In considering the passing of Arthur Penn last Tuesday, it embarrasses me to admit how little credit I gave him at one time.
It was the mid-70s, I was a young, arrogant, know-it-all film student at the University of South Carolina. Like so many of us who had newly-found serious study in film, I pontificated at the drop of a hat on great cinema and Hollywood dross, like a Columbus endlessly crowing about this New World he’d just discovered…oblivious to the fact the Vikings had beaten me there by centuries, and centuries before them the natives had built great empires. Like all the rest of my fellow young film study Turks interested in “serious” moviemaking, I didn’t know just how incredibly much I didn’t know.
I’d been too young to see Bonnie & Clyde when it had been released in 1967, and when I finally got the chance years later, I didn’t think much of it. The slow motion violence of its death ballet climax – so shocking in its time – seemed positively tame as slo-mo shoot-‘em-up scenes had since become a numbing action movie ritual. And, being as young as I was, I didn’t appreciate the context of the film; how its outlaws-on-the-run story had, in 1967, plugged into the disillusionment, the rebellious outsider-ism, the angry sense of oppressive Establishment conformity roiling the young people of its day. I was like a naïve archeologist on his first dig, looking at the skeleton of some pre-human, unable to understand where it fit on the evolutionary parade, able only to think, “Jeez, they looked stupid.”
By the time I did see B&C – and having suffered through the mess of Penn’s Missouri Breaks not knowing how unmanageable Brando had gotten by that time – I’d come to think of him as a one-hit wonder (well, two: Little Big Man – ok, three: Alice’s Restaurant ). He’d gotten lucky, the timing was right, he’d been bailed out by a good script, a good editor, etc.
What I’d missed, and had never really understood was that Penn was not a film director. He was a storyteller. Or, if you want to give it a fancy name, a dramatist. He moved between TV and film and the Broadway stage, and was accomplished in each. On TV, his career stretched from the days of live drama to Law & Order. In film, he’d been three times nominated for Oscars, and he was a Tony Award-winning stage director whose credits included The Miracle Worker (which he also directed for the screen earning his first Oscar nod), Wait Until Dark, and An Evening with Nichols and May.
I used to hold it against him that he didn’t have a distinctive visual style. You could look at the work of his fellow live TV grads and could always tell a Frankenheimer film, a Lumet, an Altman. Nor could he hold a candle to the new film brats coming into the Hollywood mainstream with him: Coppola, Scorsese, DePalma et al.
But that was Penn’s style. Not to let you know that he was there; just to produce good work. It wasn’t about him; it was about the work.
Look at Little Big Man. It’s a filmic novel with a hundred chapters, each invaluable, each perfectly cast, perfectly told, each a tile perfectly placed in a grand, epic mosaic about an entire people falling under the steam roller of the white colonization of the Old West. There are scenes that are no more than a shot or two, parts with no more than a few lines. Knowing he would often have little more than seconds to establish character in his breakneck-paced epic, Penn cast actors familiar (Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey ad infinitum) and unfamiliar who could make their stamp immediately, deliver their few lines just so, producing, in the end, a movie of a thousand memorable moments.
If Penn didn’t produce many big screen hits, it may have been that he was just too damned smart for commercial moviemaking. I began to re-think my opinion of him as, over the years, I’d see him pop up in documentaries about the movie business, or about particular stars or other directors, certain films, and the like. I was always struck in those instances by his obvious intelligence, his insight, his sense of how the subject at hand fit into a bigger picture, and yet he didn’t pontificate or pronounce. There was always a certain unpretentiousness to him, an earthiness.
An acquaintance of mine, Stephen Whitty, the lead film critic for The Star-Ledger, had interviewed Penn on occasion. Along with all his other attributes – his sharpness of mind, his perception, and so on – the two things Whitty was most impressed by was that “…Penn was not one to promote himself…” Talking to Penn about his biggest hit – Bonnie & Clyde – Whitty was struck by how Penn talked about what star/producer Warren Beatty, rewrite artist Robert Towne, and damned near everybody else brought to the project – but nothing about his own role in helping it all come together.
And the other thing Whitty remembers is something one rarely hears about the major players in Hollywood, and would serve a welcome valediction for any passing: “He just seemed to me like a really nice guy.”