Godfather, Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs, Departed, The Town. Probably none of these movies that had such a vivid and powerful impact on American Gangster film culture would have existed if it wasn’t for the influence of one man, Arthur Penn.
Mr. Penn, younger brother to famous fashion photographer Iriving Penn, set the the bar high in all forms of media. Throughout the span on his career, he mastered the Broadway stage, recreated the made-for-TV movie, and pushed many boundaries in film.
In 1957, Penn directed William Gibson’s television play The Miracle Worker for the CBS series “Playhouse 90″. After a downpour of amazing reviews, he earned several Emmy nominations. Two years later he won a Tony award for himself, his writer, and actress Anne Bancroft in the Broadway version of “The Miracle Worker.”
But Penn’s talent is best recognized for his sensual, violent and even comedic portrayal of the two minor gangsters of 1930’s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, in his film Bonnie and Clyde. In the 1967 film, Penn made an American Gangster classic. The blunt tag line for the film described it best: “They’re young, they’re in love, they kill people.” Racy and outrageous, audiences of the time didn’t quite respond to the film immediately– Penn was viewed as a vanguard of the times. However, over time the feature was recognized as one of the first movies that somehow managed to mix a love story, violence, and comedy all in one place. Bonnie and Clyde was nominated for 10 Oscars, and is still used as an example of well-crafted film-making by movie fans and critics of all ages, including Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times who declared it will forever be “a milestone in the history of American movies.”
After the huge success of “Bonnie and Clyde” made him famous, Arthur Penn was given many chances to make big blockbuster films. But, staying true to what was most important to him, he continued making personally expressive independent films. He never stopped working on TV projects, and he returned to Broadway where he directed a play that earned Tony acting awards for Alan Bates and Frank Langella. He always seemed to be looking for another reason to make art and to be a story teller, no matter what the medium was.
Arthur Penn passed away Tuesday night, September 29th, 2010, at his Manhattan home surrounded by his family, the day after his 88th birthday.
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