Arguably no modern film director made a better sustained entrance than Peter Bogdanovich, whose first four features were all triumphs. Targets (1968) was a chilling conceit that brought Hollywood pretend terror (Boris Karloff basically playing himself) against a modern real-world horror, the randomly mass-murdering sniper. That critical success led to a major studio deal to adapt (with then wife and collaborator Polly Platt) Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show (1971), a melancholy black-and-white flashback to 1950s rural Texas. It won two Oscars, was nominated for five more, and served as a launching pad for actors including Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, and Cybill Shepherd. Next came What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a delightful, San Franciscoset nod to 1930s screwball comedies with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Its huge success was equaled by 1976’s Paper Moon, with O’Neal and daughter Tatum as a Depression-era confidence duo.
That’s a heady four hits in five years and they’ll all be shown at the Castro Theatre in a tribute to the director presented by Midnites for Maniacs’ Jesse Hawthorne Ficks. Another four films will be seen in director’s cuts different from original theatrical versions. Further, Bogdanovich himself will be on hand at all but the earliest matinees. He’s a great raconteur who’s insightfully frank about the ups and downs of an eventually checkered career.
"Ups and downs" puts it mildly. While Bogdanovich started out on top, Hollywood relished kicking him with each downward step. But he’s still here and especially visible recently, thanks to his role on The Sopranos as Lorraine Bracco’s shrink. Behind the camera too, he’s gotten love lately from the four-hour DVD documentary Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007). Bogdanovich, who hasn’t directed a big-screen movie since 2001’s lamentably underseen The Cat’s Meow with Kirsten Dunst, hopes to soon start shooting an adaptation of Tracey Letts’s jet-black stage comedy Killer Joe and he’s got other irons in the fire.
If it’s thus a fine moment to be Bogdanovich, there have been many not-so-great ones. Phoning recently from Los Angeles, he recalls that before the debut of Daisy Miller (1974), his first commercial failure, critic Judith Crist asked him, "Is it good? It better be … because they’re waiting for you." Catching major flack for that film was Shepherd, the model-turned-actress he left Platt for.
"Peter and Cybill" were inseparable, possibly obnoxious. They cohosted The Tonight Show for a week and were reportedly arch as hell. They occupied the inaugural cover of People, with the headline "Living Together Is Sexy." The director quotes Cary Grant (doing a perfect vocal imitation) advising, "Petah, please stop telling people you’re happy and in love!" Asked why, Grant said, "Because they aren’t happy and in love."
Even those who liked Daisy Miller went Attila on 1975’s At Long Last Love, a lavish tribute to ’30s musicals with Cole Porter songs recorded live by some actors who were trained singers (Madeleine Kahn) and others who weren’t (Shepherd, Burt Reynolds). It was meant to be charming. It got the most vitriolic reviews this side of Battlefield Earth. Bogdanovich now says, "We rushed and fucked it up. The first preview in San Jose was an unmitigated disaster. Then we recut and remixed, and it played quite well. But I made some calamitous changes after that, and didn’t preview it again before release. We were just killed. Later we made a different edit. When Jesse called me to say he was showing it, I said, ‘Why?’ ‘I like it.’ ‘Oh, you’re the one.’<0x2009>"
The Castro will screen that improved edit which is charming. Although the title is still a pseudonym for "turkey," At Long Last Love has never been released on video or DVD. In a town where success usually excuses all egotism, Bogdanovich had still somehow crossed a line. His failures were blamed on sheer arrogance. "I got a lot of that," he says though back then a purportedly imperious on-set demeanor and statements like "I’m not modest, I’m not humble, and the more success I have, the more critics will resent me" surely didn’t help. He’d had the temerity to befriend Hollywood legends including Grant, John Ford, and Orson Welles who was practically a permanent houseguest. Who the hell did he think he was?
Cynics had already interpreted Bogdanovich’s hit homages to Hollywood’s past as evidence he didn’t have an original thought in his head. Then they gloated over his nonhits. Despite the star power of Reynolds and both O’Neals, Nickelodeon was a 1976 Christmas flop. (Forced to shoot in color, Bogdanovich says, "It’s another movie in black and white" which is how he’ll show it at the Castro.)
Despite excellent reviews, 1979’s Paul Theroux adaptation Saint Jack didn’t find an audience. Ditto 1981’s They All Laughed, an enchanting, ensemble romantic comedy. It was (among other things) a valentine to his new love and protégée, erstwhile Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten who shortly after filming ended was killed by the thuggish promoter-husband she’d tried to leave amicably. That murder-suicide was followed by more ugliness: a war of words between Bogdanovich and Hugh Hefner; "dramatization" of the tragedy in 1983’s Star 80 ("I begged Bob Fosse not to do it") and a TV movie; and distribution problems for They All Laughed that cost him millions. Sympathy soured when Bogdanovich became involved with Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise who was all of six months older than his own daughter. (Nonetheless, their eventual marriage lasted 13 years.)
Bogdanovich had a left-field comeback in 1985’s Mask, with Eric Stoltz as Elephant Kid and Cher as biker-chick mom. But even that was marred by public sparring with both Cher and studio execs. The latter substituted Bob Seger tunes for Bruce Springsteen ones key to the story’s real-life inspiration. (The Castro’s "theatrical world premiere" cut restores all the Bruuuuce.) Whether good, bad, or indifferent, his subsequent ventures flopped. In an eerie echo of past events, 1993’s The Thing Called Love came out (barely) after star River Phoenix OD’d. Bogdanovich turned to directing TV episodes (including for The Sopranos) and cable movies. It wasn’t a comedown, he says. "The scripts were good … and I got to work with actors like Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier, and George Segal."
Bogdanovich also relit an acting career abandoned decades earlier. Having written essays about film history (notably for Esquire) before moving to Hollywood, he thinks his industry hater trail is partly due to perception of him as critic turned filmmaker. He considers the roughly 45 stage productions he acted in (and the 6 he directed) from age 15 to 24 as his real prior job.
Given all past tempests, Bogdanovich seems on good terms with his exes Shepherd (in town with the play Curvy Widow) has promised to show up at the Castro late Friday for The Last Picture Show and At Long Last Love; Louise is flying in to talk about her late sister when They All Laughed shows on Sunday.
Is it painful for them to see Dorothy Stratten onscreen? "Yeah, especially now that [costar] John Ritter has died," he says. "But you know, when you see it with an audience, it’s OK it takes the pain somewhat away. One of the peripheral tragedies [to Stratten’s death] was that the movie was never properly seen in its day. You couldn’t really look at it in the way it was meant to be enjoyed."
A GENUINE TRIBUTE TO PETER BOGDANOVICH
Fri/7Sun/9, $10 per day ($25 weekend pass)
429 Castro, SF