By Nat Segaloff
In Nat Segaloff’s fascinating, interview-based biography of Arthur Penn, his subject’s long career in theater, television and film at last comes into focus. Renowned primarily for detonating the 1970s Hollywood Renaissance with 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, Penn’s life was full of achievements no less potent and pace setting, and in his three chosen fields of endeavor he was indisputably an epochal figure. His early years followed a classic Augie March trajectory: son of immigrant Jewish parents to whom he was not close, leftism during the Depression, self-discovery in wartime Europe, postwar college on the GI Bill (in Penn’s case, the modernist crucible of Black Mountain College), and high achievement in the unfolding Technicolor panorama of ’50s and ’60s New York and Hollywood. Segaloff relies mainly on Penn’s own account, buttressed by interviews with living collaborators. The director proves a gifted and incisive talker—frank about his failures, wise but self-effacing about his successes and innovations. The early recognition of Penn by French auteurist critics after his debut in 1958 with The Left Handed Gun (which Warner Bros. had dumped on release), forged an enduring relationship with the Nouvelle Vague directors, which gave Penn an intellectual and creative counterbalance to the Hollywood orthodoxy that derailed several of his early movies. Always a New Yorker, Penn remained an outsider with a secure alternative career on Broadway. Segaloff contextualizes Penn’s film and TV work against his theatrical innovations and adds new dimensions to our understanding of a modern master.
Review written by John Patterson.