The Pacific Film Archive's "Arthur Penn: A Liberal Helping" shows the noorious director in full
When Arthur Penn died at 88 last September, obituaries listing career highlights reinforced the notion that he was one of those directors — others include Mike Nichols and George Roy Hill — who were BFDs in the 1960s and '70s yet rapidly faded from prominence thereafter. In Penn's case the decline was especially steep, particularly given that during arguably the single most roiling period of change in mainstream American filmmaking, he was at the top of the heap in terms of prestige and thematic adventure.
Did he simply lose interest? Did some significant flops dishearten him? Whatever the cause, post-1976 his occasional films — he was never very prolific — became those of any competent journeyman whose projects seemingly picked him rather than vice versa. (Particularly dismaying was 1981 "turbulent '60s" drama Four Friends, in which he reduced that era of his own greatest impact to stereotype-ridden soap opera.) After the respectable 1996 TV movie Inside, about apartheid, he never directed another feature.
The Pacific Film Archive's June retrospective is titled "Arthur Penn: A Liberal Helping." That moniker pays tribute to his lefty conscience, yet in another sense this assortment isn't so liberal: there's nothing here dating from after the 1976 Bicentennial Year, when both he made his last identifiably personal film and saw it widely trashed. (That would be The Missouri Breaks, a Jack Nicholson-Marlon Brando revisionist western that deserved better than it got but was doomed to ridicule by one of Brando's deliberately bizarre later performances. Now, of course, that's its major attraction.)
What we've got here is an extraordinary run: encompassing 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, one of those movies that changed the movies in general; 1969's counterculture pulse-taking Alice's Restaurant; Little Big Man, the big-noise historical black-comedy literary adaptation (along with Nichols' Catch-22) of 1970; and 1962's The Miracle Worker, a joltingly good translation of the play he directed on Broadway. Even his commercial failures were exceptionally interesting, from 1958 film debut The Left Handed Gun (Paul Newman as Gore Vidal's neurotic Billy the Kid) to 1965's Mickey One (a dazzling, pretentious expressionist nightmare with Warren Beatty at its bewildered center) and 1975's Night Moves (private eye Gene Hackman wading into a morass of Florida Keys corruption).
But there was a blot even during those glory days. In the mid-1960s the country was in thrall to civil rights struggles, and them "Hollywood liberals" duly responded. Penn's 1966 The Chase was arguably the worst, most artificial "prestige" effort to deal with the issue this side of Otto Preminger's 1967 Hurry Sundown, which humiliated Jane Fonda even more. (It has a scene in which she tries to arouse probably-gay Southern tycoon husband Michael Caine by fellating his saxophone.)
Hopes were high for a while, though. Adapting The Chase, Horton Foote's 1952 Broadway failure about an escaped con settling a score with a Texas sheriff was no less than literary lioness Lillian Hellman, penning her first (and as it turned out, last) screenplay since being blacklisted as an alleged commie threat.