RIP Peter Bogdanovich (1939-2022)

Peter Bogdanovich is more part of “New Hollywood” than “Classic Hollywood”, but it should be obvious to everyone why this classic film blog is doing an obituary for him. I mean, what post-classic film director has introduced more people to classic films than Bogdanovich? No one else’s noted filmography contains more odes and tropes dedicated to older films than Bogdanovich’s. Bogdanovich wasn’t just a filmmaker who directed, acted, wrote, and produced, he was a film historian. He was friends with classic film icons, and he interviewed many of them. Bogdanovich once stated “It’s sad that most filmgoers today never saw a movie made before Star Wars.” It wasn’t enough that Bogdanovich made great movies, but he wanted to get those people who saw his movies to see older films. While so many modern filmmakers believe a proper ode to a classic film is to remake it (something I’ve openly stated to highly dislike), Bogdanovich knew the best ode was influence.

With Orson Welles

Bogdanovich was born in Kingston, New York to immigrants fleeing the rise of Nazism in Europe. He started out acting and studied under famed teacher Stella Adler. By the 1960s, he worked for the MoMA programming movies. Being inspired by the critics-turned-filmmakers of the Cahiers du Cinéma (particularly François Truffaut), he decided to go into filmmaking himself. This is what got in started working with Roger Corman as Bogdanovich worked uncredited on the screenplay for The Wild Angels (1966).

With Boris Karloff in Targets (1968)

Corman backed Bogdanovich’s directorial debut Targets (1968) under two conditions: that he use footage from The Terror (1963) and hired Boris Karloff for two days. Karloff was so impressed with the script that he actually ended up working for five days (the script was written by Bogdanovich and an uncredited Samuel Fuller which is why Bogdanovich’s character in the film is named “Sammy”). The plot of the film follows Karloff as a horror star who doesn’t believe his kind of films are what the public wants anymore as they are all scared by real violence and criminals. This leads into a mirror story involving a gunman going on a killing spree. To be blunt, Targets (1968) belongs on every “Best Directorial Debut” list out there. Not only does it have a great performance by an older Karloff, but it is directed in such a way you can tell the person behind it must have studied films religiously to make something so impressive right off the bat. The way Bogdanovich directs the film’s violence particularly in the climactic drive-in theater scene is exciting. The movie’s gunman (played by Tim O’Kelly) is similar to a film noir killer (think Arthur Franz in The Sniper (1952) or Richard Basehart in He Walked by Night (1948)), but still handled in a way that feels relevant to the “New Hollywood” era. The gunman is threatening because he has weapons, but he is also pathetic and doesn’t understand his motive for what he does. He just cannot help killing.

With Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms on the set of The Last Picture Show (1970).

Bogdanovich did one more cheapie for Corman which was Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) which he did under the pseudonym “Derek Thomas” likely out of embarrassment and the fact that it was just a reedited version of two previous movies. After that, however, came the film Bogdanovich is best-known, The Last Picture Show (1971). When I first saw this classic, it somewhat eluded me. I mean, I thought it was good, but I wasn’t going to go out of my way recommending it to people. It, however, stuck in my brain and I realized more and more how good of a movie it is. The movie takes place in 1951 in a dead-end small Texas town that seems to be deteriorating in every shot. The movie focuses on a group of teens and their coming-of-age lives around sex and relationships. The movie also put names like Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd on the map. The movie was nominated for 8 Oscars, including for Bogdanovich’s direction and screenplay he co-wrote with Larry McMurtry, and won 2 for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman in scene-stealing supporting roles.

With Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand on the set of What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

As much as The Last Picture Show leaned on nostalgia, it was very much a film made in “New Hollywood.” Most directors probably would have continued on their dramatic streak, but Bogdanovich decided to make a tribute to the “screwball comedy” of the 1930s with What’s Up, Doc? (1972). Most sendups to older romantic comedies fall flat on their face, but What’s Up, Doc? is one of the rare ones that actually manages to capture the thrills and pacing of a screwball comedy very well. A big part of this is thanks to the good casting of Barbra Streisand as the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” and Ryan O’Neal as the timid glasses-wearing henpecked leading man. Not to mention, Madeline Kahn as O’Neal’s mousy, fussy fiancée. Even in some of the best screwball comedies, you can’t help but pity the “other guy” or “other girl” because they technically haven’t done anything wrong, but What’s Up, Doc? avoids that by making the fiancée annoying (and she does alright for herself in the end). The plot of What’s Up, Doc? maybe highly zany, but it sure is funny.

With Tatum O’Neal on the set of Paper Moon (1973)

Next came another one of Bogdanovich’s best movies, Paper Moon (1973) starring Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal, not to mention yet another great performance by Madeline Kahn. The movie takes place during the Great Depression where con artist Ryan O’Neal ends up getting stuck with a girl who may or may not be his daughter played by Tatum. As it turns out, Tatum’s youngster knows how to swindle as well leading to two to form an unlikely partnership. The plan goes smoothly until Kahn enters the picture as a “lady” who is very clearly putting on an act. Like all of Bogdanovich’s previous classics, Paper Moon is excellently acted and very well-written with Tatum O’Neal winning an Oscar for her stunning performance. The scene between the two O’Neals sitting in a restaurant as Tatum’s Addie angrily pressures Ryan’s Moses to hand over her $200 will remain stuck in my head.

With Orson Welles and John Huston on the set of The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

Sadly, this is the end of Bogdanovich’s best films. His next few films were lesser efforts and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a critic that doesn’t pan Bogdanovich’s ode to the classic musical, At Long Last Love (1975), awkwardly starring mostly non-singers performing their numbers live. He did still direct movies people seem to like including Saint Jack (1979), Mask (1985), and Noises Off… (1992). Bogdanovich did continue to act, however, including in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (2018) and on The Sopranos (1999-2007). Although, many of Bogdanovich’s best on-screen performances came with him spoofing his own image including on Documentary Now! Bogdanovich was, of course, a regular in film documentaries as well.

With ex-wife Polly Platt, married from 1962 – 1972

Part of Bogdanovich’s professional career falling off was his personal life being filled with scandal as well. Bogdanovich was married to Polly Platt who was an artistic collaborator on his best movies (Targets, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon), but he divorced her after becoming involved with Cybill Shepherd. Naturally, their splitting up and Bogdanovich’s career making a turning for the worse made people speculate that Platt was a more necessary artistic collaborator on Bogdanovich’s films than it appeared. After Shepherd, Bogdanovich became involved with Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten. This led Stratten to break it off with her husband Paul Snider who brutally murdered Stratten and then committed suicide in 1980. Eight years after Stratten’s horrible death, Bogdanovich married her younger sister, Louise. I am not going to pretend like that situation isn’t weird, but who am I to say how two people going through serious trauma should handle it? This marriage ended in 2001 and was the last of Bogdanovich’s two marriages.

While Bogdanovich’s career didn’t go where early 1970s film critics envisioned it would, today Bogdanovich is not known for his failures, he is known for his classics which then lead people to go see the classics that inspired those. If Bogdanovich’s great mission in life was to get the public to see more classic films, then he can definitely say his mission was accomplished. If Bogdanovich’s great mission in life was to make great movies, then I’d say he accomplished that too. I mean, most directors would kill for four classics. Bogdanovich’s life certainly was a roller-coaster, but his strengths in filmmaking and film history were highlights of movie lore.

~Virginia

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