Deadly Celebrities

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America has always been the land of the famous and infamous. Even before Warhol’s now hopelessly cliché 15 minutes, America was endlessly throwing heroes and and villains and celebrities into the headlines and under the bus. In fact often there was no clear line separating the heroes from the villains, or the roles were unapologetically reversed.

Take for example the depression era fascination with thieves, bank robbers and gunmen. Certainly there was a great deal of wish fulfillment going on, and and anger with the wealthy and “the system”…but there was also a sense of gladiatorial combat between then criminals and the law about the entire thing. Bread and Circuses. However which were the Christians, and which were the lions? Consider the case of Bonnie and Clyde…

The following is reposted from The Washington Post.

My, They Hold Up

75 Years Later, Bonnie and Clyde Remain Larger Than Death

By Dan Zak

Even though they were Swiss-cheesed by a blizzard of bullets 75 years ago, Bonnie and Clyde are still on the run. They’re not so much robbing banks nowadays as they are gracing the covers of books — at least a dozen in the past decade, and two within the past month. They’re also singing and dancing, in four different stage musicals in development. Bonnie will be channeled by Hilary Duff in a feature film that starts production in July on the same Southern back roads the infamous duo once terrorized. In Gibsland, La., next weekend, thousands will watch shootout reenactments during the annual Bonnie and Clyde Festival. People will gather at the site of their fatal May 23, 1934, ambush to watch them die all over again.

It’s everything this pair of 20-something ne’er-do-wells ever wanted: fame, immortality and the elevated regard they never received (or deserved, some say) while they were living. How did this happen? How do two reckless losers — amateur stickup artists who killed at least 10 people on a haphazard spree across six states — remain celebrated icons capable of inspiring this current glut of projects?

Bonnie and Clyde were killed at the right time (at height of John Dillinger hysteria) and in the right way (in a dramatic, headline-friendly fusillade), and the media and the masses took it from there, says Bryan Burrough, author of "Public Enemies," the 2004 book that tracks the 1933-34 crime wave.

"The American public tries to read altruistic motives in their story, to glorify criminals into more than what they were," Burrough says. "The current fascination can clearly be traced to the 1967 movie and a new generation of historians trying to reconcile the movie with history. Which can’t be done."

It’s been 75 years since the Year of the Gangster, as the FBI calls 1934, and Bonnie and Clyde remain at large, aided and abetted by a culture that imbues them with whatever significance fits the moment. Jeff Guinn, author of the new book "Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde," says they’re rebounding because there’s both an eternal market for youthful rebels and a cyclical nature to history.

"We may not be officially in a depression but there are very few Americans who aren’t hurting financially," Guinn says. "We now see the banks as big, awful institutions taking away things we had already earned, like 401(k)s. . . . For young people today there’s a sense of nervousness: ‘What’s there going to be for me?’ When ambitious young people feel there’s no hope, when they feel afraid and threatened, you see guns in school. That potential for that violence is still with us."

‘We Rob Banks’

The 1967 movie is burned into our brains. We think of Faye Dunaway’s golden hair and Warren Beatty’s matinee-idol grin. We think of bullets perforating self-delusional young flesh, bloodying dapper clothing and Flatt and Scruggs plucking away on the soundtrack. We think of a duo on the open road, tearing along a path of last resort. We think of that final astounding sequence of their execution, edited for maximum emotional impact: 60 shots in four film speeds in less than a minute capture every thrash and flail as the law blasts them to oblivion.

But one particular scene sticks out today. Beatty, as Clyde, meets an evicted farmer who comes to see his house one last time.

"Used to be my place, but it’s not anymore," the farmer says. "Bank took it."

Beatty fires a couple shots at the house, smiles, then hands his gun to the farmer, who puts a bullet through a sign that says PROPERTY OF MIDLOTHIAN CITIZENS BANK.

As they part ways, Beatty tell him pridefully, "We rob banks," as if that automatically makes him the good guy.

Outsize Outlaws

The film resurrected and redefined the story of Bonnie and Clyde as a tale of arrogant bravado pushed to the limit. It’s a masterpiece of cinema, and a stylish doctoring of history, which lends a certain suspense to director Tonya S. Holly’s project "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde," a $15 million indie movie that begins shooting in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana at the end of July.

It’s not a remake, she says. Will she get past the 1967 movie while getting closer to fact?

After 30 years of thinking about Bonnie and Clyde — from finding 1930s newspaper clippings in her parents’ garage at age 16 to writing part of the script on napkins while working as a production assistant in 1990 — Holly finally has a major star attached. Hilary Duff, the 21-year-old pop music ingenue and starlet of the Disney Channel show "Lizzie McGuire," will play Bonnie opposite Kevin Zegers’s Clyde.

When casting was announced earlier this year, Holly says she received thousands of e-mails from around the world. Some people were excited about a fresh take on the story. Others were paranoid that a rote remake was in the works.

"A lot of people were concerned," says Holly, whose production company is based in Alabama. "A lot of people say, ‘You’re remaking a classic.’ [But] their story could be told from a million different angles."

Holly says the Depression will definitely be a character in her movie. She’s broadened the story to cover five years (instead of just the two-year crime spree). She plans to show Clyde’s time in prison and Bonnie’s disfigurement in a car crash, two episodes omitted in 1967. It’ll be grittier, she says, more focused on Clyde and his transition from a life of poverty to a life of notoriety, and Duff will be an ideal vessel to resurrect the ambitious essence of Bonnie. She is what Bonnie wanted to be. The pair had a 21st-century-like obsession with celebrity: They took more photos of themselves than any other gangsters of the era, Clyde tried to model his behavior on the more famous Dillinger, and Bonnie wrote epic poetry to commemorate their spree.

From heartbreak some people have suffered,

From weariness some people have died,

But all in all, our troubles are small

‘Til we get like Bonnie and Clyde.

Holly plans to make a movie about those troubles, about wayward youths pulling themselves out of the Depression by whatever means possible and fighting to survive once the real world catches up with them.

"People know there’s more to the story, especially the people who are interested in characters from the Depression," Holly says. "People always said they were a product of their times, but not everybody committed crimes then, so what made this couple decide to go this route?"

Their Final Scene

The route ended just outside of Gibsland, La.

L.J. "Boots" Hinton runs the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum in town, near the one gas station and the one cafe, a mile south of Interstate 20 in the northern part of the state. He’ll answer the museum phone himself and call you "pardner." The museum has the duo’s actual guns and the car used in the ’67 movie (though the car is on loan to the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in D.C.), but Hinton is probably the most interesting attraction. He’s the son of Dallas County Deputy Sheriff Ted Hinton, one of the six lawmen who pumped over 150 bullets into Bonnie and Clyde and their stolen Ford V-8 on the road into Gibsland.

Seventy-five years later, he’s on the committee that runs the annual Bonnie and Clyde Festival. Next Friday and Saturday, the festival will draw nearly 5,000 people to the one-block stretch of town.

"This year’s one of the strongest," Hinton says. "There’s people coming in from all over the world. Over 5,000 for sure."

Historians and enthusiasts will gather to argue about old assumptions (Was Bonnie pregnant when she died? Did Clyde raise a weapon before the ambush?) and update each other on new findings (like recently discovered files from the Dallas field office of the FBI). Crowds will watch reenactors lie blood-covered in the blazing sun for photographs, wondering what they should feel.

"What makes them enduring characters is the ultimate confusion about whether these are good guys or bad guys, and should we be sympathetic or not," says Paul Schneider, whose book "Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend" was released last month.

Dallas historian Ken Holmes created the museum as a passion project four years ago, after manning a mobile museum that toured the South with Hinton and descendants of the Barrow and Parker families, two sides of the law now collaborating on keeping the story alive.

"The Beatty-Dunaway movie had a lot of fiction in it but I’m glad they did it, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing here," Holmes says. "If that movie hadn’t come out, the museum wouldn’t exist."

He thinks the new movie will likely introduce the story to a whole new generation, for better or worse.

The son of the man who helped kill them has, like many others, a decidedly romantic view of why our blood pumps harder when we talk about Clyde and Bonnie.

"It’s very simple," says Hinton, 75. "It’s a love story. Clyde loved Bonnie and Bonnie loved Clyde. He tried to get her to quit him three different times, and she wouldn’t do it. Her mother tried, too, when they had clandestine meetings, saying that she’d be dead with him. But Bonnie told her she’d be dead without him."

Curtain Call

Next stop, Broadway?

Of the three Bonnie and Clyde stage musicals percolating in New York, none, thankfully, includes tap-dancing or sequins. But each sees what they want to see in the original story.

Tony nominee Frank Wildhorn, who composed the musical "Jekyll and Hyde," thinks the couple is relevant because the phrase "Bonnie and Clyde" has become part of the global vocabulary. In the next two weeks, there will be an announcement for a public run of Wildhorn’s musical "Bonnie and Clyde," which he describes as a dramatic, Coplandesque piece of Americana that will cover the pair’s entire lives.

"They are larger-than-life characters and that, to me, equals opera," Wildhorn says. "Because the stakes are so high, every kiss could be a last kiss. That leads to music for me."

Rick Crom and Hunter Foster are more intrigued by the embellished oral history, and the public’s sense of ownership of the story. Their show, "Bonnie and Clyde: A Folktale," will be read for producers June 16, with current "Hair" star Will Swenson and Foster’s Tony-winning sister Sutton in the main roles.

"Bonnie and Clyde’s actual story is pretty stagnant," says Crom, the composer. "They’re lovers from the beginning; they ran from the law and got killed. Their influence on the masses was much more entertaining. . . . The trap with Bonnie and Clyde is you’re so tempted to do a musical tragedy. Shooting guns and car chases can be done abstractly, but it presents a lot of problems."

So Crom and Foster decided to shuck downbeat tragedy and do a full-blown "side-splittin’ toe-tappin’ gun-totin’ musical." They dialed up the romantic side, with Bonnie and Clyde acting more like Ross and Rachel at first. Modern jokes have slid naturally into the script.

"When we premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival [last September], the economy was starting to tank," says librettist Foster, an actor known for his roles in "Urinetown" and "Little Shop of Horrors." "Right after the first big Dow drop, we wrote a line for our narrator, who tells the audience the Depression is setting in but ‘you probably don’t know anything about that.’ It got a huge laugh."

"The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde," a country rock musical in which the cast plays the instruments, is now being tweaked by composer Dana P. Rowe ("The Witches of Eastwick") and Michael Aman and Oscar E. Moore, who wrote the book and lyrics.

"One of our contentions was they weren’t particularly terrible people; they were just doing what they could, doing the only thing they knew how," Rowe says. "Good people can do bad things, but there’s also a price you pay for that. If there is a moral to our show, it would be ‘careful of the choices you make.’ "

Bonnie’s 11 o’clock number, "Roads I Ain’t Yet Seen," is the plaintive cry of a character who wants out, and makes a choice:

I was alive but wasn’t living

with nothing to lose,

never saw my place in this world

or my face in the news.

We’re not allowed to change our mind

cuz they’re closing in behind.

So let’s find roads

they ain’t yet seen.

How They Stole Our Hearts

What keeps Bonnie and Clyde from staying dead and buried? They’re a blank slate on which anything can be writ.

They can radiate romance, youth, sexuality and hubris.

Or they can be social deviants polluted by poverty.

Or they can be puppets who act out modern morality.

We can build them up into folk heroes or antiheroes, and tear them down to show that crime doesn’t pay, all in the span of one movie or musical or book or documentary. It’s the perfect mix of brazen romance and deadly thrills, a story tailor-made for constant interpretation and rediscovery — especially now, when America’s high-profile criminals are the people who operate in a decidedly unromantic fashion. They embezzle money from a city government. They siphon money from investments. They move decimal points and forge documents and try to quietly get away with things. It’s entirely too subtle and boring.

Perhaps the tagline for the ’67 film sums up the delicious, immortal appeal of the story in the simplest way:

"They’re young. They’re in love. They rob banks."

Adam and Eve ban

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