The scene being shot for the real-life crime saga Bonnie & Clyde in Baton Rouge looks innocent enough: Inside an old sugar refinery that's been made to look like a 1930s speakeasy, couples in vintage finery crowd the dance floor. Clyde Barrow (Into the Wild's Emile Hirsch) takes his pretty date, Bonnie Parker (The Borgias' Holliday Grainger), for a twirl, then leans in for their first kiss. "I'm the man who's going to make your dreams come true," Barrow, a wannabe gangster, promises the girl who craves fame no matter the cost. It's a promise he keeps all too well.
They weren't movie stars or society swells, but they were arguably the most famous couple in Depression-era America. Eighty years after their roadside execution in a hail of bullets, we still know their names.
How the onetime North Texas waitress and her small-town criminal beau got to that inevitable point is the story told in this ambitious new four-hour movie airing simultaneously over two nights on sister cable networks Lifetime, A&E and History.
The exploits of the young lovers who roamed the Midwest and the South robbing banks, knocking over service stations, jacking cars and killing anyone who tried to stop them has been memorialized in ballads, books, a short-lived Broadway musical and a forgettable 1992 TV movie. But the elephant on the set is Arthur Penn's iconic 1967 film starring the impossibly glamorous Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
That movie was the reason director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) wasn't initially interested in the project. "But after reading a few pages of this well-researched script," Beresford notes, "I couldn't get on the phone quickly enough to say, 'I'd love to do it.'" Oscar winners Holly Hunter (who plays Bonnie's doting mother, Emma) and William Hurt (Texas Ranger Frank Hamer) were also eager to sign on.
Sipping coffee at a local bookstore last May, Hirsch, 28, admits that he has never seen the film. "Ironically, the night I read the script, I ran into Warren Beatty at a party! I told him all about it, and he seemed quite supportive," he says with a smile. "I'm actually encouraged that I haven't seen it, because I figure a lot of my peers haven't either, so there will be a whole new audience. We've all heard of the couple. In terms of American romantic historical figures, there's Jackie O. and JFK — and Bonnie and Clyde."
That would be a demographic dream for Lifetime executive vice president and general manager Robert Sharenow. A&E Networks has a lot riding on the costly joint venture, which was shot in more than 130 different locations. "This is a once-in-a-generation story," he says, "because it speaks to both men and women with its great historical context and amazing love story. It's a strand of popular culture that still resonates."
It's that connection to today's celebrity culture that executive producer Craig Zadan (Chicago) says he and producing partner Neil Meron latched onto: "These inept bank robbers were the first reality stars! Bonnie couldn't make it as a movie star, so she just wanted to be on the front page of the newspaper." The press fed that addiction for fame, painting the couple as an outlaw Romeo and Juliet. "They ended up killing a lot of people and became mythic."
Asked if this version — Bonnie has panic attacks and Clyde seems to foretell the future — is more historically accurate than past movies, Zadan becomes coy. "You're dealing with folklore," he says. "A lot of it is accurate, and then there are [times] you can only say, 'Who really knows?'"
Regardless of its veracity, Grainger, who effortlessly segues between her natural English accent off screen and her character's Texas twang on it, finds this take on Bonnie a convincing one. "She was intelligent and charismatic, with a need for notoriety," says the actress, 25, who shared an easy rapport with her costar. "She allows Clyde to think he's running the show." Zadan agrees: "Clyde is a means to Bonnie's ends. She is manipulating him."
Hirsch doesn't totally buy into that view. "Clyde likes how much of a badass Bonnie is," he says, "but he's very controlling." After a pause, he adds, "I hope the movie doesn't paint them as heroes, because they're not. It's a tragic story of flawed people. I'm not playing Robin Hood here. He's very dark."
The protagonists may be portrayed as dangerous narcissists, but Hurt's Hamer, the lawman itching to bring them down, is far from the fool played by Denver Pyle in the '67 film. "Hamer was an extraordinary person, focused and intelligent," Hurt says. "One of the things he does in the movie — and did in history — was challenge those who excited audiences to lionize that outlaw ethic, that wrong idea of romance."
Nonetheless, Hirsch says, "This is a great romance, despite the darkness and the craziness. They completed each other in a weird way."
Bonnie & Clyde airs Sunday, Dec. 8 at 9/8c on Lifetime, A&E and History.