Penntennial: The Arthur Penn Centennial

Born 100 years ago today, stage and screen director Arthur Penn (1922-2010).

Penn is widely considered the Father of New Hollywood on account of his breakthrough hit Bonnie and Clyde (1967), though he was quickly superseded by younger directors who charged through the door he held open. I used to associate him with the counterculture on the basis of a couple of other films he made directly afterward, but in retrospect and summation one sees that though Penn possessed a liberal sensibility, his approach to the visual aspect of film-making was restrained. He was more a storyteller than a stylist, which is a little surprising given that he was the young brother of genius photographer Irving Penn.

The son of a Russian-Jewish watchmaker, raised in Philly, Penn saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and attended the short-lived, progressive Black Mountain College in Asheville, NC, alma mater of the de Koonings, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell and Walter Gropius. He also studied acting under Michael Chekhov and at the Actors Studio West. He simultaneously began directing theatre and pursuing a career in live TV drama, much like contemporaries Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt, etc. Starting out as a floor manager (an important job in live TV), by age 20 he was already associate director on the Colgate Comedy Hour, and a full director by the following year, on such shows as Gulf Playhouse, Goodyear Playhouse. Philco Television Playhouse, and Playhouse 90. Everything was a Playhouse then, and nothing was, because they were actually TV studios!

In 1957 Penn won an Emmy, which meant that he could take his talents to Broadway; for the next decade he alternated stage and screen productions in quick succession. He was nominated for a Tony for his director of the original Broadway production of Two for the Seesaw (1958) starring Henry Fonda and Ann Bancroft. The same year he directed his first Hollywood movie The Left Handed Gun (1958) starring Paul Newman as Billy the Kid. Thus was established Penn’s well-known penchant for stories about outlaws and outsiders of all kinds. In 1959 he won his Tony for directing the original Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, helming the 1962 screen version as well. In between, he directed the original Broadway production of Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic and An Evening with Nichols and May. (When Mike Nichols went on to direct himself his work would have much in common with Penn’s).

Penn was the original director of the action movie The Train (1964) with Burt Lancaster, but the powerful actor/producer didn’t like his approach and replaced him with John Frankenheimer. Penn then returned to Broadway to take the reins of the musical adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy (1964) starring Sammy Davis Jr. Then he and Warren Beatty connected for the quirky 1965 movie Mickey One, his first film to show some influence of the by-then exploding French New Wave. This was followed by the original 1966 stage production of the thriller Wait Until Dark (no doubt he’d have been the guy to make the screen version himself, but of course he was working on Bonnie and Clyde that year). Also in 1966, he directed The Chase, an interesting and flawed movie which I wrote about here, daring in theme but stylistically stodgy.

Finally, with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), came the big artistic and commercial breakthrough. It’ll merit a post of its own here someday, for it was a pop culture phenomenon on its own, reviving the career of Beatty, putting Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard on the map, providing the screen debut of Gene Wilder, and (yes!) popularizing the bluegrass movie of Flatt and Scruggs. And as we said, sparking a kind of revolution in Hollywood (along with Nichols’ The Graduate that same year, and several 1969 films like Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, and MASH), proving the efficacy of films that were more adventurous, youth oriented, truer, freer, and aesthetically fresh. Penn’s next two films, Alice’s Restaurant (1969) and the revisionist western Little Big Man (1970) with Dustin Hoffman, were appropriate follow ups to what he established but didn’t set the world on fire to the same degree, and his moment as the man everyone was talking about rapidly passed. (I’m also shocked I haven’t posted about Little Big Man, a favorite and formative movie of my youth, here either; that too will be forthcoming.)

Penn’s career was far from over, though! In the mid ’70s he had a truly excellent stretch, directing the intriguing neo-noir Night Moves (1975) with Hackman (and a teenage Melanie Griffith’s first real role) and the gonzo western The Missouri Breaks (1976) with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, as well as the Broadway premiere of Sly Fox (1976), Larry Gelbart’s hilarious adaptation of Volpone, which starred George C. Scott, Bob Dishy, Jack Gilford, and Hector Elizondo and ran for over a year. But this was also the time of Jaws and Taxi Driver and soon Star Wars, and the younger directors of Newer Hollywood revolutionized the industry yet again and directors like Penn were eclipsed by orders of magnitude.

Considered, but finally passed over, for the job of directing The Stunt Man, Penn next directed Four Friends (1981), a highly personal, human take on the 1960s. Critics praised it, but the public was relatively uninterested, probably due (I think) to its lack of well-known stars. Consider by contrast the smash success of Lawrence Kazdan’s The Big Chill (1983), the ensemble of which is made almost entirely of popular actors. Without the juice he once possessed, much like once powerful contemporaries like Hal Ashby, he was only given the opportunity to direct within the genre I call “80s crap”. Well do I remember the advent of Target (1985), a combination action movie and father-son bonding story starring Hackman and Matt Dillon. The dad is a former CIA agent. Father and son must come together to rescue the kidnapped mom. This junk is so not my bag, and wasn’t even when I was 20, when this movie came out. I’m sure it did okay at the box office, and his work on it was respectable, but is THIS story that needs to be told? Doesn’t matter, the industry had found its footing as a behemoth designed only to earn money. By contrast, I REALLY loved the spooky Gothic Dead of Winter (1987) which I first saw only recently. It manages to establish a mood that stays with you and I can easily conjure the look and feel of the movie in my head. Ironically, Penn is said to have accepted the reigns of the movie only reluctantly. I don’t think it did well at the box office, and as I said I wasn’t even aware of it until a short time ago.

Penn’s last theatrical film was the sadly panned Penn and Teller Get Killed (1989). With that director and those stars you’d be forgiven for predicting a triumph, but to quote a certain other great Philadelphian, nothing is certain but death and taxes. In the later years of his career Penn returned to the stage and television. Notable stuff included The Portrait (1993) a made-for-tv adaptation of Tina Howe’s Painting Churches starring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall — certainly a worthy project for all concerned. His last feature length TV movie was an ani-apartheid story called Inside (1996) with Nigel Hawthone, Eric Stoltz, and Louis Gosset Jr. In 2000 and 2001 he was an executive producer on Law and Order!

In 2002 Penn directed Frank Langella, Alan Bates and the great Lola Pashalinsky in a Broadway production of Fortune’s Fool by Turgenev. His last major credit was the 2004 Broadway revival of Sly Fox, with a killer cast including Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Stoltz, Rene Auberjonois, Bob Dishy from the original cast, Professor Irwin Corey, Bronson Pinchot, Peter Scolari, and Rachel York.