This week I watched Bonnie and Clyde, starred by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. This film narrates, in a rather retrospective and nostalgic fashion, the dramatized story of Bonnie and Clyde, who were gangsters travelling through the Midwest in the 30s.
This film was released in 1967, an age of counterculture and revolution of all sorts. Norms, originally solidified during the 50s, were breaking down everywhere. African Americans were deconstructing the racial segregation in the south; college students were demonstrating against the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe, meanwhile the staid middle-class was experiencing an disillusion with the dream of a snug family. In this Sexual Revolution, as T. Pat argues in the Big Fix, sex was separated from gender, which originally bound sexual fulfillment with corresponding duties: a breadwinning middle-class male and a child-bearing household wife (Macpherson, Chapter 6).
This film comes as an antithesis to this middle-class culture and a representation of youngsters’ reveling counterculture against the political and social establishment. As Auster and Quart notes (read more here), the 60s was a time when sexual taboos began disappearing among the new generation, meanwhile major movie studios began losing power due to their stories that failed to resonate with the rebellious counterculture (8-10). Bonnie and Clyde sets everything outside of rules, traditions and the law. In a way, It is a story about lovers who courageously break unjust law and struggle to liberate themselves from social custom.
Human relationships, stripped of its roles assignment, is presented in a more realistic way (Kinder 2). Sex and relationships do not correspond to duties anymore. The beginning of the movie has Bonnie (acted by Faye Dunaway) flee from her dilapidated town and obligations to go on an adventure with Clyde (acted by Warren Beatty), an already well-known bandit by then. This very move epitomizes a grander revolt in the society against the norm. Yes, a lasting relationship does not have to be bound in the family. In fact, as Kinder points out, this rebellious relationship became normalized in films later on, which often began the narration in retrospect from the perspective of the female, with the male executed by the law enforcement.
Restrictions and roles are replaced by a relatively equal and reciprocal relationship. In films of previous decades, specific roles were assigned to each gender. You would rarely see a hesitant and lachrymose man, nor would you normally find a woman with determination. As exemplified by this film, the norm changed in the 60s. Just like Clyde, Bonnie often wears a beret and carries a portable machine gun with her. She is not afraid to act when Clyde is being hesitant. Clyde, on the other hand, is not another typical Hollywood personification of masculinity. In a robbery scene, Clyde killed a clerk who clung to his car. Instead of a cold-blooded burglar character that we usually saw in earlier films, Clyde yelled in distress and tears: “I killed a man” (Penn, Bonnie and Clyde)!
Their characterization contrasts sharply with that of the establishment, represented by the police and banks in this film. Despite their burglary, they are often shown as kind and empathetic with the struck-down people in the Midwest. In one scene, Clyde asks an old farmer whether the money on the counter is his. When receiving an affirmative reply, Clyde says,
“You keep your money” (Penn, Bonnie and Clyde).
Meanwhile, he takes all other money from the bank. A dandy boy and his girlfriend are pseudo-kidnapped by Bonnie and Clyde, yet they end up bantering with each other and having meals together. In contrast, the police, news media and the banks are portrayed as cruel, hypocritical and apathetic. They crowded to the bullet hole left by Bonnie and Clyde to get photographed by the reporters, while ignoring the victims. When interviewed, the aforementioned farmer actually says, “They are good people. I’m going to bring a mess of flowers to their funerals” (Penn, Bonnie and Clyde).
This phrase, ironically, might have summarized many’s attitude towards the rocking youngsters and hipsters later on. Eventually, this generation stepped down from the stage, yet they still influence us today. America would never return to its homogenous, heterosexual middle-class society, while liberty and choices began showing up in young people’s mind. This is the start of emancipation.
Auster, Al, and Leonard Quart. “AMERICAN CINEMA OF THE SIXTIES.” Cinéaste, vol. 13, no. 2, 1984, pp. 4–12. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41686310.
Kinder, Marsha. “The Return of the Outlaw Couple.” Film Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 4, 1974, pp. 2–10. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1211389.
Penn, Arthur, director. Bonnie and Clyde. Amazon, Warner Bros., 1967, http://www.amazon.com/Bonnie-Clyde-Warren-Beatty/dp/B002L5IJMS/ref=tmm_aiv_swatch_1?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=.
Macpherson, Pat. The Big Fix: A Hollywood History of Heterosexuality.