An over­looked film trailblazer

Los Angeles Times - - At the Movies - Gold­stein, pa­trick.gold­stein @la­times.com

fin­ished shoot­ing. Penn never saw the film again un­til it turned up on the bot­tom half of a dou­ble bill in New York.

Penn kept work­ing in Hol­ly­wood, but he was al­most un­em­ploy­able af­ter mak­ing “Mickey One,” an odd­ball flop, and “The Chase,” a steamy thriller that pro­ducer Sam Spiegel re­cut in post­pro­duc­tion. The one com­mer­cial job that Penn landed, mak­ing “The Train” with Burt Lan­caster, was a dis­as­ter for Penn, with the ac­tor boot­ing him off the film early in pro­duc­tion.

Finest mo­ment

Penn was nearly 45 years old by the time he got to make “Bon­nie and Clyde,” but this time his luck changed. Penn was al­ways revered by actors, and with “Bon­nie and Clyde,” he found him­self in ca­hoots with an ac­tor, War­ren Beatty, who was also the pro­ducer and driv­ing force of the film.

Beatty had made “Mickey One” with Penn, and even though the movie was a bomb, Beatty re­mained an ad­mirer of Penn. They fought dur­ing the mak­ing of “Bon­nie and Clyde,” but the re­sult was a bril­liant drama that was both a pop-cul­ture sen­sa­tion — spawn­ing hit songs and fash­ion crazes — as well as a brood­ing med­i­ta­tion on vi­o­lence in Amer­ica, com­ing just four years af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of John F. Kennedy, whom Penn, a po­lit­i­cal junkie, had qui­etly coached be­fore Kennedy’s fa­mous de­bate with Richard Nixon.

Dark con­cerns

If you study Penn’s films, it’s easy to see that he, like Elia Kazan be­fore him, was fas­ci­nated by the themes of power, dis­il­lu­sion­ment and be­trayal. As the critic David Thom­son once wrote, Penn’s best pic­tures, no­tably “The Left-Handed Gun,” “The Chase,” “Bon­nie and Clyde,” “Lit­tle Big Man” and “Night Moves,” are “com­men­taries on the con­flict be­tween law and vi­o­lence in Amer­ica and on the dis­il­lu­sion with cor­rupt gov­ern­ment, ra­cial dishar­mony, and the mil­i­tary ma­chine.”

It’s telling that Penn’s last film, a 1996 made-for-TV movie with Louis Gos­sett Jr., ex­plored these same themes, chron­i­cling how the ta­bles had turned when, a decade af­ter a South African was tor­tured to ob­tain in­for­ma­tion on anti-apartheid con­spir­a­tors, his chief tor­men­tor is im­pris­oned and in­ter­ro­gated about past of­fenses.

If peo­ple have largely for­got­ten Penn now, it’s be­cause his ca­reer had such a brief flow­er­ing, co­in­cid­ing with the all-too-short-lived “Easy Riders, Rag­ing Bulls” rev­o­lu­tion in 1970s Hol­ly­wood. Since he was so beloved by actors, Penn got to work with vir­tu­ally ev­ery top star of the day. His stint with Beatty was fol­lowed by “Lit­tle Big Man” with Dustin Hoff­man, “Night Moves” with Gene Hack­man and “The Mis­souri Breaks” with Mar­lon Brando and Jack Ni­chol­son.

Ca­reer in de­cline

But af­ter the epic fail­ure of “Mis­souri Breaks,” which was un­der­mined by Brando’s bizarre be­hav­ior, Penn found him­self on the outs again with the Hol­ly­wood es­tab­lish­ment, which was happy to shower him with hon­ors but re­fused to give him any more in­ter­est­ing movies to make.

It’s quite pos­si­ble that Penn sim­ply lost his touch, as his 1980s films are curiosities, at best. He may also have lost in­ter­est in com­mer­cial film-mak­ing, as, un­like many of his con­tem­po­raries, he didn’t have a ca­reerist bone in his body. In Hol­ly­wood, you have to adapt or re­tire from the fray. Penn chose the lat­ter.

Last­ing legacy

Af­ter see­ing a few of the young Steven Spiel­berg’s first hits, Penn told an in­ter­viewer: “He makes be­nign movies that are enor­mously suc­cess­ful, while I’m mainly known for mak­ing movies about peo­ple shoot­ing and cut­ting each other up. I love his work, but I could never make films like that.”

It was a ruth­lessly ac­cu­rate self-as­sess­ment. Penn knew the movies had changed and time had passed him by. But in his own way, Penn had changed the movies just as much as Spiel­berg did, of­fer­ing a dark, un­set­tling vi­sion of Amer­ica where out­laws were he­roes and he­roes were out­laws.

It was a vi­sion that made many peo­ple — in­clud­ing most of Penn’s em­ploy­ers — un­com­fort­able. But it was a vi­sion that lives on in the work of Martin Scors­ese, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen broth­ers, who wouldn’t be where they are to­day with­out Penn hav­ing been there first.

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