Savannah Film Festival 2003
An interview with director Arthur Penn on "Mickey One"
By Clay Lowe, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
On October 28, 2003 Arthur Penn was presented the Savannah Film Festival's "Achievement in Cinema Award" by the Savannah College of Art and Design, the festival's host. Following the awards ceremony there was a retrospective screening of Penn's more well known "Bonnie and Clyde."
CL: "Mickey One," 1965. Black & white film noir starring Warren Beatty. Pauline Kael hated it . . . . Judith Crist, "TV Guide's" Judith Crist, thought it was a film ahead of its time.
AP: She was also with "The Herald Tribune" at the time.
CL: Right. So what do you think about that film today?
AP: Well, I think it was a very adventuresome film. And it's a film with a kind of strong, how shall I say, political base.
AP: It's about having a kind of . . . we lost our courage politically. This was coming out of the McCarthy period.
CL: Oh yeah.
AP: I think it was an effort to say, you know we have nothing to fear but fear itself. That this kind of trembling and being concerned about the so-called communist menace of that period was nonsense. That's not what the American people were like.
CL: So was that supposed to be what Mickey was really running from? Or was it even bigger than that?
AP: Well, he was running from, what should I say, from allowing other people to have possession of you.
AP: And becoming indebted, someway, not positively, but negatively indebted to something that is really beyond us.
CL: Now there were lots of things we picked up in my classes at Ohio State about language, like the recurrent phrase "Any word from the Lord?" There were many other things in the movie about language. You came on to that film after you had done "The Miracle Worker" about Helen Keller who was trying to learn language.
CL: What was your interpretation of the meaning of language in the film? You have the mute artist in the film, who said nothing, that seemed to be the key, right? What was the key?
AP: I think the key was courage. That's the running message of it. "Yes," not "No."
CL: Say "yes" to the artist's recycled human beings? And "yes" to the artist's recycled machines?
CL: But the police, the Chicago police . . .
AP: (Interrupts) The Chicago fire department . . .
CL: Right (laughs) . . .
[This was an ironic reference to the Chicago police riots that occurred during the 1968 Democratic Convention that took place three years later in downtown Chicago where Penn had filmed the Chicago Fire Department destroying the mute artist's kinetic sculpture in "Mickey One."]
AP: The Chicago firemen put out the flames that were a part of the artist's work of art.
CL: So how do you feel about that film today? Do you think it stands up as one of your best films, because I do.
AP: Well, I'm not sure I do . . . it's a kind of an evaluation. You know it was the movie I wanted to make at the time. And I was fortunate enough to be able to make it.
CL: What has happened to the film?
AP: Well, Columbia Pictures, for whom I made it, hated it.
AP: The minute they saw it . . . and they did nothing about its future, and that's peculiar. But most studios are like that. There's more of a kind of vanity and narcissism among the executives than I ever found among the actors.
CL: So is "Mickey One" still existing? Is there still a print?
AP: Oh, yeah.
CL: Is it on DVD or video?
AP: I don't know if its on DVD but, yes, it's on VHS.
CL: It's on VHS?
CL: Then I want to recommend it to everybody. I think it's a great film. One thing about making it, did you have more freedom making "Mickey One" than you usually did through the studio system?
AP: Yes, that was my idea. They said we want you to make a film for us. I said, I'll tell you what. I'll make a film for you for no more than a million dollars . . .
AP: For the whole cost of the budget, but you may not read the script, you may not tell me who to put in it. And they said O.K. and they made a two picture deal. After "Mickey One" I never made another picture (sic.) for them.
CL: (Laughs again) Well, congratulations on your being honored tonight in Savannah, Georgia . . .
AP: Thank you.
CL: I'm going to go back and look for "Mickey One."
AP: I enjoyed it.
Clay Lowe is co-host of WCBE's "It's Movie Time" and former chair of the Department of Photography and Cinema at The Ohio State University.
"It's Movie Time" streams live on the web at wcbe.org on Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm, EST.