“Bonnie and Clyde” might have captured the spirit of the anti-authoritarian 1960s with a pair of devil-may-care bank robbers from the 1930s. But it didn’t exactly roar into theaters when it opened 50 years ago.
The film, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the outlaws, would become a cultural sensation and a 10-time Oscar nominee. But on its initial release in August 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” was gunned down by bad reviews and a tepid reception at the box office.
“Sometimes you make a movie where everyone gets the joke immediately,” Beatty said, looking back on “Bonnie and Clyde.” “And then you have a different situation with other movies.”
“Bonnie and Clyde” sparked a delayed response. This was before the days of wide release, and critics had considerable influence on the months-long rollout of films. Most outlets slammed the film. The New York Times called it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie.’”
But “Bonnie and Clyde” caught on with others, notably Pauline Kael. Her New Yorker review called it the most exciting American movie since “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962).
After making $2.5 million in 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” grossed $16.5 million in its 1968 re-release, making it one of the 20 highest-grossing films.
“I thought that it was good,” said Beatty, now 80. “But I’m really of the opinion — and it seemed to me even then — when you make a movie, you don’t really know what you’ve made until years later. It takes time to separate one’s opinion from the gamble of the moment. It’s impossible to factor out all of the nonsense that accompanies trying to sell something.”