Peter Bogdanovich Embodied an Era When Cinema Really Mattered

Writer, director, and actor Peter Bogdanovich died last week at 82. His rocky career as a filmmaker, actor, and critic is a testament to an era in which the public took film seriously — and filmmakers took the public seriously.

American director and screenwriter Peter Bogdanovich in 1973. (Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

One of my favorite works by the recently deceased writer-actor-director Peter Bogdanovich is a monograph called Fritz Lang in America. In it, he very sensibly argues that Lang’s directorial work in America is every bit as great and important as what he’d done in Germany, though he enjoyed nothing like the lofty status of cinematic god that Lang had once held.

In America, Lang dropped down to lower budgets and far less prestige at several different studios than was typical of all those mighty masterpieces done at UFA in Germany such as Die Nibelungen (1924), Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922), Metropolis (1927), and M (1931). But once in America, Lang was so central to the creation of the genre that came to be known as “film noir” that it’s possible to make the case that he invented it, bringing his German Expressionist sensibility to bear on what he was observing in American culture with Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). And of course, Lang went on to make many definitive noirs such as The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953), The Blue Gardenia (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).

The point being that Bogdanovich was making a case against a wrongheaded but widespread cinema-snob notion, a case that seemed fairly obvious and straightforward, and I was filled with envy that he came along at a time when it was possible to make an illustrious name for oneself by obsessing about film and writing smart but modest little books like Fritz Lang in America.

Bogdanovich wrote it in 1967 at the age of twenty-eight, and it was no-big-deal for him — he had a total of four other monographs on Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford published before he turned thirty. At that time, film criticism as a profession was at its zenith. Old Hollywood movies and moviemakers were being reassessed in serious terms with a highly literate population of cinephiles eagerly reading the work of full-time, well-paid critics like Pauline Kael, Richard Corliss, Stanley Kauffmann, J. Hoberman, Roger Ebert, and many others.

A dedicated cinephile since the age of twelve, Bogdanovich had been making notes on index cards evaluating every single film he saw from that age onward, making it a natural jump to writing professionally about film. But he had other showbiz ambitions too, in an exceedingly long and varied career — so many, it’s tiring to write about.

Few enduring Hollywood figures had a more exhausting roller-coaster ride than Bogdanovich, a ride featuring the most exhilarating highs followed by screaming, stomach-turning plunges to the bottom. He climbed that first big hill fast, starting off pursuing his film obsession at age twelve, studying acting with celebrated teacher Stella Adler at sixteen, then given a chance by legendary playwright and screenwriter Clifford Odets to direct and star in an off-Broadway revival of The Big Knife at twenty.

While working as a stage director he was also programming films at the Museum of Modern Art and the New Yorker Theater, and writing about film for major publications like Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post, and Cahiers du cinema. This enabled him to track down major directors for interviews, thus getting to know Ford, Hawks, Welles, Frank Tashlin, Roger Corman, and many others.

Tashlin encouraged him to move to Hollywood with his first wife, production designer Polly Platt, and Corman took him under his wing to teach him filmmaking. “I went from getting the laundry to directing the picture in three weeks. Altogether, I worked 22 weeks — preproduction, shooting, second unit, cutting, dubbing — I haven’t learned as much since.”

Once he started directing, Bogdanovich came out of the gate so fast with several terrific films in a row — Targets (1968), The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973) — that he had a lot to live up to in a career spanning over five decades, and it was hard to forgive him for not living up to it. Impossible to go back to one of those films now that seems to be such an impressively realized vision — like say, Last Picture Show, or Paper Moon — without thinking, “What happened to that guy?”

What happened was the first big, dizzying drop. Bogdanovich fell in love with Cybill Shepherd, a former model who was playing the teenage golden girl lead in The Last Picture Show, thus alienating Polly Platt, who was not only his wife and production designer but a true creative collaborator. Though the marriage was over, Platt stuck around to work on What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. It’s been widely noted that Bogdanovich movies took a nosedive in quality as soon as Platt bailed out of any further collaborations.

After that he made two disastrous films starring Shepherd, Daisy Miller (1974) and At Long Last Love (1975). He also lost so much goodwill in Hollywood by swanking around arrogantly, giving lots of interviews about their great love and inspiring cinematic partnership, that as their films bombed, legendary filmmaker and wit Billy Wilder reportedly quipped, “It isn’t true that Hollywood is a bitter place divided by hatred, greed, and jealousy. All it takes to bring everyone together is another flop by Peter Bogdanovich.”

Then there were several more rises and falls, none as big as the first because Bogdanovich could never recover the glow of his initial wunderkind status. And his personal life continued to be so lurid and tragic that it dragged down any successes he might achieve. After his eight-year relationship with Shepherd ended, Bogdanovich became involved with Playboy model Dorothy Stratten.

She was murdered by her jealous and estranged husband Paul Snider (which is the subject of the Bob Fosse film Star 80). Distraught, Bogdanovich wrote a tell-all book about her called The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960–1980, in which he accused Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner of having played a key role in destroying Stratten. Hefner answered with some ugly accusations of his own regarding Bogdanovich’s relationship with Stratten’s teenage sister, Louise, claiming Bogdanovich had begun dating Louise when she was thirteen, and paid for plastic surgery designed to make her look more like Dorothy. Bogdanovich hotly denied the claims and married Louise when she turned twenty and he was nearly fifty, kicking off a tabloid feeding-frenzy.

In the meantime, he’d also bought the rights to his film They All Laughed (1981), which featured Dorothy Stratten in a small role, with the idea of distributing it himself as a tribute to her. This catastrophic move bankrupted him. Against this sordid saga, minor upturns like his hit film Mask (1985) could only do so much to recover his reputation, and the few other films he managed to get made in the 1980s and ’90s didn’t make much of a ripple. He found a more welcoming home in television — both acting and directing — and returned to writing books about film.

Finally, Bogdanovich reached the smooth part of the ride near the end, as a familiar, wry, hangdog-looking, ascot-wearing eminence grise, admired for his early film legacy, his show business longevity, and his immense film knowledge. Young directors like Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola claimed he’d influenced them. He inspired long-lasting affection for his incisive performance in The Sopranos as psychiatrist Dr Elliot Kupferberg. He was featured on the TCM podcast The Plot Thickens, during the first season entitled “I’m Still Peter Bogdanovich.”

Bogdanovich became a prominent figure in the so-called New Hollywood era when a high level of film erudition was an admired quality among young college-age people, throwing himself into his cinematic endeavors with a tireless, shameless ambition. His wasn’t a pretty life, as even his friends seem happy to acknowledge, telling tales of his willing self-abasement in courting top directors to interview, write about, learn from, use as leverage, model himself upon, and sometimes befriend. As film writer and Bogdanovich crony Joseph McBride put it,

I always felt that one of the lesser-known secrets of Peter’s success as a journalist and author was identified by his editor at Esquire, Harold Hayes, who once observed that Peter had “a cast-iron stomach.” Peter would blithely put up with any kind of humiliation from the directors he admired, even Ford and Welles.

The cast-iron stomach is, one suspects, a big part of so many successful entertainment industry careers, and it’s a relief to have it acknowledged. Variety film critic Peter Debruge blithely observes, even while praising Bogdanovich, that “he was a consummate brown-noser and a sometimes insufferable name-dropper, but he was also a master raconteur.”

There’s something heartening about these bursts of frankness, so uncharacteristic of showbiz rhetoric, which suggest a number of people liked Bogdanovich almost in spite of himself, and stuck with him long after the shine was off his once-illustrious directing career.

It’s oddly impressive — a good phrase for Bogdanovich’s whole messy, hazardous, Hollywood-or-bust journey through life.