Peter Bogdanovich was an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and director. He died at the start of 2022, taken at 82 years old. He left behind an extraordinary body of work, including his film The Last Picture Show (1971), which earned eight Oscar nominations including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay; What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a major box office success, the third highest-grossing film of 1973, right behind The Godfather and The Poseidon Adventure; and another critical and commercial success Paper Moon (1973), which had four Academy Award nominations. All three of these films are in my Top 20 of All Time.
His other films are a mix of critical and commercial failures, including the horror flick, Targets (1968); Daisy Miller (1974), starring Cybill Shepherd in the title role, based on the 1878 novella of the same title by Henry James; a drama, Saint Jack (1979); and an old-fashioned, misunderstood homage to 1930s movie musicals, At Long Last Love (1981), with 18 songs by Cole Porter, and a cast that includes Burt Reynolds, Shepherd, Kahn, Eileen Brennan, John Hillerman, and Mildred Natwick. In its original release, At Long Last Love was reviled by everyone on the planet except me. Originally considered one of the worst films ever, the critics were so brutal that Bogdanovich printed a bunch of newspaper ads apologizing for making the film. It was hard to find for decades, until a director’s 1979 version was offered by Netflix in 2012, and a “Definitive Director’s Version” was released on Blu-ray in 2013.
I also have a soft spot for the sweet, quirky They All Laughed (1981). It works as a romcom and as a love letter to New York City, plus it has a luminous, breezy performance by Audrey Hepburn, her last in a leading role. It is a favorite film of Wes Anderson, who, in the DVD of the film, says that Bogdanovich claimed Hepburn and Ben Gazzara fell in love and had an affair while shooting Bloodline (1979), and even though the affair only lasted for the duration of the shoot, it inspired the characters they play in They All Laughed.
In a bit of a foot note, Shepard sued Playboy magazine after they published photos of her topless from The Last Picture Show, and as part of the settlement, she was given the rights to the novel Saint Jack, which she had wanted to make into a film after Orson Welles gave her a copy of the novel by Paul Theroux years earlier. It’s an underrated little political thriller with another great performance by Gazzara.
After his girlfriend Dorothy Stratten‘s murder in 1980, Bogdanovich took four years off from filmmaking and wrote a book about her death, The Killing Of The Unicorn (1984). While he was writing the book two films about Stratten’s murder came out, Star 80 (1984), directed and written by Bob Fosse, and Death Of A Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story (1981), a tawdry television movie with Jamie Lee Curtis as Stratten.
Bogdanovich returned to films with Mask (1985), starrung Cher, a critical and commercial success; Noises Off (1992), a woozy comedy of the theatre world featuring Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Nicollette Sheridan, Julie Hagerty, cutie Mark Linn-Baker, with the last performance of bisexual actor Denholm Elliott; a charming musical, The Thing Called Love (1993) with Sandra Bullock, featuring River Phoenix’s final screen performance; and She’s Funny That Way (2014), an affectionate, talent-filled throwback to screwball comedies starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in roles that would have been played by Cary Grand and Rosalind Russell in another era, and with a rollickingly good supporting cast of Bogdanovich regulars.
Sometimes Bogdanovich worked as an actor, his IMBD page lists dozens of credits in films and television. He had major roles in HBO’s The Sopranos and in Orson Welles’s last film The Other Side Of The Wind (2018), which he helped finish and distribute.
Bogdanovich started his career as both a film programmer and as a critic, writing about the movies for Esquire magazine. An important film historian, he produced and directed the documentaries Directed By John Ford (1971) and The Great Buster: A Celebration (2018), and published ten books about filmmaking, which include in-depth interviews with friends Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Bogdanovich’s films and his writings were important influences for many of today’s best filmmakers, especially Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, David O. Russell, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, and Noah Baumbach.
For me, his real masterpiece is The Last Picture Show, starring a young Jeff Bridges, Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, and Cloris Leachman. It is a nearly perfect work, a sad tale of small town America in the 1950s. But really, I am simply crazy for all of his work. Can you tell?
“I was moved by the reviews. The picture seems to have brought a melancholy poetry out of the critics by which I feel quite flattered. All the reviews were strangely personal. I suspect most of the critics are of an age to have grown up at the time of the movie.”
His screwball comedy What’s Up Doc? starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, and with a crazy cast of character actors, is absolute perfection, and was my introduction to the great Madeline Kahn.
Reviewing What’s Up, Doc?, New York magazine’s stinging critic John Simon wrote that Streisand: “looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun…“. The joke was on the acerbic Simon, according to Bogdanovich, the character of stodgy, silly Hugh Simon (played by Kenneth Mars) was based on Simon.
Bogdanovitch reunited with O’Neal for Paper Moon, a comedy that had the actor’s 10-year-old daughter Tatum O’Neal winning an Academy Award, still the youngest person ever to win a competitive Oscar. It also brought a nomination for Kahn. His film about the early days of moviemaking Nickelodeon (1976), also stars the father and daughter O’Neal team, plus it has Burt Reynolds. An underrated movie about making movies, it is based on true stories told to Bogdanovich by silent film directors Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh.
Because Hollywood History is my passion, I also really appreciate The Cat’s Meow (2001), starring Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley, and Jennifer Tilly. It is inspired by the mysterious death of film mogul Thomas H. Ince that occurred onboard William Randolph Hearst‘s yacht during a weekend cruise celebrating Ince’s birthday in 1924. Among those in attendance were Hearst’s longtime companion, movie star Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and actor Margaret Livingston. Seek out this one.
Bogdanovich was so hot in the 1970s, he turned down the chance to direct The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Chinatown. But, Michael Cimino‘s Heaven’s Gate (1980), William Friedkin‘s Cruising (1980), and Francis Ford Coppola‘s One From The Heart (1982), along with They All Laughed, were all big box-office bombs, and lost so much money that they brought an end to the “New Hollywood” period of 1970s director-driven films. After their very public failures, the studios only rarely allowed directors to control the films they finance; Bogdanovich was the end of the line. Francis Ford Coppola released a statement when Bogdanovich died, saying:
“He was a wonderful and great artist. I’ll never forgot attending a premiere for The Last Picture Show. I remember at its end, the audience leaped up all around me bursting into applause lasting easily 15 minutes. I’ll never forget although I felt I had never myself experienced a reaction like that, that Peter and his film deserved it. May he sleep in bliss for eternity, enjoying the thrill of our applause forever.”