‘Bonnie and Clyde’: Coming to two channels near you

Willa Paskin (c) 2013, Slate

NEW YORK — On Sunday night, A&E Networks will broadcast the first part of its new “Bonnie & Clyde” miniseries, starring Emile Hirsch and “The Borgias’ ” Holliday Grainger, across three of its channels — Lifetime, History, and A&E — with the second installment airing Monday. In the last year, the company has gotten huge ratings for two miniseries, pulling in 14 million viewers for Hatfields & McCoys and 13 million for The Bible, both of which aired on the History channel. The only way to understand this new “Bonnie & Clyde,” over which Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” hovers like a disapproving God looking down on masturbating adolescents, is as a bald ratings grab. It’s an uninspired melding of Lifetime movie and biopic, with none of the virtues of a Lifetime movie (not campy enough) and none of the virtues of a biopic (it is egregiously fictionalized). It’s a deeply middlebrow concoction that gilds its violence and sex with faux-artsy details and respectable actors like Holly Hunter, Dale Dickey and William Hurt, all dutifully collecting paychecks. It would barely be worth the bile I have already spewed upon it except for its one distinguishing characteristic: how much it hates Bonnie Parker. “Bonnie & Clyde” argues that Bonnie and Clyde — their creation, crimes and death — was all the fault of Bonnie, a fame-hungry, sociopathic Jezebel. The movie’s slogan is “He held the gun. She called the shots.” In this “Bonnie & Clyde,” female ambition is more dangerous than a loaded gat.

“Bonnie & Clyde” is narrated by Clyde, who begins by telling us he had an unexplained fever as a small child that granted him the second sight. In his feverish state he saw Bonnie. As an adult, Clyde, who Hirsch plays as an affable regular Joe, coincidentally crashes Bonnie’s wedding (the two actually met years later) and recognizes her as the woman of his literal dreams; for him, their partnership will always be a love-at-second-sight proposition. Bonnie, meanwhile, is a wannabe actress, a high-strung woman who, upon receiving a rejection letter from Columbia Pictures, has a full-blown panic attack. By the time Bonnie’s husband has left her and Clyde shows up asking for a date, he’s a charming guy with a light criminal record and she’s desperate for something to do.

When their very first date to a speakeasy ends with a police bust, Clyde is carted off to jail and Bonnie has the thrill of seeing her name in print. She loves it. She loves it so much she clips the names “Clyde” and “Bonnie” into a scrapbook, and then has the egomaniacal eureka moment that “Bonnie” should come before “Clyde.” She loves it so much, she loves Clyde, the man who made it possible. (Grainger seems knowing, but from one scene to the next it’s never quite clear if she really loves Clyde or just really loves what he can do for her.) And thus truly begins the saga of Bonnie and Clyde, the toxic melding of Clyde’s deep love of Bonnie and Bonnie’s insane will-to-fame.

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I don’t want to do too much breathless plot-synopsizing, but the Lady Macbeth edit Bonnie gets here has to be stated to be believed. When Clyde wants to go straight, it’s Bonnie who successfully undermines him, whining that they’ll never have enough money that way. After their crimes start appearing deep inside the Dallas newspaper, credited to the “Barrow Gang,” Bonnie shows up at a female reporter’s house and demands to be referred to by name in the paper, with a special note that her name should go first. When an accomplice accidentally kills a man, the gang’s first casualty, it’s Bonnie who is nonchalant. On Christmas Day, Bonnie shoots a man in the head while his family watches. She claims he had a gun, but he did not: She did it for the headline. Cornered in a motel by police who have opened fire, Bonnie endangers the lives of her partners to rescue the box that contains all her newspaper clippings. Her notoriety matters more to her than her friends.

Most of these events — the murders, the shootouts — occurred, but the specifics are heavily fictionalized. By all accounts, Barrow really was the leader of his gang. Questionable stories that help make the case against Bonnie make it into the series — newspapers at the time reported she said a dead officer’s head “bounced like a rubber ball,” which the film uses even though it likely didn’t happen — as do out-and-out fabrications. That box that Bonnie manages to grab on her way out of the hotel — and that Clyde later burns, in anger — is the one that, in real life, she abandoned. Discovered by the police, it contained undeveloped film with the now iconic images of Bonnie and Clyde posing like gangsters that made them nationally famous. In this version of “Bonnie & Clyde,” Bonnie mails those pictures in to the newspapers herself, sick of the bad high school photo they keep using.

A version of Bonnie & Clyde where Bonnie has all the agency sounds like it could be kind of feminist: Bonnie wore the pants! But in fact the series is totally misogynist, a fable about how a man should never let his woman do his thinking for him. Bonnie’s ambition doesn’t complicate her, it simplifies her. As the movie goes on, she transforms from a woman with many desires — for love, for excitement, for a way out of a poverty, and for a deeply circumscribed life — into a sociopath who never really loved Clyde and cares about nothing but tabloid fame. The movie ends with one very bizarre factoid: “40,000 viewed Clyde Barrow lying in state. Over 50,000 viewed Bonnie Parker.” God, how unfair, that to the end murderous Bonnie got more attention than well-meaning Clyde, the guy so decent he killed about a dozen people.

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Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com.