and of the third, tried passing her off as his wife to family members.
If that was the case, what about this nonsense in the movie about Clyde being impotent? Believe it or not, this entire story arc was a sleazy take on his initial relationship to Bonnie, as well as a spin on a time when people were much more culturally conservative when it came to sex than today.
Let us go back to the beginning of how Bonnie and Clyde met. Bonnie met Clyde through a mutual friend. They had dated each other for only a month before the police came knocking and hauled Clyde away for his involvement in a number of burglaries. To make matters worse, Bonnie was also married to another bad boy, Roy Thornton, who was in prison at the time.
As he sat in jail awaiting trial plotting how to escape it, Clyde suddenly had a married young woman who he had only known for a little less than a month sending him a ridiculous flurry of borderline-insane love letters that sounded exactly like that of a chronically depressed, suicidal housewife still reeling from the loss of her recently-incarcerated husband. (In one letter, for instance, Bonnie talks about being so lonely without Clyde that she came close to committing suicide.)
Naturally, there was coolness on Clyde’s end in response to these letters. In fact, there is a strong indication that he initially saw Bonnie’s obsession as a convenience. Just a few weeks after they met, he asked her to risk jail time by smuggling a gun to him–not to reunite with her but to continue his life of crime.
Eventually, Bonnie and Clyde became bona-fide lovers. However, according to everyone who knew them, their relationship couldn’t have been more chaste. For instance, their friends and family rarely saw PDA between them. The reason why, given the time, makes sense. Although Bonnie and Clyde engaged in crime, their values were nevertheless conservative when it came to sex and relationships. It was the 1930s, after all, and ironically, they were no less conservative about this stuff than everyone at the time, even though they were robbing and killing people left and right. In fact, Bonnie was still so hung up on notions of decency that she refused to divorce her husband, Roy, or take off her wedding ring until the day she died.
The point is that while it may have been true that Bonnie Parker hotly pursued Clyde Barrow while he was more or less indifferent in the beginning, it was not for the reasons that the Arthur Penn movie made it seem. Clyde, to reiterate, had only known Bonnie for a few weeks before he entered prison. To make matters worse, she was married, and he was looking at a very long prison sentence at the time, so was more concerned about getting out than pursuing romance. It makes total sense why someone in his position might not have been as interested in Bonnie as she was in him, but this wasn’t sleazy enough for the Arthur Penn film, so this entire thing had to be spun as, “He was an impotent virgin with women issues.”
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.