Posted on 8.10.15: As mentioned I caught two Peter Bogdanovich movies last night — one a nimble, old-fashioned Bogdanovich-directed screwball comedy and the other a documentary that doesn’t feel well-ordered or smooth enough.
But despite its faults, the doc — One Day Since Yesterday: Peter Bogdanovich and the Lost American Film — is far more affecting. Because it’s a story about promise, loss and tragedy, and particularly how life can sometimes knock your lights out at the drop of a hat. And the way it’s been made doesn’t get in the way of that.
(l. to.r) They All Laughed costars John Ritter, Dorothy Stratten, director Peter Bogdanovich during filming in the spring of 1980.
In his late ’60s-to-early ’70s directing heyday (Targets, Directed by John Ford, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc, Paper Moon), Bogdanovich had the world at his feet. Plus a cocky swagger thing going on. Every time you saw him on TV (he visited the Dick Cavett Show two or three times if not more) Bogdanovich always seemed dryly amused, a bit smirky…the gifted bon vivant.
But since the tragedy of They All Laughed (’81) and more particularly the gruesome murder of poor Dorothy Stratten, the film’s 20 year-old costar for whom Bogdanovich had fallen head over heels, followed by his financially disastrous decision to buy They All Laughed from an unenthusiastic 20th Century Fox in order to save it from being shelved, some essential spark began to slowly drain out of him. Or so it seemed.
Bogdanovich essentially risked all to validate They All Laughed because he needed as much of the world as possible to know what an inspired choice he’d made in hiring Stratten and how good she could be. He did this as a tribute to her memory and what they had together. Understandable but unwise. Bogdanovich admits this in the doc.
Bogdanovich rebounded with Mask (’85), of course, but then he got into a major fight with Universal over their decision to not use some Bruce Springsteen songs, which led to Bogdanovich filing a $19 million lawsuit against the studio. In so doing he fortified a rep as an imperious guy who wouldn’t collaborate and could almost be counted on to be a pain in the ass.
Bogdanovich has kept his hand in over the last 25 years with the passable-to-underwhelming Texasville, Noises Off, The Thing Called Love and The Cat’s Meow (among other films), with his Sopranos supporting role as a fellow New Jersey psychiatrist and paternal pal of Dr. Jennifer Melfi’s, a respected four-hour Tom Petty doc (’07) and more recently with She’s Funny That Way (which opens on 8.21), but he hasn’t really hasn’t had “the touch” (or what feels like the touch to me and some others) for nearly 35 years now.
It’s a hard thing to acknowledge but sadly true. Andrew Sarris used to say that artists have just so much psychic essence, and when the bottle is empty there’s nothing they can do about it and except recycle and reshuffle and hope for the best.
I know that it seems as if They All Laughed was the last real high point as well as the beginning of a big downturn. I also know that since the ’90s Bogdanovich has more and more come to resemble a droopy basset hound in dark-framed glasses — an artist eclipsed by grief, haunted, all tapped out. Let’s not even get into his decision to begin a discreet paternal relationship with Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, when she was 14, and then marry her in ’88 when she was 20 and he was 49. Don’t go there. Just leave it alone. They divorced in ’01.
If you really love the great movies (stunners, spirit-shakers, heart-melters, grand-slammers), it naturally follows that mediocre or flat-out bad movies (like The Matrix: Resurrections) are going to inspire dislike, disdain and in some cases revulsion. If you’re a true cinema believer, that is.
Put differently, if you’re even a little bit serious about the transportational power of movies, you can’t watch a piece of shit and shrug your shoulders. Which isn’t to say there aren’t dozens of shoulder-shruggers out there. Nothing lights their fire, and nothing darkens their brow. They’re easy, adaptable…Swiss-style critics.
There are two defining traits of a Rotten Tomatoes shoulder-shrugger. One is “milquetoast — the kind of critic whose blood runs mild and in whose mouth butter would never melt.” The other is “politician — the kind of critic who always raises a damp finger to the wind before venturing an opinion.” Back in the early ’90s there was a Sony production executive who was described by a certain director-writer I knew as “a man with your opinions.”
This is a reasonably accurate description of those fine and principled people who speculate about possible Oscar contenders for Gold Derby — milquetoast politicians who step lightly and cautiously and have no souls. I could name names but these folks know who they are.
“The former President who lies about this election, and the mob that attacked this Capitol could not be further away from the core of American values. They want to rule, or they will ruin. Their lies have not abated. We are in a battle for the soul of America.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland said one thing last night (“patience, patience…we’re gradually getting there…maybe”) and today President Joe Biden said something else. He didn’t precisely and explicitly say “Donald Trump is a liar and a sociopath and a would-be tyrant who is out to destroy Democracy”, but he pretty much did say that.
Peter Bogdanovich, a hot-streak director for six years (Targets, Directed by John Ford, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc, Paper Moon) and one of the most ardent and super-knowledgable film scholars and Hardcore Film Catholics of all time, has left the earth.
He was 82 years old, almost exactly 82 and 1/2. I’m very sorry and saddened. Hugs and condolences to all who are mourning right now. Peter had his issues and resentments and tragic flaws even, but he was “one of us,” so to speak. This hurts. Tears are welling.
It’s not just Bogdanovich the man who has passed away, but Bogdanovich the spirit warrior…a sardonic pillar of his community…a devotional film nerd and a former hotshot director, a high priest in robes and an intimate interpreter of the greatest cinematic era of the 20th Century (mid 1930s to late 1970s).
Was Bogdanovich a friend? No, but I mildly knew him. Interviews, social encounters, nights on the town, “hey, Peter,” etc. I loved his blunt candor and sage understandings of the great classic-era directors and how their films were constructed and what they were fundamentally about. (The only time Peter got it wrong was in a 2007 New York Observer piece in which he insisted that Rio Bravo was better than High Noon.) I loved his imitations of Cary Grant, John Ford and other Hollywood luminaries. I half-loved the “droopy basset hound with glasses” thing that he grew into about 15 years ago, give or take. And I loved his Elliot Kupferberg character, the psychiatrist and confidante of Lorraine Bracco‘s Jennifer Melfi, for 15 episodes of The Sopranos.
I’ve written a lot about Peter over the years, and an hour ago I was thinking about re-posting three or four articles that meet my standards of “especially well written and well remembered”. Wimp and candy-ass that I am, I’m a little bit afraid of doing so because of the haters who would launch missiles and accuse me of Bob Clark-ing Bogdanovich. I’m thinking it over as we speak.