Arthur Penn died earlier this week. Although he wasn’t a prolific film director, his batting average was incredible, and his films were an accurate reflection of the mores and zeitgeist of their times. His most famous epic, Bonnie and Clyde, was not only a cultural phenomenon in the 70s, but the critical and popular success of its tone and style opened the doors for other landmark films that would revolutionize the film industry.
Penn got his start in television, directing live dramas for shows like Playhouse 90, and was also a very successful Broadway director, winning Tony Awards three times in a four-year span. His work included dynamic shows like Clifford Odetts’ Golden Boy and the original productions of Wait Until Dark and The Miracle Worker.
But although he received three Academy Award nominations for Best Director, he never took home the statuette for his film work. No matter – his impact was huge. Despite a short filmography, he worked with all of the greatest actors of his time – Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty – and was adept at extracting eclectic performances from them. Ironically, he hated method acting, although he worked often with some of its biggest practicioners.
Arthur was often mistakenly identified as the father of the successful Penn brothers – actors Sean and Christopher and musician Michael; their father Leo was also in the industry but no relation.
So in tribute to Arthur , I give you Ten From Arthur Penn. These are his ten best films – also his first ten films – and I suggest those you haven’t seen go on your “must see” list. And if the independent film era of the 60s and 70s interests you, I highly suggest you grab a copy of the fascinating documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
01. The Left Handed Gun (1958) – Newman as Billy The Kid, an underrated Western with some great performances.
02. The Miracle Worker (1962) – Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the award-winning smash
03. Mickey One (1965) – An underknown classic with Beatty as a nightclub comic fleeing the mob. Sadly not on DVD yet.
04. The Chase (1966) – An amazing cast in an oddball combination of a Southern melodrama and an action film, scripted by Horton Foote and Lillian Hellman.Trainwreck great.
05. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – One of the best films ever made, period.
06. Alice’s Restaurant (1969) – Arlo Guthrie’s song took up an album side and Penn made it into a counterculture classic.
07. Little Big Man (1970) – The oddest history lesson ever and a great anti-Western; Forrest Gump stole the concept.
08. Night Moves (1975) – One of the dozens of reasons that Gene Hackman might just be the best of his generation.
09. The Missouri Breaks (1976) – At this point directors let Brando do what he wanted just to get him in the film; he was rarely odder than this one.
10. Four Friends (1981) – Craig Wasson leads a lesser known cast in one of the better films made about growing up in the turbulent 60s. Written by Steve Tesich, who gave us another coming-of-age classic in Breaking Away.