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David Newman & Jack Valenti on campus

When Bonnie and Clyde get killed, a girl in the third row asked, what should we feel - relief or sympathy? "Yeah, sure," David Newman said.

There was a moment of silence.

"The answer was yes?" Jack Valenti said.

"Yes," said Newman.

Laughter. The auditorium was filled with about 600 Northwestern students, who had come to see "Bonnie and Clyde" and to question Newman, who wrote the screenplay with Robert Benton, and Valenti, who is president of the Motion Picture Assn.

This was the latest of Valenti's forays onto the campus. Armed with statistics showing the college age generation leads all other groups in movie attendance (and that the more education you have, the more often you go to the movies), Valenti has been visiting campuses to talk about the film industry.

At Stanford, he brought along Stanley Kramer, and the students heartily roasted Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" as a cop-out. For the Northwestern visit, Valenti chose more wisely and brought along Newman. The students didn't growl.

Newman and Benton are possibly the two best-known screenwriters in America right now, which means you probably haven't heard of them. Nobody ever hears of screenwriters, although directors are the heroes of the hour.

To bemoan this situation, Tom Wolfe recently wrote an article giving most of the credit for "Bonnie and Clyde" to Newman and Benton. Director Arthur Penn, according to the Wolfe version, merely brought their script intact to the screen.

"Old Tom got a little carried away," Newman said with a grin. "Once a movie is finished, it's impossible to separate the work of the people who made it. It's nice to get praise like that, but I hope Arthur Penn didn't see it."

Newman looks like the kind of kid you hope doesn't start hanging around the corner pool hall and talks like a negotiator for the campus radicals. His partner, Benton, looks like Theodore Sorenson and can't type.

"The way we write," Newman said, "is we sit in an office about the size of a table and we talk. Pretty soon we begin to get something going, maybe, and then we start talking dialog at each other. Then I write it down. Not only can't Benton type, but he can't spell. He was a fine arts major."

The Newman-Benton team contributes frequent articles to Esquire and wrote the short-lived Broadway musical, "Superman!" Somebody in the audience at Northwestern wanted to know if there was a social comment in their work - in other words, if "Bonnie and Clyde" was a statement about American society.

"I don't have the slightest idea," Newman said. "When we wrote it, we thought, well, that's done. Then the movie came out, a long time later, and suddenly everybody started producing all these theories about violence in American life and all that. I suppose the author is the last person you should ask for an explanation of his work."

But why was the movie so incredibly successful, a student asked.

"Because it was so damn good," Newman said, smiling disarmingly.

There was more laughter. Newman got serious.

"Benton and I have this private theory that an idea begins in the underworld, in the criminal strata of society and filters toward the surface," he said. "It starts in the underworld, and then moves up to the underground and finally arrives in the middle class. This goes for language, style, behavior, the whole works.

"If Bonnie and Clyde were alive today, they might be Andy Warhol and Nico. Hell, I don't know. When we started writing the movie, we dug that they were the underground figures of their time. They were on the outside. If there's a social comment in the film, that's it: that you have to see these characters in terms of the society they were dropping out of."

Mr. Newman, a coed asked, is Michael Pollard really like that? I mean did you write the C. W. Moss part for him, or did he take it and make it like Michael Pollard?

"Well," Newman said, "Michael Pollard is no Errol Flynn."

A student asked about Clyde's sexual impotence in the movie. Why did he and Bonnie finally have to make love? A typical Hollywood happy ending? Was that scene in the original script?

"Sure it was in the original script," Newman said. "In the original revised script, anyway. In the very first version we did, Clyde was a homosexual. The C. W. Moss character had a thing going with Bonnie and Clyde. "Well, that seemed to be a dead end, so we took out the homosexual element. It simply didn't fit into the rest of the story. We gave Clyde his present problem. And at the same time, we put in the scene where he finally makes it with Bonnie."

Another student asked why C. W. Moss didn't ride back to the farm with Bonnie and Clyde if he really believed the cops wouldn't get them.

"C. W. was a boy who listened to his daddy," Newman said. "We wanted to show that he always went along with the strongest person on the scene. In the gang, that was Clyde. On the farm, it was his pappy."

Why was "Bonnie and Clyde" a movie instead of a novel? Was the material especially cinematic?

"I can't really answer that," Newman said. "Some material seems to fit more easily into one medium than another, but Benton and I never get an idea and then figure out how to handle it. 'Bonnie and Clyde' seemed like a movie from the first. I mean, we don't say: Now here's this great idea, what shall we make it into - a novel, a movie, or a Viewmaster slide?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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