This Summer We’re Channelling: Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde

Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker in “Bonnie and Clyde”, 1967 | Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, Tatira-Hiller Productions

The honey-gold bob, the sun-kissed skin with peachy blush and lips, the silky nude top, the tailored midi skirt suffused with tomboy sexuality, the golden coin chain thrown on just so, and that insouciant attitude, all enveloped in the warm golden hour sunlight. That’s the look of summer for you. Natural, mysterious, anxious for adventures, ripe for taking risks, happy for the now, basking in the unknown.

“I knew it was a great role. I really identified with Bonnie. She was just like me, a Southern girl who was dying to get out of the South. She wanted to take risks, she wanted to live. I knew exactly how she felt – I’d felt that way for years”, said Faye Dunaway. Arthur Penn, who directed Bonnie and Clyde, concurred that idea in an interview with George Stevens Jr.: “Bonnie is a girl with a real hunger. She wants to be a movie star and have her name in the paper,” and “Bonnie’s sixth sense tells her there is romance, escape, excitement around this guy,” (Clyde, Warren Beatty’s character).

A daring, controversial crime classic, Bonnie and Clyde was at the forefront of the New Hollywood, which was highly influenced by the European cinema, and which was thematically complex, technically innovative, morally ambiguous, sexually charged and anti-establishment. Its new, tougher sensibility connected with the young audiences and changed the way Hollywood looked at movies. And at fashion.

Dunaway was among the last of Bonnie and Clyde’s principals to be cast. Beatty had considered Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, and Julie Christie, among others. Costume designer Theadora Van Runkle recalled how Beatty was scooting a catalogue of actresses and she opened it on Faye and she said “There’s the girl you should cast.” Dunaway was perfect for the spirit of the thirties and the spirit of the sixties.

Van Runkle fashioned the character that would take Faye Dunaway to stardom and surpass the barrier of time. After Beatty (a very hands-on producer who knew that everything is in the details) vetoed her perfectly in-period sketches of Bonnie and Clyde, “with marcelled hair for” Faye “and a close-cropped center part for him”, the designer stayed away from the mini fashions of the ‘60s and instead opted for a timeless look reminiscent of 1930s glamour, but anchored in contemporary pragmatism and nodding at the French New Wave: straight hair, simply-cut silhouettes, slinky midi skirts, printed scarves, knitted sweaters and cardigans. The look easily reached the young 1960s audiences, who strongly identified with the fugitive lovers, not exactly from a realistical point of view, but dramatically speaking, as the story took on mythic proportions, escalating “into a kind of fable upon which we begin to hope for certain things”, explained the director.

Clothes and attitude worked together to attain that irresistible and individual and seductive look without resorting to exhibitiosnim, which played such a great part in the film’s enduring success. Bonnie’s costumes moved from the fashions of the day, just as the film “moved from reality into a new degree of experience,” as Arthur Penn said. It was the same reason why they didn’t shoot the film in black and white. “It was to say that this is not a document of what happened” (ed. note: the film was based on a true story, that of Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow, an American criminal couple who traveled the Central United States with their gang during the Great Depression). “It leaps forward in time and brings it up to the present.” I wouldn’t be talking about that glowing light if they hadn’t done it in colour. They would get up every day at 4.30 so that cinematographer Burnett Guffey could shoot at first light. As noted in the book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris, Penn, who had among his sources of inspiration his photographer brother Irving Penn, wanted the same level of sophistication in a colour movie that European cinematographers were bringing to black and white, and he wanted some of the outdoors scenes to have the on-the-fly feeling of the nouvelle vague. By moving the story out of that time, Arthur Penn paved the way to a new generation of filmmakers.

Writers David Newman and Robert Benton captured the world’s fascination with the film best: “If Bonnie and Clyde were here today, they would be hip… It is about style and people who have style. It is about people whose style set them apart from their time and place so that they seemed odd and aberrant to the general run of society.” Isn’t this what the individual in our society so desperately lacks today? That strong sense of self, that courage to be different, that protest of the status quo, that elegance of the gesture? “You see people who are great beauties and never get anywhere. This was style,” Van Runkle said about Faye Dunaway.

That’s why we are channelling Bonnie’s look from above this summer. Not necessarily the clothes, but the elegance and distinction and the idea that your clothes should not disguise, but reveal one’s personality. “You’ve got class,” Warren Beatty said to Faye while filming, and she took it as the greatest compliment. Because it is. Let’s aim for that.
editorial sources: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris / Classic Hollywood Style, by Caroline Young, Film Noir. 100 All-Time Favorites, Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers, by George Stevens Jr, an article from L.A.Times by Patrick Goldstein

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