Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow piqued the FBI’s interest in late 1932 and spent two years as celebrity outlaws, until—spoiler alert—they were gunned down by a posse led by the former Texas Ranger (and celebrity lawman) Frank Hamer. As “public enemies” go, Bonnie and Clyde were pretty low-grade stuff. But after the police got ahold of some snapshots they’d taken of themselves, hugging and clowning for the camera—and those pictures wound up in the newspapers—something about the idea of young lovers on a crime spree caught the public’s imagination and elevated them to the upper tiers of Depression-era gangster stardom. The “legend” of Bonnie and Clyde served as the basis for a landmark, Oscar-winning film in 1967. Now it’s inspired a TV miniseries starring Emile Hirsch and Holliday Grainger. As Bonnie, Grainger sometimes wears a saucy little beret, just as the actual Bonnie did in the famous photographs—a look that was copied by Faye Dunaway in the movie. That hat is just about the only thing that the movie, the miniseries, and the actual history have in common.
Directed by Bruce Beresford with the kind of dull, verve-free “craftsmanship” and meticulous attention to the inessentials that put the last nail in the coffin of his feature-film career some 20 years ago, Bonnie And Clyde: Dead And Alive doesn’t seem to have been inspired by deep interest in the actual Barrow gang, and it’s neither an act of homage nor a rebuttal to the movie. It exists because the unexpected ratings success of the History channel’s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries shocked the potentates of the A&E Network and its various offshoots into digging around for another period story that could feature bloody shootouts and a tragic love story. (The show is airing on A&E, History, and Lifetime, in a triple-prolonged strategic assault on the viewer’s potential ability to not watch it.)
Scene by scene, Emile Hirsch is engaging as Clyde, and there’s an impressive set to his angry jaw as he’s piloting a car away from a police ambush, with his sister-in-law screaming over his mortally wounded brother in the back seat and his world exploding around his ears. But he has so little character to play that the script (by Joe Batteer and John Rice) supplies him with a little collection of factoids to recite at the beginning, as if to trick the actor into thinking that somebody connected to this production has some idea who this guy is. “Bein’ Christian, I don’t much believe in astrology, but I’m told I’m an Aries… Three and seven are my favorite numbers. I like fast cars, girls you want to talk to as much as undress, and my mama.” Change “Aries” to “Aquarius,” and you could use the same speech in a movie about Elvis.
Clyde further explains that, as a child, “I contracted a fever of unknown origin. I almost died before I started living.” Hirsch must have blanked out on this one key detail, because he never suggests the feral urge to live fast, die young, and end up a good-looking piece of Swiss cheese on the side of the road. If anything, Hirsch seems too intelligent for most of what he gets caught up in. Instead, the near-death experience is used to explain how he acquired a kind of “second sight,” which mostly manifests itself in the form of campy dream sequences and heavy-handed strokes of ironic foreshadowing.
Grainger’s Bonnie is the more motivated of the two. She’s a frustrated writer-starlet who gets upset when the photos she’s sent to Columbia Pictures come back in the mail, while Holly Hunter, as her mother, soothes her wounded ego: “Most girls don’t even have the gumption to get a rejection letter from a movie studio!” After she and Clyde become notorious, Bonnie serves as their press agent, shooting up a bank during a heist and calling out, “Don’t mess with Bonnie and Clyde!” She even breaks into the home of a reporter, played by Elizabeth Reaser, to offer a little sisterly media criticism—and to complain that she wasn’t mentioned by name in the newspaper account of the bank robbery.
Besides the lust for fame, Hirsch and Grainger seem to be bound together by feverish lust. They tear each other’s clothes off eagerly, which certainly makes a change from the 1967 movie, in which Clyde couldn’t get it up. (Weirdly, the one direct lift from the movie is the performance by Sarah Hyland, the saucer-eyed older daughter on Modern Family, as Clyde’s sister-in-law. Like Estelle Parsons in the film, she keeps shrieking “Daddy! Daddy!” with greater shrillness and frequency than you’d think someone surrounded by people with guns could get away with. The show uses Reaser’s reporter character to put the media hype surrounding the Barrow gang in perspective, and uses her to question the way the authorities twist the press coverage to their own advantage. But the miniseries is so far from factually accurate that she’s puncturing a myth that doesn’t exist—and the show has nothing of interest to replace the myth with, anyway. Those seeking entertainment would be better off watching the movie, which will give them a rousing American story in half the time.
Debuts: Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern
Format: Two-part miniseries
Entire series watched for review