R.I.P. Arthur Penn

Arthur Penn, groundbreaking director of stage, screen, and television, has died at the age of 88, The New York Times is reporting. Born in Philadelphia, Penn had a lifelong interest in theater, organizing military theatrical troupes after enrolling in the army in 1943. After his discharge, Penn immersed himself fully in theater and live television, developing a style simpatico to the then-emerging school of Method acting. A Playhouse 90 production of The Miracle Worker provided an early breakthrough in 1957 and 1962 Penn’s film version of the play earned Oscars for stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.

By then Penn already had one feature under his belt, the 1958 Western The Left-Handed Gun starring Paul Newman as Billy The Kid. Overlooked at the time, its reputation has grown considerably over the years, and the daring evident in Penn’s psychologically intense approach would pay off in later efforts. Not immediately, however. The 1965 film Mickey One bombed, but it established a relationship with star Warren Beatty that would prove invaluable a few years later. It also found Penn looking to France for inspiration, bringing in New Wave techniques to tell the story of a stand-up comic on the run in Chicago. After Penn directed the Marlon Brando and Robert Redford-starring The Chase, he reteamed with Beatty for the film that would define both their careers: Bonnie And Clyde.

It’s impossible to overstate the influence of Bonnie And Clyde. Borrowing from the French New Wave, Beatty and Penn made a film that bucked Hollywood convention and found and expressed the growing unrest of the 1960s via a tale of Depression-era gangsters finding love on the run. It’s a film of tremendous frankness in its depiction of sex and violence, but also of disarming innocence, and it opened up new possibilities for a school of directors eager to color outside the lines.

Penn didn’t always benefit from the opportunities he helped create for others, however. Alice’s Restaurant followed in 1969 and his great revisionist Western Little Big Man underperformed with audiences and critics in 1970. A five-year break from filmmaking ensued, followed by a series of generally well-regarded efforts like Night Moves and The Missouri Breaks and some left-field choices like Penn And Teller Get Killed, a little-seen but appropriately bizarre attempt to bring the magic duo to the big screen.

Penn continued to work in theater and in television through the early 2000s, contributing to Law And Order—where his son worked as a director—and winning Tony Awards for Alan Bates and Frank Langella with a 2002 production of Fortune’s Fool. Those credits, however late, are worth noting. For all his stylistic flair, Penn was also a sensitive director of actors, and someone who understood how to squeeze ambition and a personal voice into commercial entertainment. He was and remains an example worth emulating.