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Stars Over New Haven

For a few hours in September 1969, New Haven was Hollywood East.

I’d like to say, “And New Haven has never been the same since,” but that would be a lie. One thing remains true: New Haven functions as a semi-interesting city, exists at all, only because of Yale. And it was Yale that offered a 40th anniversary look back at the star-filled night in ’69, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to town.


Click for a larger view of the pic


No need to say who is who, right?

The 1969 event was the film’s premiere, attended by the two stars, Paul Newman (bearded and almost hippie-ish above) and Robert Redford, along with Joanne Woodward (bottom right) and Barbra Streisand. Thousands of people lined the street outside the old Roger Sherman/Palace Theater, hoping to catch a glimpse of Hollywood’s glitterati (decades before the phrase was coined). The opening event was captured on film, and some clips from it were shown before the anniversary screening of Butch Cassidy last week. The man responsible for the ’69 premiere, and the subject of the tribute that included the recent screening, was filmmaker George Roy Hill. A Yale graduate, Hill had arranged the New Haven opening as his own tribute to his alma mater.

(Yale tidbit: Newman also graduated from the university, the Drama School, and said after the premiere that he was “the campus drunk who made it.”)

At the anniversary event, scriptwriter William Goldman spoke, saying he was watching Butch Cassidy for only the second time since its release. The creative team of Hill and Goldman represented some of the cinema world’s elite. Hill had made his name directing live TV dramas before moving to Hollywood (and after two stints as a Marine pilot). He made a few movies before his iconic western, but Cassidy was the one that launched him into the stratosphere of filmmaking. He was nominated for an Oscar for that film, and finally won for The Sting, the even-more successful (at the box office, anyway) reuniting of Newman and Redford.

Goldman has written in just about every imaginable genre, always finding success, though he’s best known for his film scripts and two memoirs about life in Hollywood. He won an Oscar for Cassidy and a second for adapting All the President’s Men for the big screen. With Cassidy, it’s claimed, he invented the “buddy pic.” Goldman also shook up the conventions of the Western film. Heroes who run from conflict? Who (spoiler alert, if there’s actually someone who has not seen the film) die in the end? Hill’s direction was just as original, with the montage of photos during the New York sequence – a technique borrowed from documentaries – a contemporary pop song plunked into the middle of a Western, and the freeze-frame and pull-back on the last shot.


The real Butch, bottom right, and some of his gang in one of their nattier moments.

Goldman spent eight years researching the lives of his two heroes and Etta Place, the woman who joined them on some of their adventures. The specially hired posse to track them down, Sundance’s unerring accuracy with a six-shooter, the trip to Bolivia – all true. (Though Goldman, of course, took some license; somehow I doubt every moment of the bicycle scene is from life…) Goldman also offered tidbits about the history of the making of the film. Newman signed on first. He read an early draft of the script and told Goldman to let him know if/when he revised it. Newman, for a time, considered the role of Sundance, with Jack Lemmon (?!) as a possible Butch. Then Steve McQueen was suggested for Sundance, with Newman taking Butch. The deal fell apart, as the respective agents could not agree on billing.

It’s hard to imagine McQueen in either role, delivering the humor or subtle facial gestures Newman and Redford do, and which provide much of the film’s delight. On the whole, it stands up well after 40 years, with the amazing location scenery a huge plus. Less so is Katherine Ross. Goldman raved about her beauty (yes) and her acting (ummm….). She had already made a name for herself in one of the other great ’60s movies, The Graduate. Newman, too, was already an A-list actor before Cassidy. For Redford, the movie shot him off to stardom.

Goldman was effusive about Newman, as both an actor and humanitarian. Of course, Newman’s signature philanthropic effort, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, takes its name from Butch’s gang in the movie. (For more on the ongoing charitable efforts funded by Newman’s Own, Inc., go here.)

The weekend’s tribute to Hill also included a showing of the documentary, The Making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In another bit of history perhaps not widely known, it was the first “Making Of…” film. The work is an award-winner too, having copped an Emmy for Best Television Documentary, and it’s now packaged with the DVD, allowing easy access to a great moment in film history.

[While doing some research for this post, I came across an Internet rumor from earlier this year: Tom Cruise plans to remake Butch and Sundance with him and John Travolta in the lead roles. Sweet Jesus, in the name of the nine Muses and all that is good and true, let this just be a rumor! We still have Hill and Goldman’s film, Newman’s and Redford’s performances, and that’s all we need.]

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