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Arthur Penn: Innovation and Collaboration

Jonathan B. Wight

Nat Segaloff is the author of the sparkling new biography, Arthur Penn: American Director (University of Kentucky Press, 2011).  Penn (1922-2010) revolutionized Hollywood in classic movies such as The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, and Little Big Man as well as a score of Broadway hits. 


More than the subject matter of these movies is timely and provocative.  Penn’s directorial approach was innovative, using intuition to bring out hidden meaning from the scripts and nuance from the actors.  To generate creativity, Penn knew that things could not be overly scripted.  If things could not be overly scripted they could not be overly controlled.  If they could not be overly controlled they could not be managed in a hierarchical fashion.  But none of that was deduced, it was discovered through trial and error and happy accident. 

While he wasn’t aware of it, Penn’s managerial style fits the mold of modern stakeholder theory: giving investors a high return, Penn was a generous colleague to actors and made choices for the sake of producing exquisite art.  In many cases Penn took a cut in salary to do a piece his way. 

Most economists—and President Obama—believe that “innovation” is the key to future economic success.  But how many economists understand that innovation is fueled by something other than rational mind?  And that personal sacrifice is often a necessary ingredient?  Creativity can flourish in teams bound by emotional trust.  As on business teams, the emotional connection of actors and director cannot be scripted because it is not mechanical—it is organic.  The economics of innovation is rooted in voluntary cooperation and an ethics of the quest. 

Segaloff developed a close relationship to Penn and his family during the writing of the book.  Consequently, the book provides rich details unavailable from other sources.  The writing is clean and unsentimental, and treats the major experiences of Penn’s life in fascinating essays.

If there is guilt by association, Penn’s career is clouded in some minds by his friendship with Alger Hiss.  But Penn’s life, viewed as a whole, exemplifies that of virtue ethics in the way he treats other people.  Arthur Penn: American Director has rich lessons for the economy of innovation in the 21st century. 


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