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The Connection to Old Hollywood: Peter Bogdanovich (1939-2022)

“You have written the truest thing ever published about me ... in English.” Those were the words that started Peter Bogdanovich’s life. They made him a world-renowned author and storyteller, a writer and director, a highly sought actor, a magnet for tragedy, and the last link to Old Hollywood. All of it really started with that phone call. He’d grown up the son of a painter and a reserved Jewish mother in Kingston, NY, a part of the world that’s now the home of independent film production. Movies were his escape. His parents had escaped more than their fair share of tragedy, fleeing the former Yugoslavia before the Second World War broke out. His mother was pregnant on the boat over. They were deep in mourning. Bogdanovich’s elder sibling had died just before they fled. He’d been killed in an accident and his mother never got over it. He asked her about it, and she froze up. She wasn’t a very warm person to him, if never uncaring. He studied acting in the Stella Adler Studio after a high school career on the stage and realized something about the actors and directors he so admired: if you ask them questions, they’ll tell you their life stories. Some of them anyway.

Bogdanovich was going to be an actor and theatre director but then hit upon his real passion: learning about Old Hollywood. He wrote about and interviewed everybody. Allan Dwan, Cary Grant, Don Siegel, Leo McCarey, Otto Preminger, Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, John Ford—if they carried a camera or stood in front of one, young Peter tracked them down. Later these would form the spine of two volumes, Who the Devil Made It and Who the Hell’s in It? If you want a look into Bogdanovich’s style as a raconteur and thinker, you could do worse than the magnificently self-aggrandizing opening of the former book. “Early in the summer of 1996—exactly 101 years after the first movies were exhibited—Warren Beatty and I were standing around on the lawn of Henry Jaglom’s Santa Monica home watching a bunch of young children at a birthday party; we were talking about some of the big chances in the picture business since we had come into it in the late fifties and early sixties. 'A lotta things don’t seem to count anymore,' Warren was saying. 'John Ford? Who’s he? What? Elia Kazan?'” He comes across like a far more gifted Dick Cavett. A man born to drop names.

It was in his initial period as a critic and theatrical hand that the phone rang and from the receiver came the unmistakable voice of The Shadow. Orson Welles had read the young critic’s latest monograph about the director of “Citizen Kane” and just had to meet him. Welles and Bogdanovich had no way of knowing how much their destinies would intertwine. They met for a few lunches, which turned into years of lunches, cohabitation, co-dependency, a book of their conversations, advising on each other’s movies and falling out magnificently. First, he was just another of Bogdanovich’s Hollywood gets.

It may be overly tidy to suggest that what he was after was approval and openness the likes of which he never got from his mother, but little else but desperation explains why he, for instance, interviewed John Ford so many times despite the man’s intense dislike of being interviewed. He wrote books on Ford, interviewed him on camera in monument valley to make a documentary (“Directed by John Ford”) in 1971 in which he hardly says anything. He chased male approval and was always fascinated by it but removed from the female presences in his life. Andrew Goldman asked him about directing actresses in 2019 and his answer is more telling than perhaps he realized. “Well, I like women. I don’t know if I’m particularly good at women.” If Ford was the distant mother that he couldn’t help but try to please, Welles was the ne’er-do-well divorced father. He enabled Peter and gave him the best career advice. He knew it was the best because it was advice that he himself had needed and never received when he was blazing his own trail as a former theatre kid-cum-filmmaker in the studio system, which Bogdanovich became. Before Welles own eyes he saw his biggest fan become him.

Someone this invested in Hollywood lore couldn’t stay off a film set for very long. In the mid-‘60s, he and his wife Polly Platt moved to Los Angeles and it wasn’t very long before he was writing biker pictures for Roger Corman and hanging out on set. Corman of course had a keen business sense and talent always seemed to find him, so he would put money in their pocket and give them their start. So, after Bogdanovich helped write “The Wild Angels” and re-edited “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women,” Corman offered him a deal. A little money, two days with Boris Karloff (the Frankenstein star was still under contract to the enterprising producer for exactly that long), and footage from the misbegotten Corman oddity “The Terror.” Peter and Polly brainstormed a work around to these impossible conditions: what if Karloff was playing himself? In town to promote an anniversary drive-in screening of “The Terror,” he has to face real evil in the form of a lunatic sniper. The resulting film, “Targets,” is still bracing and terrifying to this day.

Around this time, Platt became obsessed with (and later inseparable friends with) Larry McMurtry, whose novel The Last Picture Show had become a minor sensation. It chronicles the lives of two male friends who share adventures, women, and vastly different fortunes in a dusty Texas town called Thalia (renamed Anarene in the book and based on McMurtry’s hometown of Archer on the Oklahoma Texas border). Sal Mineo, a friend of Platt and Bogdanovich, gave her a copy of the book with regrets that he was too old to play either of the leads. After Platt convinced Bogdanovich to make it, Welles read it and said that anyone who plays the character Sam the Lion, the steward of the dying Texas town, would win an Oscar. Bogdanovich heard him, knew what he was asking, and cast Ben Johnson in the part. He won the Oscar. He and Welles were never quite the same. Neither were he and Platt. He started dating his ingenue Cybill Shepherd (a model whom Platt had discovered on a magazine cover) on set and their marriage was over by the time the film debuted. If you haven’t, you must listen to Karina Longworth’s indispensable series on Platt’s life.

Enough good cannot be said about “The Last Picture Show,” even after 50 years of life as a modern classic. If New Hollywood properly starts with Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn’s anachronistic two-fers “Mickey One” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Last Picture Show” was the film that convinced even studio hands that these mangy long hairs weren’t just upstarts obsessed with sex and violence. It was as if John Ford had leapt through time from his ‘20s pictures to the ‘70s. It’s still heartbreaking. Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd make for fantastic foils to the dead-end older generation, gorgeous demigods being watched by their jealous and attention-starved elders (Clu Gulager and Ellen Burstyn in particular impress). But the heart of the film is Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman. Bottoms plays an inarticulate go nowhere kid without dreams whose coach sends him on an errand one day to take his wife (Leachman) to an appointment. Without warning she breaks down in front of him and starts confessing things. Things she’s never told anyone. Before long they’re sleeping together. Their relationship is one of the most incredible components of any ‘70s film, tragic and aching and splendidly performed. Leachman won an Oscar for her work. Bottoms was never quite as good again.

During this period Bogdanovich agreed to play a thinly veiled version of himself in Welles’ final film “The Other Side of the Wind.” The portraiture Welles makes of him isn’t the kindest thing in the world. Bogdanovich’s Brooks Otterlake is the flip side of the Bogdanovich image, the janus face of the public intellectual, Hollywood scholar, and upstart genius. This was the Bogdanovich only his closest friends knew. It was a peek behind a curtain, even if many people had already gathered how Welles felt about his one-time protege. Bogdanovich always spoke effusively of Welles but there was no denying that they were too alike to stay friends. Bogdanovich would become Welles, politely kicked out of board rooms and film sets by the powers that be, soon enough.

Bogdanovich’s next film, the old-fashioned screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” was a smash. Barbra Streisand and her then-boyfriend Ryan O’Neal play star-crossed lovers who find themselves at the center of a comic conspiracy involving swapped bags. It was Bogdanovich’s cover of a Howard Hawks comedy like “Bringing Up Baby.” The film is pretty delightful in every aspect, but Madeline Kahn walks away with the picture as O’Neal’s fiancé, given her first proper star showcase. Platt designed the production as she had for his previous two films and they would reunite on one more film, “Paper Moon,” which was as much her baby as Peter’s. She suggested the script for him and suggested Tatum O’Neal as the young star opposite her father. The film is as funny as it is affecting, Ryan O’Neal’s sputtering con man constantly undone by his daughter’s brashness.

William Friedkin tells a story in his biography about him in a limousine with Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola, popping champagne and screaming about their accomplishments. Nothing could stop them now! Except of course everything. They were going to collaborate on a new venture called The Director’s Company, which had a hand in “Paper Moon,” and which produced Bogdanovich’s new film “Daisy Miller,” starring Cybill Shepherd in the title role. The film was a flop, and though it’s certainly charming and has many of Bogdanovich’s exquisiteness in directing actors, it was too much and too little for most. The Director’s company folded (though they had a minor hit with Coppola’s Palm d’Or winning “The Conversation”) and Bogdanovich’s losing streak started.

He made a musical called “At Long Last Love” with live singing starring Shepherd, Kahn, and Burt Reynolds that flopped despite the fact that it’s hugely charming. “Nickelodeon” followed, reuniting Ryan and Tatum O’Neal on screen and also starring Reynolds, charting the development of a silent film repertory company. Hard up after three failures he went back to Roger Corman for the funding to make “Saint Jack,” based on a book whose rights Cybill Shepherd had won in a lawsuit against Playboy (Hugh Hefner is credited as producer on the film). It tells the story of a benevolent pimp played by Ben Gazzara living in Singapore. Corman couldn’t quite get the film the release it should have had (in Bogdanovich’s eyes) so it faded from view despite a few stellar notices.

Up next for Bogdanovich was “They All Laughed,” his version of an Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges comedy. It was going to be just another throwback for the beleaguered director, but the budget ballooned to nearly 10 million dollars, thanks in part to the huge cast which included Audrey Hepburn and Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten. Stratten’s story, girl who came from a little suburban town to take the world by storm, touched the director nearly as much as her otherworldly pulchritude. She and Bogdanovich started seeing each other on set, which enraged her husband. Deranged with jealousy and his own inferiority complex he murdered Stratten and then killed himself. The shock was awful, the press made it worse. Bogdanovich’s family, including his two children with Platt, were hounded by tabloids who wanted the scoop on the death of a centerfold. The incident inspired two movies; one “Star 80,” directed by Bob Fosse, which so maddened Bogdanovich that the two never spoke again. “They All Laughed” was forgotten in the furor over the crime and Bogdanovich filed for bankruptcy. He then invited Dorothy’s younger sister Louise and her parents to live with him, and he married her at age 20 in 1988.

Bogdanovich, depressed but broke, wasn’t looking to keep making films but had no choice. So he took a look at a bad script about a real boy named Rocky Dennis who had suffered craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, which altered the shape of his face. He remembered walking through New York with Dorothy Stratten and how everyone stopped to look at her. He realized at once what a lonely experience that was, to have everyone stare at you and nobody want to know you for who you are. He worked hard with writer Anna Hamilton Phelan to get the film into good shape and scored a coup when Bruce Springsteen gave him the rights to his music for the film. The studio hacked “Mask” up without his permission and replaced The Boss with Bob Seger, so the film wasn’t received as well as he would have liked but it did keep his creditors at bay, becoming a huge smash and earning near 50 million against its eight-million-dollar budget. It’s a gorgeous film, daringly earnest. It’s also a return to the milieu of biker culture, which he’d last stepped inside making “Wild Angels” for Corman, and had a nice supporting role for Ford’s favorite bit player Harry Carey, Jr. That same year his old friend and benefactor, his confidant and mentor, Orson Welles died. The past and present were constantly at war inside Bogdanovich. Hollywood seemed to be working out its image and embattled historical issues in his personal life.

Bogdanovich took a minute to dust himself off but returned with a string of hugely enjoyable failures. “Illegally Yours,” “Texasville,” “Noises Off,” and “The Thing Called Love” all underperformed, but they’re all good. “Texasville” in particular is magnificent, best viewed in a BETA copy of the director’s cut passed around on the grey market. Just as all his pals were returning to nostalgia, Bogdanovich returned to his biggest hit, but no one was interested.

He moved to television and books afterwards, directing “To Sir, With Love 2” with Sidney Poitier for CBS and an episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” among others. He started releasing and re-releasing his books and old interviews and monographs, racking up an impressive collection of invaluable records of old Hollywood. He started showing up as an interview subject in hundreds of documentaries about filmmaking history and started acting more. Most famously he took the role of Dr. Melfi’s (Lorraine Bracco) therapist Elliot Kupferberg on “The Sopranos,” leaning hard into the ascot wearing aesthete image he’d cultivated all his life.

He was helped into his elder statesmen years as directors like Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Sofia Coppola all started citing him as an influence. The image of Bogdanovich in a chair, meaningfully waxing about the legends of stage and screen, is perhaps the enduring one, more so than the tyrant on horseback or the romantically troubled artist.

In 2001, he divorced Louise Stratten (though they stayed close) and directed his penultimate film for theaters, the deeply charming Art Deco murder mystery “The Cat’s Meow,” about a real life incident of homicide on William Randolph Heart’s yacht (his final bit of revenge on the man on whom Welles had supposedly based his antihero in “Citizen Kane”). He’d direct once more for the big screen (he kept making documentaries, one on Tom Petty, one on Buster Keaton, etc.), 2014’s polarizing “She’s Funny That Way,” produced by Baumbach and Anderson, and based loosely on his own experiences.

Bogdanovich used to call himself a young man in an old man’s business, but he was never really young. He was stuck in the ‘30s, imagining himself next to studio hands like Ford, Hawks, and Dwan, just to the right as they called action. His direction perfectly split the difference between where American dramatic films were going and where they’d been. No one could have done what Bogdanovich did before he did it, and no one will ever do it again. 

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a critic and filmmaker who writes for and edits the arts blog Apocalypse Now and directs both feature length and short films.

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