Peter Bogdanovich — RIP

In a three-year period Peter Bogdanovich became America’s most successful director, our premier revivalist and expert nostalgist, making it impossible to care about him again. The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc, and Paper Moon earned cumulatively $130 million in Nixon-era money; Ben Johnson and Tatum O’Neal won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and Actress for their respective films. Then Bogdanovich, the subject of envy and loathing and earning some of it with public appearances that were the equivalent of his perfect ascot, thought paramour Cybill Shepherd would be splendid as the titular heroine of Daisy Miller. Suddenly the studio executives whom he’d pissed off the last three years sharpened their teeth when box office was not what they expected from a miniaturist who got lucky during the apogee of film schools and auteurism, plus the collapse of the Hollywood system in which Bogdanovich’s beloved John Ford and Howard Hawks had thrived four decades.

Had Bogdanovich released The Last Picture show in 1967 instead of 1971, his career trajectory would not have changed. The exhumations of moribund genres, I suspect, would have earned plaudits as the concomitant establishment of the MPAA rating system and conservative counter-reaction to dirty hippies occasioned a switch in the moviegoing audience between parents and grandparents remembering How Things Used to Be and the Easy Rider generation. For a time in the early ’70s, as writers as, uh, different as Peter Biskind and Pauline Kael noted, a détente existed between the two: the critical hits were hits, often huge ones, sitting alongside The Poseidon Adventure, the latter the only film besides The Godfather to earn more dough than What’s Up, Doc? in 1972.

Making movies for his fellow cineastes got Bogdanovich just far enough. What was the point? Why watch What’s Up, Doc? when Hawks was at the peak of his film school-era popularity? Barbra Streisand, barely human already and a whiz, was as weirdly epicene as Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, but Ryan O’Neal is a frumpy nothing, an actor whose subtext was melted margarine in a pan. The windswept-broomswept look of The Last Picture Show is as much a character as Timothy Bottoms’ inexpressive palooka, Ellen Burstyn’s predatory bored wife (Bogdanovich stages a lovely scene in which she and daughter Shepherd commiserate over perfume), and Jeff Bridges’ smiling indestructible jock. Jeff Bridges! My god — there he was, fully formed, ready to accept his title as the late 20th century’s most underrated and sexiest major American actor. Bogdanovich saw this. He was good with actors. They trusted him.

How he suffered after the death of model girlfriend Dorothy Stratten is a species of speculation beyond the limits of this blog. In a twist worthy of Melville or James he married Stratten’s twenty-year-old sister Louise in 1988. Unsaid in many reappraisals over the years: the extent to which wife Polly Platt, a production designer of remarkable erudition, contributed to this three hits. Part of the New Hollywood ethos seemed to require the fatuous men around whom this ethos had congealed to behave even more shittily to their female partners and collaborators, as if to show the falsity of feminism or something: think Faye Dunaway at the mercy of Roman Polanski in Chinatown (Jack was cool, Faye had to be mocked), the depredations endured by Maria Schneider on the set of Last Tango in Paris, Eleanor Coppola during Apocalypse Now.

Yet the dialectical wonder of Peter Bogdanovich persisted: his weakness was a strength. Submitting to the exigencies of nostalgia, he lived long enough to watch nostalgia for Peter Bogdanovich become a thing. He played a sort of talking ascot in The Sopranos as Dr. Melfi’s shrink — finally, the gifted mimic had an occasional platform. He published several estimable books of interviews with Von Sternberg, Raoul Walsh, Hawks, Hitchcock, and the other titans who patronized this geeky kid who knew more about their movies than they did. His friendship with Orson Welles resulted in an essential booklength Q&A; Welles needed courtiers around whom he could weave the sundry bits of his self-pity and deserved mythos even when the courtiers were illiterate enough not to understand the pungency of his adaptation of The Trial for a post-McCartney/pre-Vietnam epoch or why Citizen Kane‘s Jed Leland was a principled, well-meaning shit.

Speculating on what will endure in the vaporousness of the streaming era is a mug’s game. His films after the fall are sturdy studiocraft that don’t rely on the mulch of memory: Saint Jack (1978), the amiably weird They All Laughed (1981), Mask (1985), and the sequel to The Last Picture Show called Texasville (1990). Nothing is at stake except giving solid actors, including Shepherd and Jeff Bridges, little bits of rumpled business to perform for the sake of an amiable Saturday-afternoon-on-the-couch experience. That’s the fun. Bogdanovich, oraculating on the wonders of Louis B. Mayer, thrived during an ephemeral capitalistic holiday when directors more extrovertedly nutty acted as a Popular Front marooned in a cocaine hot tub; but, like William Friedkin and Hal Ashby, his sharpest pictures he made at knifepoint. The aging studio execs were right to tolerate the kid. They knew he’d be back.

3 thoughts on “Peter Bogdanovich — RIP

  1. Indeed, or Marcia Lucas who edited “Star Wars” for her soon-to-be-ex-husband George. The dialogue was full of groaners but the editing was pin sharp on that flick.

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