Bonnie & Clyde, and the Film Critic Who Helped Change its Fate

Meet the film reviewer who gave Warner Bros a review even better than a five star rave...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The late 1960s were widely regarded as a turning point for American cinema, and this was thrown into focus by the nominees for the 40th Academy Awards. Held on April 10th, 1968, and celebrating films released in 1967, the line-up of five Best Picture candidates notably had only one film that could be bracketed as traditional Hollywood. Even then, the bloated Doctor Dolittle, featuring Rex Harrison gamely trying to belt out a few tunes across the best part of three hours, was disregarded pretty much the minute the nominees were read out. Instead, the focus turned to the other four contenders.

In The Heat Of The Night took home Best Picture gold in the end, beating out The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. But also in the mix was a film that nearly fell apart many times on its way to the screen: the now-classic Bonnie & Clyde.

Starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the title roles, the biopic of legendary outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow was in development for much of the 1960s. Beatty, notorious for taking his time over projects, was originally on board solely in a producer capacity before agreeing to take on the lead role. Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were at varying stages in discussion for the director’s chair, before Arthur Penn – after initially rejecting the film – agreed to take the job on.

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Violent, bloody and tonally against what Warner Bros was looking to make at the time (Jack L. Warner, for one, was not a fan), the studio originally had no plans to give the film a wide release at all. In fact, whilst it would eventually become a major box office success – playing in cinemas for months – it took Beatty threatening to sue to get the film such wide exposure in the first place.

And then there was another notable moment.

Joe Morgenstern was the film critic for Newsweek, and when he took his seat at Warner Bros’ New York screening room for a press preview, he found himself sat in proximity to Beatty himself. He confessed to being a little unnerved by having the star and the producer right next to him, adding “I felt that he was trying to peer at my notes.” Once the film had finished, he duly went back to his office, and penned a review that he himself would describe as “pissy.”

The 1960s, for context, wasn’t an era where a single film critic could make or break a film, but certainly key names in the reviewing fraternity exerted significant influence. Morgenstern’s piece for Newsweek, coming in the aftermath of several attacks from the New York Times, argued that Bonnie & Clyde was “a squalid shoot ‘em up for the moron trade.” Ouch.

But Morgenstern was unsettled. Something wasn’t sitting right, and thus on the day of release, he went with his wife to see the film again. The review wasn’t due in print until the following Monday, but already, he was having second thoughts. Seeing the film again cemented them. He sat in the midst of an audience that went crazy for the movie. It hit him hard how he’d got this one wrong. “I was not ready for the violence and kind of shrank from it,” he said of his initial reaction to the film. On second viewing, he realised “oh shit, I’ve missed the boat.” He immediately started writing a second review.

The following Monday’s Newsweek was already on the printing presses by this time, and thus the first review couldn’t be stopped. But Morgenstern persuaded his editor to let him run another piece. This was pretty much unprecedented in Newsweek, and within one week of his review running, Morgenstern had a second piece in print in the same publication where he wrote that his original review was “grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate.” He went on to rave about the film.

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Warner Bros’ marketing department sprung into action. Its original advertising had run with a few critics’ quotes, as per normal, but it exploited brilliantly the story about the critic who changed his mind inside a week. As co-writer Robert Benton noted, “after the first set of reviews, I thought, it won’t even last a week in theatres. But when Joe Morgenstern changed his mind, that pivoted it. It made news – and from there, the movie started to have a life of its own.”

The story of Bonnie & Clyde’s success is told brilliantly in Mark Harris’ book, Scenes From A Revolution: The Birth Of The New Hollywood, from which the quotes in this article have been taken. The film itself celebrated its 50th birthday this year, and remains as sharp and strong as ever.