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Ballad of Narayama

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Interview Peter Bogdanovich

Did I see that TV documentary about John Ford? Yeah, I saw it." Peter Bogdanovich looked slightly nauseated. "Did I ever see it! Say I disliked it very much. No. Say I loathed it."

Bogdanovich looked as if he were telling the truth. He had reason to. He spent the last two and a half years trying to launch an American Film Institute documentary about John Ford. And launch it he did, finally, with his excellent critical film, "Directed by John Ford," a selection at this year's New York Film Festival.

We worked for next to no money," he said. "Our film cost $50,000, the CBS film cost $350,000. We had to beg for film clips, because we couldn't pay. We had very tenuous rights to some of the clips we did use. We had to promise the film would never be shown theatrically. Then, after we had been working all this time, Ford's grandson gets the idea of doing a TV documentary.

What they did was a spin-off from my idea. And all their critical ideas were taken from my book about John Ford. We were distressed, needless to say, but there was nothing we could do because Ford was involved.

"If it had been a good documentary, I would have been envious. But it was so bad...well, my friend Larry McMurtry said that if he wasn't already familiar with John Ford's films, the documentary would have made him want to avoid them. It was so mediocre, it was a disservice to Ford.

"And they did just what we did, they had interviews with the same three stars Fonda, Stewart and Wayne - only our stuff was informal, shirtsleeve footage. Their stuff was a kind of premature eulogy. And it's so important that people know what a great artist John Ford is."

Bogdanovich's remark recalled something else he once said - that all of the good films have already been made.

"Yeah, that was actually a line in my film 'Targets'," he said. "I didn't mean there won't be any more good movies, but that all of the movies I love have already been made."

And so maybe that is why, in a roundabout sort of way, his new film is named "The Last Picture Show." It is based on the novel by Larry McMurtry (who also wrote "Hud"), it is shot in lonely black-and-white in a small West Texas town, and there are those who think it is the best movie of the year.

"We had to use black and white," he said. "Color made the town look too...pretty, I guess. And one of the things in the back of my mind was the hope that maybe we could help break that silly taboo against black and white. A lot of pictures shouldn't be shot in color. 'John Schlesinger wanted to shoot 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday' in black and white, but they wouldn't let him. Orson Welles told me once that all the great performances have been in black and white. That is almost literally the truth. There's something mysterious and enriching about black and white. Color is too realistic."

A film critic before he became a director, Bogdanovich is still working on a major project, a "definitive" book about Welles. He is not very high on the most recent work about Welles, Pauline Kael's "The Citizen Kane Book."

"Pauline is a good writer but she's not a good reporter. She never interviewed Orson or anybody who worked on the picture. I talked not long ago with Orson's secretary, and all she said was, If Orson Welles didn't write 'Citizen Kane,' then what was all that stuff I was typing?

"But Pauline was concerned with giving all the writing credit to Herman Mankiewicz, because she wanted to make some kind of counterattack against the auteur critics. Orson was her scapegoat in her war against Andrew Sarris and the other auteurists. But she really should have done a better job of researching. Orson is very upset, but how can he answer? What can be say?"

Whatever he says, he will doubtless say it in Bogdanovich's book. Other projects at the moment, Bogdanovich said, include a monthly column on Hollywood for Esquire, updating his monographs on Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock for book publication and doing a book on Raoul Walsh.

He has just finished directing "What's Up, Doc?," which he describes as a socially insignificant screwball comedy starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal.

"Barbra saw 'The Last Picture Show' and liked it, and she was looking for a picture to do at Warner Brothers. I wanted to work at Warner's - there are so many ghosts there, more ghosts than at any studio, except maybe Paramount - and I suggested a three-sentence outline that eventually became 'What's Up, Doc?.' Barbra is sensational in it, of course, and I think a lot of people will be surprised by Ryan. He does a sort of Cary Grant kind of performance, pratfalls with a straight face."

I was wondering how Bogdanovich settled on Ben Johnson, John Wayne's sidekick in countless Westerns, for the lead in "The Last Picture Show."

"Well...he has a kind of integrity, a personal strength, that I liked. I had seen him in dozens of movies, of course, and I had a chance to meet him several years ago when I visited the set of Ford's 'Cheyenne Autumn.' I wanted him to take the role, but he kept stalling. He kept saying there were too many words in the role. He didn't like roles with words.

"Finally I got Ford to call him, and Ford told him to get the hell out of his rut and try something different. So finally Ben came around. But he was dead-set against rehearsals. I said we were going to get together to just sort of read through the lines. Well, that was okay with him.

"When we got together, he didn't even look at his script. He already knew every line. I swear to God I could have shot his performance right there. It was perfect. I kidded him a little about not liking lots of words, and he said, 'Well, Pete, I don't read too good, and I was a little embarrassed to have to read in front of people, so I just went ahead and learned the god-damned thing.'

"Ben wears his hair slicked down flat. I wanted a different look, and I asked him how his hair looks after a shower, before he puts stuff on it. He told me, 'Pete, it looks like I smelled a wolf.'"

Bogdanovich smiled. "Isn't that a great line?" he said. I put it in the picture."

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