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Why Peter Bogdanovich’s overlooked masterpiece still matters (and so does the rest of his career)

In 1961, Peter Bogdanovich convinced the film curators at the Museum of Modern Art that they should a) organize an Orson Welles retrospective, and b) let him write the accompanying monograph. These were no small achievements, since a) there had never been an Orson Welles retrospective in the United States and b) Peter Bogdanovich was 22.

In the decades that followed, he would help organize several more MoMA retrospectives; befriend Welles; direct a handful of the most beloved films of their time; acquire a reputation for being an arrogant prick in a business overflowing with them; direct a handful of the most derided films of their time; sue a Hollywood studio; lose; direct a handful of the most forgotten films of their time; and eventually settle into his role as the wise, gruff grandpa of American cinema. He died in January at 82, and now, with “Peter Bogdanovich: American Filmmaker,” a retrospective running from March 10 to 23, he is getting the MoMA treatment himself.

“If you ever wonder if directors are like their pictures,” Bogdanovich said in an interview with Ben Mankiewicz, “the answer is yes.” This is strange, because in Bogdanovich’s case the answer is clearly no. He was a New Hollywood insurgent (along with Scorsese, Ashby, Friedkin, Coppola, et al.), but his pictures quiver with nostalgia for the Old Hollywood. He could be a cad, but his pictures are full of brilliant roles for women.

By all accounts (including his own), he could be unbearably self-important in his heyday, but his pictures are irresistibly light — this last part seems downright foreign in 2022, when 150-minute point-belaboring is the rule for auteur cinema. Bogdanovich was incapable of belaboring a point (it’s telling that he rarely made anything over two hours long). His films are in some sense small, but never slight or precious; they wear their themes lightly. If he were a painter, he’d be Vermeer.

1971’s “The Last Picture Show,” the first in a trio of critical and commercial successes that briefly made Bogdanovich the most wondrous of Hollywood wunderkinder, sounds as weighty and theme-y as they come: a black-and-white adaptation of a prize-winning Larry McMurtry novel about the decline of the American West in the 1950s, as seen through the eyes of young men and women coming of age in a geriatric Texas oil town. But the film has a calm, unhurried pace that affords it the time to build observations from the ground up. If you really want to understand the decline of the American West in the 1950s, you must first understand what it feels like to hide in the back of a Buick Super late at night or watch two dogs humping from the window of an unairconditioned high school classroom.

The result is a film set in Texas, directed by a native New Yorker, that, miraculously, neither idealizes nor condescends to its subject. The miracle only becomes clear in hindsight: Bogdanovich moves so fluidly between and within his five-or-so main characters, balancing first-person with third-, that they stick to us almost without our realizing it.

When we’re introduced to Jacy Farrow, played by Cybill Shepherd in her film debut, we see her as the blonde goddess her high school classmates think she is, but 20 minutes later she’s an awkward kid, fumbling with her bra as she strips for a pack of buzzed pool partiers. It’s a moment so sharply observed and so painfully tactile we don’t merely sympathize with her, we feel trapped in her skin.

Peter Bogdanovich with Cybil Shepherd

At Long Last Love (Maybe): Peter Bogdanovich with Cybil Shepherd who starred in several of his films, including ‘The Last Picture Show.’ By Getty Images

The critic John Simon accused Bogdanovich of romanticizing small-town life, but I literally can’t imagine anyone squirming through this scene and thinking, “Romanticism!” Bogdanovich is too interested in his characters to smooth them out; they remain life-sized from start to finish, which helps explain why his period piece hasn’t aged one day.

“The Last Picture Show” stood out in its own day, too, winning two Oscars and ending up one of the 10 highest grossers of 1971 (others in the Top 10: “A Clockwork Orange,” “The French Connection,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Dirty Harry” — these were more grown-up times). Even better, it convinced Warner Bros. that Bogdanovich could make a hit out of anything. He promptly began shooting a screwball comedy starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, with an oafish bit player inspired by… John Simon! Bogdanovich had a nasty fall, but while he was on top, he knew how have fun.

Too much fun, some said. While filming “The Last Picture Show,” Bogdanovich and Shepherd began an affair. Within a few months he’d divorced Polly Platt—his wife, his creative partner, and the mother of his two children — and moved into a 7,000 square-foot mansion in Bel-Air. Platt stuck around for Bogdanovich’s next two films, “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972) and “Paper Moon” (1973), neither of which involved Cybill Shepherd and both of which were big hits.

Following these, Platt went her own way, and Bogdanovich made two expensive flops in a row starring his new girlfriend (his next movie, Nickelodeon, was also an expensive flop). Neither the Henry James adaptation “Daisy Miller” (1974) nor the period musical “At Long Last Love” (1975) is anything special, but both got unfairly mauled by critics, who seemed more interested in reviewing Bogdanovich’s love life than his direction. Roger Ebert compared Shepherd’s warbling to Susan Alexander’s in “Citizen Kane,” a reference he must have known would touch a nerve in Welles’s protégé (why Bogdanovich never wrote an oafish bit player modeled off Ebert is anyone’s guess).

The legend of the New Hollywood goes like this: once, there were some young American directors with bright ideas for movies. For a few years, they were doing great and living large. Eventually they blew it all, partly because of “Star Wars” and partly because their allergies to monogamy and sobriety clouded their formerly impeccable judgement. For the last 40 years of his life, Bogdanovich embodied this legend like nobody else (though he had some stiff competition from Dennis Hopper and Michael Cimino).

It’s almost too perfect: three home runs in a row made under the steadying influence of Polly Platt, followed by three humiliating outs, made in between doing coke with Platt’s replacement.

A decade after meeting Shepherd, he began an affair with the model Dorothy Stratten and cast her in his new movie “They All Laughed” (1981). After shooting wrapped, Stratten’s estranged husband killed her and then himself. Bogdanovich then began dating Stratten’s younger sister Louise, a teenager 29 years his junior. They married in 1988 and stayed together until 2001.

What, in light of all this, should be done with Bogdanovich’s movies? The “can the art be separated from the artist?” debate shows no sign of ending, but at least in this country, the negative side has been on top for as long as I’ve been following along. This helps explain why there’s been little serious writing about Bogdanovich’s legacy since his death. He made himself easy to hate, definitely, though it must be said that the parable of Bogdanovich as a decadent sinner who suffered artistically for his pervy tomcatting flatters a lot of people who don’t deserve to be flattered.

Hollywood producers get to look like the grown-ups in the room for betraying their former cash cow, even though they were up to much worse. Ordinary people get to feel better about their own dun lives, clicking their tongues while sneaking a peek into the creative 1 percent’s bedrooms. Even Bogdanovich benefits from being turned into a cautionary tale, since he now has the honor of representing an entire generation of filmmakers (squandered glory is still a kind of glory). I guess everybody wins, except for Poly Platt and possibly Louise Stratten, though I don’t know for sure and neither do you.

Americans, Gore Vidal was fond of pointing out, have always been more interested in judging artists’ lives than in judging their art — or rather, they judge artists’ art in terms of their lives. In Bogdanovich’s case, this feeds the view that his oeuvre, so rich in great actresses at peak-greatness, is diminished by his real-life behavior with the opposite sex. To this, I offer neither correction nor assent, just the observation that the last 50 years of sociopolitical progress have failed to produce a single female movie character as free, fun, sexy, and hilarious as Streisand in “What’s Up, Doc?”

Barbra Streisand and Peter Bogdanovich

What’s Up, Barbra? Barbra Streisand wields a fork as she sits beside Peter Bogdanovich at a formal event. By Getty Images

“What’s Up, Doc?” plays at MoMA alongside “The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon,” “At Long Last Love,” and two post-tumble pictures, “Saint Jack” (1978) and “Mask” (1985). Later this month, the museum will be hosting the premiere of the original cut of Bogdanovich’s final film, the 2014 Owen Wilson comedy She’s Funny That Way, completed just before Lionsgate shoved it through the meatgrinder.

I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but I’ll bet a few critics will walk out convinced it’s the director’s apotheosis. They might be right, too. A funny side-effect of the New Hollywood directors’ parable-ization: it encourages cinephiles to sift through the late-career junkpile in search of treasures, which become all the more alluring by virtue of having once been ignored.

You can find people of taste who insist that “Heaven’s Gate” is Michael Cimino’s best work (it’s not), “Ishtar” is Elaine May’s (sorry, but not even close), and “Sorcerer” is William Friedkin’s (it is, as a matter of fact). It seems right that there should be an unacknowledged masterpiece somewhere in the Bogdanovich filmography, but nobody agrees on what it is. Richard Brody has argued for “At Long Last Love” and “Daisy Miller”; he even liked the meatgrinder version of “She’s Funny That Way,” so he’ll probably lose his mind for the director’s cut. As long as we’re on this subject, however, I’d like to put in a word for “They All Laughed.”

Most unacknowledged masterpieces get a second shot because they were hated or ignored the first time — it’s always rewarding to think about how wrong They were in days of yore (and, by the same token, how much wiser We are now). But in 1981, “They All Laughed” suffered the subtler damnation of faint praise. If it’s still patiently awaiting rehabilitation (MoMA isn’t showing it at all), that’s probably because there seems to be so much less rehabilitating to do — critics thought it was nice, not bad, pretty good.

Stumping for “They All Laughed” lacks the sexy counter-intuitiveness of stumping for “Ishtar.” Add to this the eclipsing, extra-cinematic tragedy of Dorothy Stratten’s death — the film is dedicated to her — and Bogdanovich’s gentle tragicomedy seems condemned to the shadows forever. It’s a real shame, because “They All Laughed” might be the best thing Bogdanovich ever did. The Taj Mahal wouldn’t have been a better shrine to Stratten.

Dorothy Stratten autographs a cover of Playboy Magazine.

80’s Star: Peter Bogdanovich’s ‘They All Laughed’ was dedicated to the late Dorothy Stratten. By Getty Images

In every sense of the word, “They All Laughed” is a loose film. It has the same loose, lilting plot as Bogdanovich’s other work, except this time the film is about sexual promiscuity in all its woes and glories — which is to say, it’s a film about looseness. As with “The Last Picture Show,” we come to know the main characters so utterly it’s a little painful sometimes: there are two private detectives played by Ben Gazzara and John Ritter; plus the two women they’ve been hired to follow and for whom they immediately fall, played by Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Stratten; plus two more lovers, played by Colleen Camp and Patti Hansen.

Midtown Manhattan — grimy, glowy, horny, and cheerfully ignorant of the impending AIDS crisis — is their pinball machine. Every actor nails their performance, an astonishing thing given that they’re all working in such different registers. You get Hepburn’s movie star glamor, Camp’s refreshing lack of polish, Gazzara’s midcentury New York naturalism, Ritter’s slapstick, etc. — a delightful hodgepodge of styles promiscuously rubbing against one another, making weird music.

What does it all fit together so beautifully? Some of the credit must go to the cinematographer Robby Müller — in this, one of his earliest American assignments, he finds the perfect visual language for a melancholy New York comedy. His Midtown is somehow romantic and seedy at the same time, like blue neon on rough concrete. And Bogdanovich took great care in choosing the music for “They All Laughed,” even by his usual control-freak standards. (A few years after this, he’d sue Universal for changing the closing credits song of “Masks from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Seger — an imprudent move on his part, but who wouldn’t be pissed at Universal for doing that?)

The film’s soundtrack has the same magpie charm as the acting; it’s got everything from swing to country, from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra. But the right melodies come back at the right time. Roy Acuff’s “Back in the Country” gets richer and deeper with each repetition — it’s like musical flypaper, catching all the stray feelings buzzing through the film, adding a subtle through-line to the mess.

“They All Laughed” was also one of the first films to feature Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” — like the film itself, a great work of popular entertainment that starts jauntily but gets more and more gorgeously bittersweet as it goes on. Gorgeously bittersweet was a Bogdanovich specialty, but in “They All Laughed” — his own favorite of his films — he outdid himself. Start spreading the news.

Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.

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