Peter Bogdanovich Ran Hot, Then Cold, Then Just Right

Peter Bogdanovich in 1973

After The Last Picture Show (1971) was nominated for eight Oscars and won two for supporting actors Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, director Peter Bogdanovich, who passed away last week at the age of eighty-two, was offered The Godfather, The Exorcist, The Way We Were, and Chinatown. “I was hot,” he told Andrew Goldman in a blazingly forthright interview that ran at Vulture in 2019.

He stayed hot, too, for a couple of more years, making two more critical and box office hits, What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973). Scandal, a string of flops, and personal tragedy darkened the years that followed, but his reputation rebounded thanks to appearances in films and on television—particularly as the psychiatrist’s psychiatrist Elliot Kupferberg on The Sopranos—and the support of younger filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. With what the New York Times’s Margalit Fox describes as “his soulful basset-hound face, outsize horn-rimmed glasses, and trademark neckerchief,” Bogdanovich became a sought-after raconteur, peppering his onstage anecdotes and DVD commentaries with impressions of the grand old Hollywood personalities he so deeply admired and sought to emulate.

The son of a Serbian painter and an Austrian mother who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1939, Bogdanovich grew up watching movies in Manhattan. At twelve, he started keeping a file of index cards on every film he saw. At sixteen, he began studying acting with the legendary Stella Adler, and at twenty, he directed an off-Broadway production of Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife. By this time, he was already writing about film and interviewing directors for a range of magazines that stretched from the Saturday Evening Post to Cahiers du cinéma.

In 1961, Bogdanovich programmed the first Orson Welles retrospective in the U.S. for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the monograph he wrote for it attracted the attention of Welles himself. The friendship they struck up became a sort of mutually beneficial working partnership, and even though they fell out before Welles died in 1985, Bogdanovich was a driving force behind the completion and release in 2018 of The Other Side of the Wind, the feature Welles began shooting in 1970. John Huston plays an aging Hollywood director aiming to stage a comeback and Bogdanovich narrates and appears as Brooks Otterlake, a young hotshot director very much like himself. For Glenn Kenny at the Decider, this is Bogdanovich’s “most poignant and knowing performance.”

In 1962 and 1963, Bogdanovich oversaw MoMA retrospectives and monographs dedicated to Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, respectively. “These screenings, along with the symbolism of the entry into the museum’s ranks of three of the greatest filmmakers who were also Hollywood directors—and who were still working at the time—were something of a slow-motion coming-out party for the notion of Hollywood as a hotbed of directorial artistry,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody.

Two collections of interviews, one with John Ford and the other with Fritz Lang, appeared in 1967, and Bogdanovich released a third with Allan Dwan in 1970 that is “one of the most stimulating books of film-related interviews I’ve read,” writes Brody. “Bogdanovich’s extended interview with Hitchcock, from 1963, is a more illuminating document than François Truffaut’s celebrated book of interviews with him from the same era.” Ty Burr calls two further collections, Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors (1997) and Who the Hell's in It: Conversations with Hollywood's Legendary Actors (2004), “primary-source histories of the best, most invaluable kind.”

Like Martin Scorsese,Francis Ford Coppola and a good number of other filmmakers associated with the New Hollywood of the 1970s, Bogdanovich first found work as a director with producer Roger Corman. When they met in 1966, Corman was directing The Wild Angels, an outlaw biker movie starring Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, and Diane Ladd. Bogdanovich reworked the screenplay and shot the ending, and as Gregg Kilday and Duane Byrge note in the Hollywood Reporter, The Wild Angels, “which cost about $360,000, grossed $15 million and was Corman’s most successful moneymaker to that point.”

Bogdanovich used a pseudonym, Derek Thomas, on his next project for Corman, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968). “Actually,” wrote the late Ronald Bergan for the Guardian, “all Bogdanovich had to do was film scenes of Mamie Van Doren and other flimsily clad women on the seashore, and splice the new material together with a dubbed and re-edited Russian sci-fi film called Planeta Burg.

Corman then gave Bogdanovich the opportunity to make whatever movie he wanted as long as it cost less than $125,000 and incorporated twenty minutes of footage from The Terror, a 1963 horror movie Corman directed with the uncredited help of Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and Jack Nicholson. The Terror starred Boris Karloff, who still owed Corman two days of work, so Bogdanovich had to cast Karloff as well. Within the parameters of this odd set of ground rules, Bogdanovich was given complete artistic freedom.

He set about brainstorming with his wife, Polly Platt, whom he’d met back in New York when she was a costume designer. Platt, an invaluable partner, eventually became an accomplished production designer, screenwriter, and producer, and Bogdanovich rather ungraciously downplayed her contributions to his films, from Targets through Paper Moon, in that 2019 Vulture interview. For a full appreciation of her work both with and beyond Bogdanovich up through the 1990s, turn to Polly Platt: The Invisible Woman, an outstanding series in Karina Longworth’s podcast, You Must Remember This.

Targets (1968) tells two stories that eventually converge. Shaken by the realization that the world has become far scarier than the old horror movies he has starred in, actor Byron Orlok (Karloff) decides to retire. Young director Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich) persuades him to make one last promotional appearance before leaving Hollywood. Across town, a seemingly mild-mannered insurance agent snaps, murders his family, heads out to a freeway, and begins shooting at people in passing cars. Targets “remains one of the unsung masterpieces of the New Hollywood period,” wrote Matt Singer for the Dissolve in 2013. It’s “a brilliant meditation on the evolution of onscreen horror and one of the most terrifying depictions of gun violence in movie history.”

Accounts vary as to exactly how a New York cinephile transplanted to Hollywood decided to adapt Larry McMurtry’s 1966 semiautobiographical novel about growing up in a tiny, dying town in north Texas in the early 1950s. Welles wanted to play Sam the Lion, who runs the town’s pool hall, café, and movie theater, but Bogdanovich went with Ben Johnson, who was primarily known for his work in John Ford westerns. Cloris Leachman had made an impression in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), but it would be years before she truly broke through on television and in Mel Brooks comedies.

As the three aimless and horny teens at the center of The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich cast two barely experienced actors, Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms, and a model who had never acted before, Cybill Shepherd. When the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release rolled around last fall, Chris Vognar, writing for the Texas Monthly, called it “an indelible Texas movie, a stark, poetic, loose-limbed, and ultimately very sad portrait of lonely Lone Star life . . . Could The Last Picture Show ever be made today, for the big screen, in black and white, with journeyman actors, future stars, and an unproven director, in a tiny Texas town? The question practically answers itself.”

Bogdanovich’s “use of long shots, isolating people in the arid outdoors, depriving them of intimacy, was Fordian,” writes Graham Fuller in the essay that accompanies our release. Cinematographer Robert Surtees “had assisted Gregg Toland early in his career and would have been familiar with his deep-focus work on Ford’s The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath (both 1940), and, of course, on Citizen Kane (1941).” Bogdanovich “made other great films after The Last Picture Show,” writes Tim Grierson for Mel Magazine, “but none this perfect and true.”

If The Last Picture Show was Bogdanovich’s Fordian film, What’s Up, Doc? is Hawksian through and through, an homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s—particularly Bringing Up Baby (1938). Ryan O’Neal, hot off of Love Story (1970), plays a musicologist modeled on Cary Grant’s paleontologist and Barbra Streisand’s Judy pursues him with the dizzying verve that drove Katharine Hepburn’s Susan.

Writing for Little White Lies, Meg Walters notes that an early screening for “Hollywood heavyweights” wasn’t going over all that well until John Cassavetes “suddenly leapt to his feet, shouting, ‘I can’t believe he’s doing this!’ As Bogdanovich later recalled, ‘The place broke up and from then on they loved it.’ What’s Up, Doc? is a breathless flurry of a film, propelled by an increasingly nonsensical plot, and underscored by an unending stream of mile-a-minute dialogue, thrown back and forth between a daffy cast of cartoonish characters. It’s fast-talking, sharp-witted, and, quite frankly, completely wacky.”

With Paper Moon, Bogdanovich returned to black and white and cast O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum—she won an Oscar for her performance, becoming the youngest competitive winner in Academy history—as a pair of grifters roaming Kansas and Missouri during the Great Depression. Writing at the Ringer, Adam Nayman finds that “every moment feels familiar yet bereft of cliché; Bogdanovich didn’t just know how the comic mechanisms worked, but also how to keep them purring just below the surface.”

While making The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich fell in love with Cybill Shepherd and eventually left Platt and their two daughters. When he cast Shepherd in Daisy Miller (1974), based on Henry James’s 1878 novella, critics were ready to pounce. “I’ve seen pictures of us,” Bogdanovich told Andrew Goldman. “I look like an arrogant, attractive guy, and she looks like a sexy girl. And we were rich and we were famous and we did movies together.” In his terrific Bogdanovich appreciation at Wellesnet, Joseph McBride writes that he has “always admired his 1975 film maudit At Long Last Love, a beautifully crafted, daringly conceived homage to Ernst Lubitsch. The widespread critical derision paid to it was largely due to Peter’s mistaken decision to cast Shepherd as a leading character in a musical, even though her talents are limited to singing and not dancing or acting.”

Bogdanovich and Shepherd were flaunting their affair on magazine covers, but their movies were losing money, and the knives were out. “It isn’t true that Hollywood is a bitter place, divided by hatred, greed, and jealousy” Billy Wilder famously said. “All it takes to bring the community together is a flop by Peter Bogdanovich.” In 2002, Bogdanovich told David Thomson that he’d had it coming. “I asked for it. Success is very hard. Nobody prepares you for it. You think you’re infallible. You pretend you know more than you do. Pride goeth before the fall.’”

Drawing on stories Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh had told him about making movies during the silent era, Bogdanovich made Nickelodeon (1976), which reunited him with Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as well as with Burt Reynolds, who had starred in At Long Last Love. It was the director’s third box office flop in a row. Four years went by before he made his next film, perhaps the most unusual of his career. Shot entirely on location in Singapore—and in secret—Saint Jack (1979) stars Ben Gazzara as an American who aims to make a fortune by opening a brothel. Ben Slater told the story of the making of Saint Jack in his 2006 book Kinda Hot, and it’s a cracking good read.

Looking back on his interviews with Bogdanovich at IndieWire, Bill Desowitz recalls that “Peter singled out They All Laughed [1981], the romcom with John Ritter, Dorothy Stratten, Gazzara, and Audrey Hepburn, as his best picture” and that “he had the time of his life making the romance in the vein of Hawks’s To Have and Have Not.” Bogdanovich was deeply in love with Stratten, a Playboy model whose husband murdered her before killing himself shortly after the film wrapped shooting.

As if to compound Bogdanovich’s emotional devastation, 20th Century Fox refused to release They All Laughed after it scored poorly with test audiences. “It was a nightmare,” Bogdanovich told Alex Ross Perry in 2012. “Dorothy was murdered and I went crazy. I decided I would buy the film back from Fox, and I lost my shirt distributing it myself, which was insanity. Unfortunately, nobody stopped me.” He declared bankruptcy in 1985.

That same year, Mask premiered in competition in Cannes, where Cher won the award for best actress. She and her director clashed, but Mask won over the critics and, for the first time in a long while for Bogdanovich, audiences as well. While he carried on making features, Bogdanovich spent much of the 1990s directing for television. To Sir, with Love II (1996), starring the late Sidney Poitier, and A Saintly Switch (1999) “were not masterpieces,” writes Peter Tonguette, the author of Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations with the New Hollywood Director (2020), “but they were staged and shot and directed with the intelligence and sensitivity of someone who had seen every minor work by Allan Dwan.”

Throughout his career, Bogdanovich “kept his film grammar at an inspired and eloquent meat-and-potatoes level, never really going in for elaborate camera moves or unusual angles,” writes Glenn Kenny. Screenwriter Howard A. Rodman recalls watching Bogdanovich at work on a half-hour episode of Fallen Angels in 1995. “He was tireless, no wasted motion, each move, each set-up an incarnation of certainty and grace,” writes Rodman. “It was, no exaggeration, like watching Astaire on a staircase. For all of his failings, his obsessions, his pretensions, Peter Bogdanovich was that rarity, a man wholly of cinema.”

If you’re looking to sample the depth and breadth of Bogdanovich’s cinephilia, there’s plenty to explore on the Criterion Channel. In 1963, and then again in 1972, he spoke with Hitchcock about his early years as an up-and-coming director. In another audio excerpt, Bogdanovich asked Welles about the making of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and in 2006, he took part in a video introduction to our box set collecting the many versions of Mr. Arkadin (1955). In 1989, Bogdanovich recorded a commentary track for Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), and in 2003, he spoke on camera for a special supplement to our release of French Cancan (1955). Ten years later, when Frances Ha was released, Bogdanovich asked Noah Baumbach about shooting not only his first digital feature but also his first in black and white.

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

You have no items in your shopping cart