From Auteur, to Outsider, to Keeper of the Flame: The Career of Peter Bogdanovich

Has any director had a greater three-film run than Peter Bogdanovich had from 1971-1973? After cutting his teeth on the Roger Corman production Targets – a suspense flick about a disturbed Vietnam vet turned mass murdering sniper who comes into contact with an over-the-hill horror actor played by Boris Karloff – Bogdanovich switched modes and tried his hand at documentary, delivering one of the best film docs ever, Directed by John Ford.,covering the career of the venerable filmmaker, John Ford.

From there, Bogdanovich quickly graduated to masterpiece territory with the landmark film, The Last Picture Show.

While that film about a dying Texas town may have taken place in the southwest, it has always resonated deeply with this Kentucky-born writer. If you grew up in towns that were, at best, a pass-through on the way to someplace better, this story of sad, fading adults and teenagers wishing they had something to rebel against beyond their failed elders, you could recognize something of your life in theirs.

Cloris Leachman’s heartbroken forgotten wife, who was all but a widow, Timothy Bottoms as her far too young paramour, the wondrously beautiful (and cruel) Cybill Shepherd, her clueless, handsome boyfriend played by Jeff Bridges, and the broken down cowboy depicted by Ben Johnson were archetypes for the lost. People who were being swallowed by a town already small, but shrinking fast.

Filmed in gorgeous black and white, The Last Picture Show is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen, and it immediately catapulted Bogdanovich to the forefront of the ‘70s auteurs, which included the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, DePalma, and the grossly underrated Hal Ashby.

As if to say, “I can do anything – watch me,” Bogdanovich followed up that rueful, haunting masterpiece with, of all things, a screwball comedy called What’s Up Doc?, starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. The somewhat convoluted plot (from a screenplay by the great Buck Henry) involves a mix-up of identical bags that results in precious jewels and top secret government documents ending up in the wrong hands.

All of that is just what Hitchcock might call “the Macguffin” – the thing you think the movie is about, but really isn’t. The caper that sets up the hijinks is just a platform for the hysterical, crackerjack paced comedic skills of O’Neal and, to my mind, a never better Barbra. If Bogdanovich drew inspiration from John Ford for The Last Picture show, here he was channeling Howard Hawks (particularly Hawks’ work with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn), and to marvelous effect. I suppose there have been attempts since What’s Up Doc? to make this sort of movie, but they are hard to think of in general and impossible to come up with in comparison. What’s Up Doc? was truly the last of its kind.

Just one year later, Bogdanovich completed his trio of classics with the depression era con-man road movie, Paper Moon. Reteaming with Ryan O’Neal as a two-bit hustler paired with a young girl who may or may not be his daughter (played by O’Neal’s own daughter Tatum in an all-time great child performance), Paper Moon (also sumptuously shot in black and white) called up the spirit of the great William Wyler. Like Wyler, Bogdanovich deftly switched tones from comedy to drama without showing a seam.

Like The Last Picture Show and What’s Up Doc before it, Paper Moon was a major success with critics and filmgoers. The movie world was at Peter Bogdanovich’s feet.

And then he slipped.

Casting then girlfriend Cybill Shepherd in back to back films (Daisy Miller – based on the Henry James novella, and At Long Last Love – a musical comedy co-starring Burt Reynolds) proved to be folly, as Shepherd was badly miscast in both films. The two films proved to be massive flops with critics and audiences alike. Bogdanovich’s follow up to those twin disasters was Nickelodeon, an ode to the early days of film starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal along with Burt Reynolds, was met with a shrug. As good as 1971-73 had been to him, the three years that followed could have scarcely been worse.

Bogdanovich would take three years off before returning to filmmaking, this time with the fine character study, Saint Jack, produced on a shoe-string budget by old friend Roger Corman. Starring Ben Gazzarra (never better) as an American running a brothel in Singapore, Saint Jack did not find a large audience, but it’s cult status is well-deserved. While the film may not have crested the heights of Picture Show, Doc, or Paper Moon, but it did prove that Bogdanovich could still make a good movie.

Sadly, Bogdanovich was not able to capitalize on the critical success of Saint Jack. His next film, the 1981 romantic comedy They All Laughed, starring Gazzara and Audrey Hepburn was shelved by the studio for an entire year before being given a paltry release and quickly fading from view. Critics were dismissive, but over the years, They All Laughed has been reevaluated as a lovely light comedy that deserved better.

As dark as this time might have been for Bogdanovich career-wise, the personal tragedy that would follow would be life-shattering. Bogdanovich began dating former playmate Dorothy Stratten while filming They All Laughed, in which Stratten had a supporting role. Stratten was lured back to her previous home by her estranged husband and manager, Paul Schneider, who promptly murdered her and killed himself as well (Bob Fosse’s biopic on Stratten, Star 80 deserves a reappreciation of its own).

Shaken to his core, Bogdanovich retreated from the limelight before returning with the family drama Mask in 1985. Starring Cher, Sam Elliot, a young Laura Dern, and Eric Stoltz under heavy makeup, Mask could have simply been a disease-of-the-week film about a disfigured (due to craniodiaphyseal dysplasia) boy and his resilient mother’s attempt to give him as normal a life as possible. Under Bogdanovich’s sure hand, Mask turned out to be something much more. It’s a moving study of a woman and her son, as well as a fascinating study of biker culture that avoids all the obvious clichés. And for what it’s worth, Bob Seger’s music was never so well-used on film before or since.

Unfortunately, Mask would be Bogdanovich’s last movie as a major filmmaker.

From 1988 to 1993, Bogdanovich made four films: the practically straight to video Rob Lowe romcom Illegally Yours, Texasville – a misguided sequel to The Last Picture Show, a (somewhat underrated) film version of the hit play Noises Off, and the country music drama The Thing Called Love – mostly notable for being the last completed film starring River Phoenix. All four of these films came and went without notice, and Bogdanovich was effectively put in movie jail – relegated to largely nondescript work on television for the next five years.

In 2001, Bogdanovich scored a minor bounce back with The Cat’s Meow, starring Kirsten Dunst and Cary Elwes, based loosely on the true story of a 1924 murder on a yacht owned by William Randolph Hearst. Despite respectable reviews, the film went largely unseen by moviegoers and it would be another thirteen years before Bogdanovich would make another feature film, She’s Funny That Way, starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. It would be his last theatrical release.

Bogdanovich’s finest hour as a filmmaker in the latter years of his career would find him returning to documentary, with his four-hour and nineteen minute film covering the career of Tom Petty, Runnin’ Down A Dream. It’s a remarkable, breathtaking, comprehensive look at one of the finest rock-and-roll songwriters in music history. The precision and assembly of the film is a sight to behold. It’s hard to imagine anyone even thinking of doing a stem to stern doc on Perry’s career after Runnin’ Down A Dream. What would even be the point?

Just four years ago, Bogdanovich produced his final film from the director’s chair. Returning to his film historian roots, Bogdanovich delivered the lovely documentary The Great Buster, on the life and career of silent film legend Buster Keaton.

In between his intermittent work as a director, Bogdanovich was an occasional actor (most notably on The Sopranos) and a fervent advocate of film preservation. He could often be seen as a contributor to any number of documentaries or DVD commentaries on legendary films and their performers.

While it’s hard not to believe that Bogdanovich’s heart was broken many times by the film industry, it never stole from him the love of the medium. Late in his life he reached a sort of emeritus state. He became the guy people who really loved film wanted to talk to for not only his personal experience, but his erudite understanding of film and its history.

However starcrossed Peter Bogdanovich’s career may have been, his overall contribution to the art form he spent his life giving to (even when it didn’t give back) is enormous. With his passing, a link in the chain that connected old Hollywood to the auteur era has been broken.

Peter Bogdanovich died yesterday, he was 82 years old.

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