Peter Bogdanovich: the last picture showman
What’s up, Pete? The quintessential movie brat is still directing ’em, but that old Hollywood magic is long gone: ‘Things have gone downhill since the end of the 1970s. This focus on the top 10 grossers and the first weekend is all new’
Peter Bogdanovich, a man who knows how to wear a cravat, is among cinema’s great talkers. He is famous for directing nostalgic masterpieces from the early 1970s such as The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. But he was also magnificent at drawing out older geniuses such as John Ford and Orson Welles for searching documentaries and exhaustive books. So, Bogdanovich knows what we expect of him. And he delivers.
Ask Bogdanovich what’s changed since he and the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby changed US cinema in that post-classical era and he delivers a perfectly modulated cinematic essay.
“The quality of the movies,” he answers in his educated drawl.
I take it he’s not saying they’ve got better? “That’s right. I think things have gone downhill since the end of the 1970s. There are always good movies, but they are few and far between. This focus on the top 10 grossers and the first weekend is all new. We opened The Last Picture Show in one theatre. It played there for months. Then we did the same thing in LA. I liked that.”
Bogdanovich supports the popular notion that all this changed forever with the release of Jaws in summer 1975. Jaws opened simultaneously all over the US. It made a fortune. An era of invention within the mainstream was over.
“Then you had James Cameron making Titanic,” he says with a sigh that sounds as if it has been drawn all the way down from his expensive shoes. “Everyone was saying: ‘He’s spending too much money. It’s his folly.’ It was a big hit. Now they’re all spending $150 million.”
If we are in the business of moaning about “young people today” (and why shouldn’t we?), we should also mention the decline of cineliteracy. When Bogdanovich was a young man, it was common for any moderately well-educated person to know their Preston Sturges from their Ernst Lubitsch.
Bogdanovich’s latest film, a slightly unhinged comedy called She’s Funny That Way, makes specific reference to Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946) in a key snatch of dialogue. Does he expect people to notice that wink?
“No,” he says, with a wry laugh. “I don’t really expect that any more. I try to make the film work on its own without you having to know too much. I didn’t announce it as a ‘screwball comedy’, but it’s been called that. I guess younger people don’t even know what that is.”
Nobody would have needed to explain the term to the teenage Peter Bogdanovich. Raised in New York State by a Serbian father and an Austrian mother, the future film-maker studied acting under the great Stella Adler and spent some time directing plays on Broadway. He readily admits, however, that all this was just a way of manoeuvring himself behind the camera.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Bogdanovich got his big break working for brainy schlockmeister Roger Corman before finessing his way into a mainstream career.
“The studio system fell apart in 1962 or 1963,” he says. “I date it from the time they killed off Bugs Bunny. When Warner stopped making cartoons, that was the end of it. What’s Hollywood without Bugs Bunny?”
The end of the system did, however, allow younger, more experimental directors to break through. Bogdanovich sits uncomfortably among those who created the new cinema. He profited from the loosening of convention, but he was, more than any of his contemporaries, devoted to classical Hollywood. The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon were both in black and white, for heaven’s sake.
“I always said that the easiest way to direct a picture back then was never to have directed one,” he laughs. “The studios were grasping at straws. They thought, maybe these younger guys know something. Then Jaws came out and then Star Wars. They thought, this is the way to make pictures. You set out to make pictures that can be top-10 hits.”
The old masters
When Bogdanovich was on the way up, he made an effort to help out idols such as Cary Grant and Orson Welles. The latter lived in Bogdanovich’s house for a spell when he was totally broke. “He had his own wing,” Peter laughs. “Which kept broadening out.”
Sadly, Bogdanovich was soon coping with his own catastrophes. Films such as At Long Last Love, Daisy Miller and Nickelodeon failed in the mid-1970s. Girlfriend Dorothy Stratten was murdered shortly before the release of his They All Laughed, in which she co-starred. There were at least two bankruptcies.
Throughout it all, Bogdanovich has never stopped working. He played a psychotherapist in The Sopranos. He made an acclaimed documentary on Tom Petty.
“As long as the work is interesting I’ll still do it,” he says. “If I wasn’t enjoying it, I’d stop.”
She’s Funny That Way is out now on limited release