Peter Bogdanovich was old-school even when he was new
The remarkable career of Peter Bogdanovich will loom larger with every passing year. Influential film critic and curator at MOMA? Check. Champion of Hollywood directors like Howard Hawks, John Ford and landlord to punchline-turned-legend Orson Welles, back when no one was talking about them? Certainly, with a hat tip to Truffaut. Director of excellent documentaries as well as critical and popular successes like Mask and What’s Up, Doc? Yes, even if he does say so himself. Actor for hire, including a recurring role on the best tv drama of all time, The Sopranos? Oh, it was nothing and you know the cherry on top was spoofing that role on The Simpsons, have you seen it.? Unironic wearer of neckerchiefs? You bet. Oh and one absolute masterpiece to his name, thanks to The Last Picture Show.
Or, everything Peter Bogdanovich did which truly mattered took place over three years from roughly 1970 to 1973 and really a lot of the credit goes to his erstwhile wife and collaborator Polly Platt because look what happened to him when she walked away.
It’s all true.
I lean towards the “only those three years matter” gang and yes, the late Polly Platt truly was amazing. (Director James L. Brooks can tell you that.) The three years and three films that matter are 1971’s The Last Picture Show, 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? and 1973’s Paper Moon. All three are terrific and I can wax rhapsodic about them for hours. Bogdanovich deserved a victory lap for Picture Show in 2021 when it celebrated its 50th anniversary, but COVID.
Now he’s dead at 82. Before I urge you to watch those three films (or watch them again), I must admit the rest of his career is pretty damn impressive too.
Born at peak movie
First, the guy loved movies so much he arranged to be born in 1939, often considered the greatest year in history for movies and particularly the Hollywood studio system. In 1939, we first saw Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Rules Of The Game, The Wizard Of Oz, Gone With The Wind (yeah, yeah), The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, The Hound of The Baskervilles with Basil Rathbone as the definitive Sherlock Holmes, Gunga Din, Love Affair, The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemums, The Roaring Twenties and bouncing baby boy Peter on July 30, two days after the arrival of the sentimental tale Goodbye, Mr. Chips and four days before the over-rated adventure flick The Four Feathers. (The less said about July 29th’s The Cowboy Quarterback, the better, but if you really care….)
When he was a little kid, Bogdanovich began keeping a file of index cards, one for every movie he ever saw, along with his thoughts about it. If he saw a movie again, he added more notes (maybe in different colored ink?) and presumably some flicks like Stagecoach needed two or three index cards to contain all his excited commentary.
It’s an irresistible detail, found in most every profile, but I mention it because it makes me inordinately jealous. I wish to god I’d done the same for every movie I saw (and every book I read, every album I listened to and every tv show I watched). If anyone had suggested this idea to me when I was 12 or 13 or 14, I would have leaped at it. Hell yes, what a GREAT idea!
In his 20s, Bogdanovich wrote insightful pieces on classic Hollywood for Esquire while curating important retrospectives at MOMA. He celebrated the genre-hopping of director Howard Hawks, the myth-making of director John Ford and the all-around genius of Orson Welles. Sure, he seemed slavish at times, a James Lipton-like figure of hero worship. Plus, the neckerchiefs.
Yet an unctuous manner and basso-profundo presence in countess TV specials and documentary films and commentary tracks over the years shouldn’t obscure the importance of his MOMA monographs on Welles, Hawks and Hitchcock; his key 1971 documentary Directed By John Ford; and later collections of essays and interviews like the Esquire compilation Pieces Of Time and Who The Devil Made It. Toss in all his other written work on Allan Dwan, Fritz Lang and others, not to mention the 2018 doc on Buster Keaton and film buffs would be politely celebrating Bogdanovich even if he never made a feature film.
When Bogdanovich pulled a Cahiers du Cinéma and moved to Hollywood with his then-wife Platt, determined to make movies, he did it right. (Oh, like Welles, he began earlier by directing in theater, though nothing as earth-shaking as the Voodoo Macbeth.) A golden ticket to make whatever he wanted at a major studio? Nope, he bumped into schlockmeister Roger Corman, accepted an offer to work on low-rent crap for the experience and readily admitted he learned more in a few months working for Corman than he would ever learn again for the rest of his life.
His apprenticeship? Doing damn near anything on a biker flick with Peter Fonda, an unofficial directorial debut with Voyage To The Planet Of Prehistoric Women and an official debut on Targets, which combines the story of a lunatic kid on a killing spree with Boris Karloff playing a washed-up horror film star sick of on-screen violence. No wonder Quentin Tarantino loved the guy!
Three perfect years
Then came those three perfect years when Bogdanovich could do no wrong (unless you were Polly Platt and saw yourself shunted aside for Cybill Shepherd). Bogdanovich made The Last Picture Show, an elegiac film filled with great performances from veterans like Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman (both won deserved Oscars) as well as newcomers like Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms.
Even his failed projects were blessed. Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry followed up The Last Picture Show in 1971 by writing an original western called Lonesome Dove with plans to cast John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Why not? That fell apart when the old fogeys foolishly passed, with director John Ford maybe an ungrateful spoiler here. After languishing in development hell for years, McMurtry bought back the rights and turned it into a once-in-a-generation best-selling Pulitzer Prize winner and arguably the Great American Novel.
So Bogdanovich turned to What’s Up, Doc?, an ode to screwball comedies, starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. O’Neal became Bogdanovich’s John Wayne, his go-to leading man, and the man was never sexier and more appealing. And Streisand! A protean talent who was naturally funny, Streisand proved perfect in the part of a discombobulating force of nature, half Groucho Marx, half siren. Like Warren Beatty, she soon became trapped by her desire for perfectionism and importance. Here we can see what might have been if she’d loosened up every once in a while, rather than every once in a decade or so.
Finally, he made Paper Moon, a charming Depression-era comic-drama, with O’Neal effortlessly appealing (again) as a shady Bible salesman, paired with his daughter Tatum in another Oscar-winning performance from a Bogdanovich film.
All three films were critically acclaimed and massive box office hits.
Then came the rest of his life.
Bogdanovich proved a punching bag with flops like Daisy Miller, Nickelodeon and the musical At Long Last Love with Burt Reynolds crooning Cole Porter. Welles and Reynolds even mocked the poor guy on national TV back when Reynolds had a side gig guest hosting The Tonight Show whenever Johnny Carson was busy in divorce court.
No one laughed when the director fell for yet another model turned actress named Dorothy Stratten. Oh they laughed at first, until she was brutally murdered after shooting a film with him. Bogdanovich fell into despair, wrote a book about her and then married her sister, which sounds embarrassing and weird except it’s not your life and people can bond over mutual despair and it was the longest-lasting relationship of his life, unless you count movies.
Cue the comeback, which might be 1985’s Mask, with Cher and Eric Stoltz doing good work in a biker flick with heart. It’s certainly not his ill-fated attempt to recapture that Last PIcture Show vibe with a sequel called Texasville. (McMurtry had his own issues with going back to the well too often, so he’s equally to blame.) Bogdanovich’s stint on The Sopranos is really just amusing as stunt casting, the way Tarantino used his voice as a deejay in Kill Bill: Volume 1 because Tarantino was geeky enough to know Bogdanovich did his own voice work as an unseen deejay on Last Picture Show and other flicks. But still, he did recur on a TV show that ranks among the greatest of all time. (Not by me, but that’s another story.)
And great talents can pull that rabbit out of the hat one more time. Look at 2007’s documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream. It’s a four hour film about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. You might say your mother could point a camera at that band in concert and end up with a great film but you’d be wrong. Most concert films suck and Bogdanovich pulled out some great interviews from Petty and who even thought of doing a four hour film about Tom Petty, though it seems obvious in retrospect. So good for him.
True, Bogdanovich never made a film anywhere close to The Last Picture Show in the last 50 years. So what? Not many others did, either. Yep, he did his best work in just a few years. That’s true of most everyone but the unicorns. Mathematicians are done by 30. Athletes are lucky to have a good decade. So are inventors. Businessmen. Hack freelance writers. And yes artists.
So Bogdanovich did all the curating and criticism and hobnobbing and documentaries and movies that really mattered in just about a decade. Yes, and?
Okay, the Old Hollywood cosplay of the neckerchiefs is triggering. It’s so…obvious. And yet at some point it becomes more than homage or a childish desire to ape your elders and simply becomes who you are. Bogdanovich loved old movies and Old Hollywood. He was part of the new wave of New Kids of the Seventies, alongside Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and Hal Ashby and the like. Though really he belongs with fellow throwbacks George Lucas (a producer who briefly thought he was a director) and Steven Spielberg.
Bogdanovich’s three best films are steeped in Old Hollywood. Heck, two of them were shot in black and white. One of them will always appear on lists of the best films of all time, if said list is written by anyone with a clue. So bury him in the neckerchiefs. Unironically. At this point he’d look foolish without it.