Thursday, October 17, 2019

Bridging Old Hollywood and New: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)


This post is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall 2019 Blogathon. This year we're honoring the CMBA's 10th anniversary with "The Anniversary Blogathon" and participating member bloggers are celebrating all manner of classic film and classic film-related anniversaries. Click here for links to other member posts.

In this piece I take a circuitous look back at Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "the Citizen Kane of buddy films," on its 50th anniversary

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William Goldman
It was during the 1950s that William Goldman, then a young novelist, first got interested in "the Butch Cassidy story." He was so fascinated with Cassidy, ringleader of a late 19th century band of outlaws, and one of his gang members known as the Sundance Kid, that he would research them off and on for another eight years.

It was also in the 1950s that young "method" actor Paul Newman left the Broadway stage and made his way onto Hollywood's sound stages. Once there, he would steadily be cast in leading roles in films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), for which he received his first Oscar nomination, The Young Philadelphians (1959), and From the Terrace (1960).

By the early '60s Goldman was on the brink of a career in film. One of his novels, Soldier in the Rain, was adapted to the screen in 1963 and he was about to add screenwriting to his resume. Newman's career was also continuing upward. He earned a second Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in the gritty film The Hustler (1961), and a third Oscar nod for his portrayal of amoral ne'er-do-well Hud (1963). Soon enough the paths of screenwriter and actor would cross for the first time.

In 1965 Goldman adapted Ross MacDonald's 1949 private eye novel, The Moving Target, for the screen. The result would be the screenplay for Harper (1966). Newman starred as Lew Harper, a wily L.A. private eye involved in a mystery as convoluted as The Big Sleep. The film also starred Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh and Robert Wagner. It was a big hit.

But the times, they were a-changin'.

In his seminal book on the New Hollywood era, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls (Simon & Schuster, 1998), author Peter Biskind alluded to the domestic and international events that factored into the dramatic shift that hit the movies in the late '60s. It was during that decade that the world's superpowers teetered on the brink of nuclear war, when a young U.S. president was shot down during a motorcade and when the civil rights movement caught fire. It was during those years that the post-war generation, the "baby boom," began making its enormous presence and mounting influence felt, and it was the decade in which a simmering conflict in Vietnam escalated into an all-out but undeclared war. 

Cinematically speaking, all hell broke loose in 1967 with the release of what most in Hollywood considered two unlikely films. Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn, starring Warren Beatty and newcomer Faye Dunaway, was released in mid-August. It didn't do well at first, but in time attendance began to snowball on word-of-mouth and increasingly positive reviews. Wildly stylish, sexy and violent, the film was influenced by the French New Wave and based on the true story of Depression-era outlaws on the loose. By year's end Bonnie and Clyde was a sensation, a hit with the crowd and the critics alike. The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols, starring Anne Bancroft and then-unknown Dustin Hoffman, was released in December 1967. It offered a witty/melancholy take on the meanderings of disaffected and anxious recent college grad, Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman). The boy drifts into a cold-blooded affair with the wife of his dad's business partner and then falls in love with her daughter. The mix of youthful angst and wry humor along with Dustin Hoffman's edgy lead performance, plus the contemporary music of Simon and Garfunkel on the soundtrack, would be catnip to the under-24 crowd. The Graduate turned out to be the #1 grossing film of the year. 

Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate weren't the only two films among the hit movies of 1967 with counterculture attitude and youth appeal. November brought Cool Hand Luke, the story of an incorrigible rascal of a prisoner on a Florida chain gang who will not stop trying to escape. Luke becomes a hero to the rest of the gang and the bane of the officers in charge. Paul Newman starred as Luke, the latest progression of a character type he had first undertaken in The Hustler and continued to explore with Hud, Harper and Hombre (1967). Iconoclastic, freewheeling and irresistibly charismatic, Luke was the role in the film that finally and firmly established Paul Newman's image as an archetypal antihero. Luke fit right in with Bonnie, Clyde, Benjamin-the-graduate and all the other rebels and mavericks who would soon populate theater screens everywhere. But, unlike others who became antiheroic icons of the era, Newman was already a bona fide movie star with three Oscar nominations under his belt when it happened. And he would receive another Best Actor nod for Cool Hand Luke.

It was while Paul Newman was filming Hombre that William Goldman got in touch and then came to visit him on the set in Tucson. Over several days they discussed the script Goldman brought with him, an original story he then called "The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy;" until Newman changed his mind, it was assumed he would play the Kid. What Goldman had conceived was a revisionist Western written not as the "sprawling epic" it could've been but as a personal story tied to the bond between two outlaws. The plot followed their exploits, the arrival of the "super-posse" hired to find them and take them down, the pair's escape to South America and their eventual demise in Bolivia. But the key to the story was the relationship between the two men.

Sundance and Butch
It was no secret that Steve McQueen was everyone's first choice to co-star, that he and Newman had met and gone over the script, and that both were interested. There are varying accounts as to why this potentially intriguing pairing didn't happen, but McQueen's departure opened the door for Robert Redford, then a promising but minor leading man. Such is kismet. Director George Roy Hill had convinced Newman to take the role of Butch, a warm, affable charmer who, in real life, was liked by everyone including the Pinkerton detectives. Newman would later admit that he used "a good deal" of himself in the role. Redford was given the role of Sundance, the cool, solitary gunslinger. As Sundance, Redford would dazzle on sight, with his steady gaze and shaggy good looks. More importantly, he would have a chance to prove himself in a plum role. His, like Newman's, was an offbeat character with particular quirks and idiosyncrasies. In Goldman's view, Butch and Sundance had to be "appealing...different and special," that's how he wrote them. Newman and Redford would deliver more than that. The two managed to connect and project a rare mix of chemistry and devastating charisma the movie camera loved. And that audiences would love, too. It was said that without that audience reaction, "there's no picture." Fortunately, the picture was also blessed with Goldman's playful but finely balanced script, Hill's sure direction, Conrad Hall's evocative cinematography and a "semi-modern" score by Burt Bacharach.

 
The super-posse arrives, cinematography by Conrad Hall, editing by John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer

Disregarding standard Western genre conventions for heroes, heroism, action and romance, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would be fashioned as something more reflective, and more fun, about male bonding, changing times, self re-invention and, with a subtle nod in the direction of Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962), triangular relationships.

Redford and Newman
One of the film's most striking assets is how deftly the balance of comedy and drama is handled. In the early scenes even the diciest moments of confrontation are played out with wit and whimsy. The tone starts to shift when the super-posse, a pack of gunmen on horseback, bursts out of a boxcar and launches its relentless hunt. Now tension begins to mount and a sense of desperation slowly seeps in. And yet Butch and Sundance continue to banter, though their humor grows darker as their future dims. Goldman would acknowledge his concern that if the film came off as too funny, no one would care when Butch and Sundance died. And he admitted that finding the balance between comedy and drama had been "brutal." Goldman may have suffered, but he found it.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance got off to a rocky start. The then-important New York critics didn't like it much. But within a couple of weeks, regardless of a lack of significant critical support, the film had become a phenomenon. A blockbuster. The #1 grossing film of 1969 and the #3 box office hit of the decade. Butch and Sundance would earn more than $100 million, that's more than $700 million in 2019 dollars. Redford would later remark that "the critics missed the chord that was hit with the public," referring to the resonant bond between Butch and Sundance and its across-the-generations appeal. And Goldman would remember the startling impact the film had on the younger generation of the late '60s and early '70s. He recalled a general theory of the time that the movie was actually about the Vietnam war, with the super-posse analogous to the government and "Nixon coming to get you," and the kids seeing themselves in Butch and Sundance. 

Toward the end of the film, Etta Place (Katharine Ross), Sundance's lover, tells her man she'll do just about anything for him but she won't watch him die. The decision to depict Butch and Sundance's miserable end in Bolivia with a freeze-frame image rather than a bloodbath was both shrewd and kind. We'd already seen it with Bonnie and Clyde and would see it again many times. Besides, the future of the two outlaws was no mystery, Sheriff Bledsoe had announced it early on when he told the men, "Your times is over and you're gonna die bloody." Thankfully, like Etta, we didn't have to watch.



References
Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (Warner Books, 1983)
Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy (Three Rivers Press, 2009) 
Interviews with Paul Newman, Robert Redford and William Goldman (20th Century Fox, 1994)
Easy Riders and Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind (Simon & Schuster, 1998)

20 comments:

  1. I remember standing in line at the Sutton theater in Manhattan to catch this film. As you mention, one of the film's many assets was its balance of comedy and drama. Newman and Redford were perfectly cast. Goldman was one of the great screenwriters and authors, of his time.

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    1. This film has just about everything going for it. George Roy Hill's career turned out to be inconsistent, but he directed a couple of real winners and this was one. It still holds up.

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  2. "Goldman may have suffered, but he found it." Indeed!

    I have not watched Butch and Sundance in many year. I think it is my husband's oft-quoting of the movie that has fooled me into thinking the last viewing was more recent. I imagine quoting this movie is a part of many families.

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    1. Funny you should mention it...I think it was William Goldman who said that his first viewing was with a group of industry "suits" and it didn't go well. The next time he saw it was with a regular audience years later and everyone was quoting lines out loud throughout the screening.

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  3. Its a film that makes it on the star power and bromance of Redford and Newman. Some great photography too, along with Strother Martin being "Colorful". Thanks for the review.

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    1. All of that and a good script, too. Thanks for visiting.

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  4. What an exciting time it was for film. However, to think that this film is 50 years old sure makes me feel old! But at 50, it sure looks beautiful. And speaking of beautiful, that is exactly the word to describe your post. Loved it. Many thanks.

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    1. It was fun to revisit Butch and Sundance but it is hard to believe the movie is 50 years old. I feel ancient! So glad you enjoyed this piece - and thank you.

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  5. I'd forgotten about the freeze-frame ending until you mentioned it, and I remember being glad we didn't have to watch their deaths – like you pointed out. And, as mentioned by a previous commenter, this is a beautiful film, and is still beautiful 50(!) years later.

    I didn't realize Steve McQueen was considered for The Sundance Kid, and I'm glad the part went to the fab Robert Redford. His chemistry with Paul Newman is perfect.

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    1. Watching Butch and Sundance again I was struck by its beauty. Newman and Redford's chemistry is so potent that my memory of the film was mostly about that. But it is beautifully shot and edited.

      Newman and McQueen could've been interesting. McQueen also had mucho charisma, but he was jealous and competitive when it came to Paul Newman, who was the more established star. All this to agree with you 100%, Redford and Newman are unbeatable.

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  6. I find it fascinating that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch were released in the same year. They are so different in tone and, yet, both films focus on male relationships and the end of the Old West. Both were also important films for different reasons. I enjoy Butch and Sundance, although the song interlude always bothers me. I love “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on Mg Head”...it just seems out of place to me in the movie. Have you ever seen the Butch & Sundance prequel with (I think) Tom Berenger and a William Katt?

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    1. What's also fascinating is that Butch's gang was actually called "the Wild Bunch," though they did hideout at Hole in the Wall, WY. So, apparently, did Jesse James in his heyday. I was never fond of the "Raindrops" sequence but when I re-watched the movie recently I actually kind of liked it. I think I saw the prequel on TV but don't remember much about it. You have to hand it to any pair of actors who are charged with emulating the Newman/Redford bromance. Good luck!

      This might interest you, Rick. Goldman knew that to depict Western heroes running from a fight, i.e., to South America, was seriously breaking a genre rule at that time. In fact, one of the studio heads was adamant that Butch and Sundance not only stay and fight, but that they wipe out the super-posse.

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  7. Great review and fascinating background Lady Eve. I never saw it in '69, only later. It was never a favorite of mine for some reason. I'll have to give it another chance - your post sparked my interest.

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    1. I'd be curious how you respond to Butch and Sundance on second glance, Christian. I found the film most endearing this time around. I've never been crazy about the "Raindrops" sequence but having read much backstory now, I appreciate it more. Not to mention the cinematography, editing and script.

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  8. Great stills, great film clip, and wonderful post. I am curious about one thing: Did Paul Newman change William Goldman's mind about the film title (The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy, to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) because Newman changed his mind about which part to play? Or did others convince Newman to play Butch Cassidy and the film's title was changed because Newman was the bigger star? It's a minor point really, but for some reason, I want to know!

    Harper is also an excellent film, and I was interested in hearing the background leading up to the filming of Butch Cassidy.

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    1. Thanks, Marianne. My understanding is that when Goldman met with Newman about the story early on, Newman wanted to play Sundance, and so, because he was a bigger star (this would be in 1967 - before McQueen became a superstar with Thomas Crown and Bullitt and before Redford was well known) the name of his character would naturally come first in the title. It was the director, George Roy Hill, who badgered and cajoled Newman to play Butch until he finally agreed. Then the titled changed because Newman was still the big name on the film. The movie catapulted Redford to superstardom and probably made Newman an uber-superstar (so to speak). Unsurprisingly, the two became lifelong friends.

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    2. Thanks for the info! Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was probably my introduction to Robert Redford. He was also great with Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park, but I didn't see that until it was already an "oldie but goodie."

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    3. You're welcome! Sundance was my intro to Robert Redford's sex appeal. I'd seen Barefoot and thought he was handsome and did a good job in the role, but Mildred Natwick basically stole that movie, bless her.

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  9. Great article! I didn't know about McQueen being wanted, but I think he couldn't be as iconic as Redford - plus, Redford and Newman became good friends, which probably helped with their performances. Now I'll have Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head playing in my head...
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Always wonderful to hear from you, Lê. I agree on McQueen. He might've worked very well, but don't think he could've done a better job than Redford as Paul Newman's buddy/partner in crime.

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